Merrimack battles into position to win American Legion baseball title

Staff photo by HETOR LONGO Merrimack pitcher Alex Thornton, who went six innings and didn't allow an earned run in his first start since the fall.

MANCHESTER – You can call them desperate. After another long, dramatic and dazzling day here at Gill Stadium, they’d need to be considered determined and extremely dangerous.

Merrimack Post 98 ran the 14-inning gauntlet Monday, knocking off Concord, 3-2, and then Lebanon, 14-5, to advanced to the final pairing at the New Hampshire Senior Legion Final 8 Championships.

Only Rochester (3-0 in the winner’s bracket) and Post 98, the loser’s bracket survivor remain. Tuesday at 4:30, Merrimack will need its second doubleheader sweep in as many days to call itself state champion.

Do not doubt that it can happen.

“I’m not surprised at all (to be in this position). All season long I’ve believed we could win it all,” said perhaps the biggest in a long line of Merrimack’s Monday heroes, Nick Dutton.

Dutton picked up the save after an absolutely outstanding mound performance from Alex Thornton, and than scoop up the victory in game two, with four more sparking frames.

“It’s crazy. I haven’t thrown more than 30 pitches since last year,” said Dutton, who attends Springfield College but does not play baseball there.

The opener was all about Thornton, a Nashua Community College student, who hadn’t played any baseball this year until the Legion season rolled around.

“I guess all I have left is a men’s league,” joked the big right-hander afterward.

He wasn’t laughing on the mound a few minutes before. He was dealing.

“Other than a little relief this year, I really haven’t pitched at all,” said Thornton. “This is it, as soon we’re done here, I’m done. Basically, it was about spotting my fastball. I wasn’t throwing a lot of off-speed, just tried to get my fastball in the zone.

“I went out there very excited. Every inning, it was like a one-run game, and I had to keep them a run down.”

Thornton was at his best with runners on, fighting out of trouble on three different occasions.

Meanwhile, the Merrimack offense was efficient.

Post 98 jumped on top with in the first when Justin Grassini legged out an infield single, raced to third on Cody Pfeifer’s base hit and scored on a single by Thornton.

It went to 2-0 in the fourth when Jacob Grassett singled and scored on a clutch two-out, two-strike base hit from Dutton. On a day where Dutton’s mound work told the story, that at-bat was epic, a game-changer.

Concord got a run back, but that man Pfeifer again ignited things with a single and steal. He bumped over to third on Thornton’s infield single and Landon Henzley provided the game-winner on a sacrifice fly, plating Pfeifer.

Pfeifer, headed to his senior year at Merrimack High, had three more hits, making it five in the last two wins.

“He’s smoking the ball everywhere right now,” said Thornton. “He’s definitely carrying a big bat, it’s awesome.”

Dutton came on to close things out on the mound, getting Concord, the top seed from District A, with a 1-2-3 seventh.

The nightcap was a totally different type of game, with Merrimack falling behind 4-0 in the first. Don’t discount the three innings thrown by Sam Froio there, despite the score. He pitched a pair of scoreless frames that served two purposes.

First, it allowed the Merrimack bats a chance to awake and rally. Second, it gave skipper Mike Henzley a chance to get to Dutton in the fourth with the lead.

When Merrimack started the comeback, it was contagious.

Patrick Harrington slapped an RBI single to make it 4-1 in the third. Pfeifer’s two-run double was followed by a two-run single from Thornton in the fourth.

Merrimack led 5-4, and Henzley made the move to Dutton.

The righty answered the call by moving down six of the first seven Lebanon hitters he saw.

Yes, he allowed a single run in the bottom of the sixth, but that only made it 8-5 Merrimack.

Post 98 then ended any drama with six more runs off a depleted Lebanon bullpen.

Grassini had four hits in the nightcap, while Thornton added three with three RBIs.

Merrimack still faces a bit of an uphill challenge, needing to beat the tourney favorite Rochester twice, but there is some good news.

Grassett, the Saturday starter, can pitch on Tuesday, since the rain shortened his outing at 46 pitches. If there is a need for a second game, Pfeifer would get the ball.