Milford baseball turns around its fortunes

WINDHAM – Devyn Pioli was just looking for a pitch to hit.

There was one out with a runner on second in the top of the eighth inning. After the Milford High School baseball team had tied the game in the seventh to force extra innings, Pioli came up in a game tied 5-5 with a chance to be the hero.

Not many No. 9 hitters would feel confident in that spot, but Pioli – and the Spartans – have been in similar situations this season, and have had success.

Pioli did Monday against Windham, slapping the ball the other way, off the chalk in right field, for a double that scored Bryce Walker to put Milford up 6-5. Drew Jepson added an RBI single for an insurance run and Mason Gaudette finished off a complete game in a 7-6 Milford win.

That puts the Spartans at 7-2 in Division II, and with the season past the halfway point, it seems likely Milford will make it somewhere it hasn’t in a long time – the playoffs.

“It’s been quite a while,” Milford senior Ryan Britton said after Monday’s game. “We’re looking for something bigger. We want to compete. We’re here to win baseball games.”

That’s something Milford didn’t do much of in Britton’s first two years on varsity. A starter since he was a sophomore, Britton’s longest tenured on the Spartans roster, and that includes head coach Steve Claire.

In his first season leading Milford, Claire watched his team fight to get into the playoffs, but let too many games slip away at the end, as the Spartans finished the year 4-12. As the Spartans were preparing for this season, he tried to instill a hard-working attitude from the start.

“Overall, our attitude has been very positive since day one,” Claire said. “I worked them hard in the preseason in the gym, and their attitude has been great every since. It’s showed. They want to be here.”

Britton has been a big part of that, the coach added.

“We’re very lucky to have Ryan Britton,” Claire said. “He’s a leader by example and he has an extremely strong work ethic and he expects the same from his teammates.”

That leadership was evident in Milford’s 6-2 win over defending-champion Portsmouth on May 7. Britton threw 141 pitches in 6 2/3 innings and tried to gut his way through for a complete game.

“You definitely don’t go into a game wanting to throw 141 pitches,” Britton said. “It just came down to it. I told coach I wanted to go out there. I wanted to finish the game and I was mad that I couldn’t.”

The Spartans led that game 4-1 in the sixth when Pioli came through with a two-run double to give Milford some breathing room.

“He has played fabulous this year,” Claire said. “We’ve had a lot of kids step up this year. We’ve been consistent with that all year long.”

“The top of the lineup, all the way through, we’re getting big hits from everybody,” Britton added. “We’re playing pretty good defense. The last couple of years, the defense has killed us late in games. That’s the key this year, we haven’t made errors.”

Milford has been able to take advantage of its opportunities, too, like Monday’s win over Windham. The Spartans trailed 5-4 and were down to their last strike, but Gaudette was able to work a two-out walk. On the next pitch, Jason Blaise crushed a triple to left field to score Gaudette and tie the game.

“We’re down one run, two outs, nobody on, with two strikes and a call goes our way,” Claire said. “Our catcher, Jason Blaise, who struggled at the beginning of the season and is starting to swing the bat, put a good swing on it and tied the game up. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. They never give up.”

The Spartans still have a long way to go, starting with a game Wednesday against ConVal, who beat Milford in the season opener. The Spartans still have to play at Portsmouth (7-2), Lebanon (6-3) and Hollis Brookline (7-2), not to mention the second of two games against Souhegan.

“I’m having a blast out here,” Britton said. “Winning games is the best feeling. This year, we go out there and we’re playing like a ball team. Everyone loves each other on this team and it’s fantastic.”