ORLEANS, Mass. -- If there was ambiguity before, the facts are now crystal clear: the Nauset Warriors have officially entered uncharted waters in the Atlantic Coast League.
The Warriors (15-2, 9-2) came into their doubleheader with juggernaut Plymouth North this afternoon at Eldredge Park having never beaten the Blue Eagles under coach Lou Elia. Not only did they end up sweeping North, 3-2 and 4-2, to put themselves in a tie for first place with the Eagles (11-4, 8-2) -- they have also put themselves in position to make history. If they win their final league game on Monday, against Falmouth, they will clinch themselves at least a share of the ACL title for the first time in school history.
"This program's come quite a long way. We're all happy about it," Elia said.
North now has to win out in its final two games to stay in the hunt and keep a share of the ACL title, starting Wednesday against archrival Plymouth South followed by a May 21 battle with Marshfield.
"It was just their day," North head coach Dwayne Follette said. "Now, we're going to have to see what kind of character we've got."
Down 2-0 early in the first game, Nauset plated three runs in the bottom of the third to take the lead. Colin Ridley plated the first of his three RBI of the afternoon out of the nine hole to bring across the first run, then senior Nick Taber smacked a single for the go-ahead run.
That was the Warriors' final hit of the first game, only reaching base twice more on an error and a fielder's choice. But the defense behind starting righthander Ray Rowell was solid, stranding six runners to support the lefty's nine-strikeout, eight-hit effort.
North head coach Dwayne Follette, was left wondering what could have been after watching his team load up the bases in the top of the seventh with one out. Facing a 1-2 count, cleanup hitter Jake Prifti was hit on the knee and initially appeared to have been awarded first base, which would have brought home Brendan Beane for the tying run. The ruling instead was a called third strike, after it was determined Prifti had brought the barrel of his bat across the zone enough to merit a swing.
Follette was furious at the call, marching all the way into the infield grass to loudly voice his protest for several minutes.
"You can quote this, that is one of the worst calls I've ever seen," Follette said. "You got a hit batter in the knee, and the umpires just botched it. Listen, they [Nauset] deserved to win, I'm not taking anything away from them. [But that was a] horrible call in the first game."
There was no controversy in the second game, however, as Taber went the full seven on the hill and allowed just two hits.
North once again was once again active early at the plate, scoring two runs in the first inning on a two-run single to center from Prifti to tie the game at 2-2. But the Eagles managed just one hit the rest of the way, a base hit by Ryan Moskos in the bottom of the fifth.
The Warriors went ahead in the top of the fifth on a bloop single from Ridley, dropping in shallow right to score Will Shackleford. Ridley gave them the insurance in the top of the seventh with a base hit that scored Rowell from second.
"Colin's coming up big with us," Elia said. "He might be at the bottom of the order, but he's getting his pitches, he's being patient, and is able to come through."
High marks for aces: Both Elia and Follette came away pleased with the performances of their starters.
The hard-throwing lefty Rowell pounded the zone with a bevy of fastballs in the first game, and after some trouble in the first two innings he settled nicely, getting himself out of jams with runners in scoring position in three of the final four innings.
Taber has tweaked his game since last spring, developing a cutter over the offseason to go along with a changeup and a sharp curveball. In dancing the ball around the plate, Taber kept his pitches low in the zone to stay ahead of the North hitters.
"They were locating, just locating," Elia said. "Nick has been with me for four years, he's one of only guys that's been in the varsity program for four years. He's got really good control, and he's got a couple of different pitches, and he's able to locate. So, he makes the most out of his pitches. He doesn't walk many people at all. He's got command of his pitches, and that's what's important."
Follette was pleased with the performance from junior righthander Kenny Drew, who struck out seven and scattered four hits on 72 pitches, to go along with the three earned runs. With staff ace Brian Christian unable to go today, Follette tapped freshman reliever Kyle Mann for his first varsity start in game two. The youngster demonstrates poise and high velocity in spite of his age, but did run into some trouble, allowing eight hits.
"I thought Kenny Drew, in the first game, pitched an incredible game," Follette said. "He didn't deserve that fate...We're pitching good enough to win, we're just not hitting enough. It's unfortunate. He pounded the zone."
Turning up the aggression: Over the last two seasons, the Eagles have been held in high regard for their ambitious approach to the basepath, compensating for a deficit in hitting with a blend of high-risk baserunning and fielding tactics playfully dubbed "Dwayne Ball" by their Plymouth brethren for its uniqueness.
In the second inning of game one, they executed a vintage "Dwayne Ball" staple. Executing a double steal, freshman Joe Walsh was caught in a rundown on the basepaths just long enough for Derek Salvucci to come screaming home for the initial 1-0 lead.
In the first inning of game two, the Eagles stole four bags, including two from Cory Boudreau, to help manufacture two runs.
North's leadoff hitter, Ryan Moskos stole two bags on the day to bring his season total to 26, which is eight more than the entire Nauset team attained a season ago. So far this year, however, the Warriors have recorded 60 steals, including two today.
What prompted the more dramatic approach in 2013?
"We've been running hard. We look for our opportunities, and I've got a pretty quick team one through nine," Elia said. "I've got a very young team, only two seniors, and the kids I've got coming up are pretty fast. We practice it, we practice running bases every day. We practice reading the pitches, knowing when to go, picking and choosing our battles. They've become very good at that, knowing when to be aggressive."
In developing that aggression, seeing has been believing. Muscle memory is the M.O. in Nauset practices, repeatedly practicing drills that have them envisioning those first-to-third, second-to-third, passed-ball scenarios.
"We do a lot of visualization," Elia said. "We've done a lot of mental preparation for games right now. They're goal-oriented. They don't go by expectations, they go by goals, and I think that's helped them out quite a bit this year."