D1 North Baseball: Billerica 7, Westford 1

LOWELL, Mass. -- With one runner on and nobody out in the bottom of the third, Billerica’s Eric Eknanian stepped to the plate.

The junior cleanup hitter had already doubled off Westford pitcher Jake Robbins in the previous inning, so everyone knew he could do some damage. On the first pitch of the at-bat, he made solid contact, sending the ball to right field. The ball was hit high in the air, but was curving toward the foul pole. As all watching waited for the result, the ball disappeared over the fence, just beyond the 301 feet sign on the fence.

With the two-run home run, Billerica was well on its way to a 7-1 victory and a chance to play for the Division 1 North title Sunday.

Eknanian was 3-for-3 in the game, with two doubles and the home run. He also reached base in the seventh when the Westford (15-8) first baseman misplayed a ground ball, allowing it to go into right field.

“I saw the ball great today,” he said after the game. “Curveball, fastball, anything. I just wanted to make contact for the most part, get it out there and help the team. Just keep it going because everyone on this team wants this championship.”

Drew Salk lead off the inning with a triple off the right field wall. The next batter up, Robby Gambale, laid down an effective bunt on a suicide squeeze, which allowed Salk to score safely. Luckily for Gambale, Robbins threw the ball out of the reach of the first baseman. The ball bounced around the right field area, and Gambale was not content with just advancing one base. He rounded second and ran through the stop sign from his third base coach, sliding into the base safely.

Dylan Lavery was steady on the mound, throwing a 106-pitch complete game, allowing only six hits while striking out four.

Conversely, Robbins struggled early, giving up three runs in each the second and third inning. He was relieved after 6.2 innings, having struck out seven, walked two, and allowing eight hits.

Westford’s only run came in the sixth after Evan Guillemette and Luke Morse each singled to put runners on the corners. A wild pitch in an ensuing at-bat plated Guillemette.

Billerica (17-6) will now play St. John’s Prep Sunday at 4 p.m. at LeLacheur Park for the Division 1 North title.

“It’s going to be a great game, but the best team is going to win, and I think it’s us,” said Eknanian.

Lavery goes the distance: Lavery was able to go the full nine innings, which preserved as many arms as possible for Sunday’s matchup against Prep. After the game, Billerica coach Joe Higgins said he was going to hand the ball to Chris Murphy to start tomorrow’s matchup, but knows his team will need all hands on deck to try and slow down the prohibitive favorite to win the Division 1 State Championship.

“We’re going to go with our No. 3 big Chris Murphy,” he said. “We have Robby Gambale in relief, we have Chris’ brother Kyle Murphy in relief. We’re going to have an early hook and go as hard as you can tomorrow.

Frugal effort: Lavery threw 106 pitches over the nine innings, an economical amount for a complete game outing. He was assisted by Westford’s propensity to jump on first or second pitch of the at-bat. Sixteen of the 35 batters he faced put the ball in play within the first two pitches of the at-bat.

“I think they knew he was going to be around the plate,” said Higgins. “It’s a philosophy: do you want to go after him because he pounds the strike zone and is going to throw a lot of strikes? The best pitch you can see in that at-bat could be your first pitch.

"We knew they were a good hitting club, a good well-rounded club, and we knew we just had to throw strikes and make the plays. Whatever pitch they went after, that’s up to them. We probably would’ve had to go to a relief pitcher if they didn’t go after so many pitches.”