Meeting at the mound

Keene Swamp Bats Manager Gary Calhoun, right, meets his players at the mound for a pitching change after Vermont knotted the score at 3-all in the sixth inning of Thursday’s NECBL game at Alumni Field in Keene. The Bats dropped a 9-4 decision, and while they have made the playoffs, their finish — first or second — will not be known until later tonight, after North Adams and the Valley Blue Sox play a double-header, the final two games of the regular-season. Either way, however, Keene will play a home game this weekend, but which day has not been determined.

The regular-season body of work is complete for the Keene Swamp Bats.

Was it good enough to earn them first place in the ultra-competitive Northern Division of the New England Collegiate Baseball League? Still incomplete.

The Swamp Bats could have clinched first Thursday night with a win over the Vermont Mountaineers at Alumni Field, but the visitors had other ideas. Needing a win in its battle for third place and the final playoff berth in the division, the Mountaineers pulled away to a 9-4 victory over Keene before 1,195 fans.

Keene’s first-place fate will be decided tonight, when the Valley Blue Sox of Holyoke, Mass., host North Adams in a double-header at Mackenzie Field. If North Adams sweeps, it will finish tied with Keene at 26-18 and earn first place based on its season series advantage over Keene, which is the first head-to-head tiebreaker. Should North Adams split or lose both games, the Bats will win the division.

North Adams could have made things easier for itself Thursday night, but lost to the Sanford Mainers, 8-5.

Regardless, Keene will play at home this weekend, the only question is what day. If the Bats finish first, North Adams will host Vermont or Valley Saturday in a one-game playoff, with the winner traveling to Keene Sunday to start a best 2-out-of-3 series. If North Adams wins both games tonight, the Bats will host the No. 3 team in the one-game playoff Saturday, and that winner will head to North Adams Sunday.

Had Keene won Thursday, all this would be moot, but a desperate Vermont team turned on the offensive juice in the late innings to break open a tight game. The Bats actually led 3-1 after five innings, as Kevin Welsh knocked in Andrew MacNeil on an RBI double down the right-field line, and Welsh scored on a Randall Bednar single in the fifth.

But the lead was short-lived.

Keene starter Marc Davis gave the club a solid 5.1 innings, giving up three runs on four hits while striking out eight. The tired bullpen, however, couldn’t hold the lead and Vermont struck quickly for three runs in the top of the sixth to take a 4-3 lead. The go-ahead run came across on a bases-loaded, 3-2 walk to Austin Gauthier, a call the Bats hotly disputed. Both teams, in fact, had issues with umpire David Sherman’s strike zone but no one got thrown out, which would have resulted in an automatic one-game suspension heading into the playoffs.

Gauthier (.301 average) was a thorn in Keene’s side all night, as Vermont’s shortstop and leadoff batter went 3-for-5 with a homer and 2 RBI. Center-fielder Connor Charping (.317) also had a big night, going 3-for-4 with a homer and 4 RBIs.

Vermont broke the game open in the eighth with four runs off reliever Erick Zecha, a Keene native.

Michael Bacica took the loss for Keene, as he relieved Davis in the sixth and gave up two runs. A workhorse with 10 appearances since July 4, Bacica was pitching for the second time in 48 hours.

Welsh and Will Wagner had two hits apiece in what was a relatively quiet night for the Keene offense. Welsh and Matthews also hit home runs. Vermont ace Ryan Murphy (5-2, 2.25 ERA) picked up the win, going seven innings and giving up three runs on six hits.

After winning three straight games on the road this week, the Bats now get at least one night off. They have indicated right-hander Zach Messinger (3-2, 4.95 ERA) of the University of Virginia will get the start in their first playoff game.