NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- The die was cast early for the North Adams SteepleCats on Tuesday night.
The 'Cats were given a golden opportunity to score in their first turn at bat, and they could not convert that chance or any others in a 4-0 New England Collegiate Baseball League loss to the Laconia, N.H., at Joe Wolfe Field.
"First inning, we have a runner on third, nobody out, and we strike out three straight times without even making contact," North Adams coach Chris Cates said. "The lack of execution -- that completely turns a ballgame around.
"We get a run there, and we're up 1-0 with our all-star pitcher on the mound, who has already beaten them, I think, twice. Instead, we can't execute, and they come out and they score two runs. They execute. All of a sudden, we're in a hole."
North Adams had been doing a pretty good job digging itself out of a hole in the NECBL Northern Divison standings.
The SteepleCats entered their two-game homestand winners of six of their last eight and tied with Laconia for third place in the six-team North. The top four teams earn spots in the NECBL post-season.
Tuesday's loss drops them into fourth place, a half game ahead of Keene, who the 'Cats do not see in their last eight games. They do see Laconia again on Saturday, when the Muskrats return to wrap up the season series.
Laconia coach Matt Alison agreed that Tuesday's game meant a little something extra to both teams.
"We still have two games left, and every game's big, but obviously games like this that could be the difference in being in third place and fourth place or being in fourth place or fifth place and out is big," Alison said. "It was huge for us to be able to give the ball to Jack [English], and he did what he's done for us all year."
Both North Adams and Laconia had all-star pitchers on the mound on Tuesday. Alison came in with a 1.22 ERA and a 3-1 record. The 'Cats' Trevor Scott had a 1.85 ERA but a record of just 0-1 in five starts.
The lack of run support continued for Scott on Tuesday night.
North Adams was shut out for the first time this season and managed just three hits all night; two of those hits came in the bottom of the ninth.
All told, the 'Cats left 11 men on base. They left the bases loaded in the fifth and stranded men at second and third in the ninth.
Laconia, meanwhile, touched Scott for two unearned runs in the top of the second.
The decisive rally started with a one-out error. A single up the middle by Benjamin Miller put men on second and third, but the 'Cats stymied Laconia's first attempt to score when first baseman Luke Maglich fielded Nick Masonia's bunt and fired home to get the man coming in from third.
The next two men singled, to score Miller and Masonia and give the Muskrats a 2-0 lead.
It stayed that way until the sixth, when Masonia crushed a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence to score two after Miller singled with two out.
"That's big," Alison said. "Two-run [lead] to four-run is a big swing. Two runs can happen quick, like you saw right there [in the bottom of the ninth], they were one swing away from scoring two pretty easy right there in the ninth.
That was big, to get insurance runs, and that's something we try to tell guys: Anytime you can tack one on, tack one on, tack one on, don't settle. If you can get to three, get to three. If you can get to four, get to four."
North Adams will look to get at least one on Wednesday when it hosts Newport, R.I., of the Southern Division. The SteepleCats then go to Sanford, Maine, on Friday before coming home to face Laconia again on Saturday and the Chinese Taipei national team in an exhibition on Sunday evening.
Looking ahead, the 'Cats have three road games next week before coming home to play its last two at Joe Wolfe on Aug. 1 and 2.
Cates, a SteepleCats alumnus who returned to North Adams for the first time this summer, said he will maintain his approach to distributing playing time -- for now -- as the 'Cats make their push for the post-season.
"Ultimately, guys are here to get better," he said. "They're here to develop. And our goal as coaches for a summer league team is to make them a better player when they go back. There are times, obviously, when we want to win. It's tough, because the guys want to win too, but you've got to give guys opportunities, and you've got to let guys have the opportunities to get better.
"I've got confidence in all these guys to give them opportunities. I think as it gets closer, each player will dictate when they play, when they don't play. And then there will come a time when we'll have to sit down and figure out, 'OK, are we going to try to win this thing and play the guys we think should play every day, or are we going to keep rotating guys in to get them opportunities?' "
Maintaining that rotation will make the team stronger if it does hold onto a post-season spot, Cates said.
"When you go in the playoffs, you never know the situation you're going to have," he said. "There are going to be a lot of pitching changes, a lot of subs. Those guys have got to be ready. They've got to be in shape. They've got to keep getting their reps so they're not cold."