NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- With the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the seventh on Tuesday at Joe Wolfe Field, North Adams SteepleCats manager Mike Dailey made a trip to the mound.
The Cats' starting pitcher, Brian Zeldin, was extending his arm to offer his skipper the ball when Dailey was halfway to the mound.
Instead, he left Zeldin in the game, and the starter rewarded Dailey by dealing a ground ball that North Adams' defense turned into a double play.
North Adams got out of the inning and went on to a 5-2 win over Sanford to advance to the second round of the New England Collegiate Baseball League playoffs.
Zeldin had cruised through the first six innings and ended up allowing just three hits and no runs in 6-2/3 innings of work for the SteepleCats, who advance to a best of three series against the Upper Valley Nighthawks, who dispatched Winnipesaukee, 7-6, in 12 innings on Tuesday night.
Cory Bosecker came out of the bullpen to finish that seventh inning and allowed two in the eighth before Luke Benneche came on to pitch a scoreless ninth.
Dailey said that pulling Zeldin one batter early was never on the menu in the seventh.
"We watch our pitch count really carefully, and we wanted to get [Zeldin] to 97, 98," Dailey said. "We had a left-handed batter in the on deck circle, and we have a left-hander in Bosecker in the bullpen. We wanted Bosecker to come in against that guy.
"And that's me showing Zeldin that I have confidence in him even when he's tired. Pitchers have to learn how to pitch when they're tired. He was struggling a little bit. But he had only given up three hits. I wasn't taking the ball out of his hands just yet."
Zeldin lowered his earned run average this summer to 2.75 and tied for the team lead in wins with three, improving his record to 3-1 in seven starts.
North Adams gave Zeldin a lead after the first inning and a five-run cushion after the third.
In the first, Jon Kozarian reached on an error with one out, moved up on a Jeremy Lea single and scored on Charles Middleton's single to left.
North Adams' No. 1 hitter Justin Grech led off the third with his first home run of the season over the fence in left field to double the SteepleCats' lead.
"Grechy hit it about 330, right over the Tavern on 7 [banner]," Dailey said. "He put a lot of backspin on it, and it just kept going. But it was enough.
"And when you get a spark from a player who you don't expect that kind of a spark from, it just gets everybody going. ... I'm glad for him. He's been putting in a lot of work in the cage."
JuJu Lacewell-Cason singled and stole second ahead of an RBI single by Kozarian, who moved up to second on the throw. Lea's single put runners at the corners, and Middleton hit a sacrifice fly to center for his second RBI of the game to make it 4-0.
Lea went to second on a single by John Marti and ended up scoring on a Sanford error.
The SteepleCats (22-17-2), who surged to near the top of the Northern Division standings late last month, dropped three games on Friday and Saturday and then saw Sunday and Monday road games canceled.
Dailey said the cancelations did allow his squad to regroup heading into the post-season and benefited the program in a couple of different ways.
"Those were priceless," Dailey said. "There are no words to tell you how I felt when I found out those two games were canceled. You know, that it is the magic potion for pitchers' arms and other things.
"We needed that. We're a not-for-profit organization. And every team in the league must be a not-for-profit. And when COVID hit, it didn't just hit fans and hit the players, but it hit the teams. It hit your bank account. Buses are $2,000, and when we find out we don't have to take a bus, we like that."
The SteepleCats will be on a bus on Wednesday to go to White River Junction, Vt. The Nighthawks, the second seed in the Northern Division, will visit Joe Wolfe Field on Thursday for Game 2 of the best-of-three series with a third game, if necessary, back in Vermont on Friday.
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