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Crusaders stay hot by beating Panthers

AYER – There’s something good brewing surrounding the Groton-Dunstable baseball team.

The Crusaders continued to do the things that winning teams do, as they rolled past Ayer 11-5 on Thursday afternoon to improve to 3-0 for the season.

Exhibits A & B would be the pair of defensive plays the Crusaders used to hold off an Ayer comeback in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Panthers had plated a pair of runs to draw to within 5-3 and had the middle of the order up to face Groton-Dunstable relief pitcher Steve Carroll. Kenny Rollins, who had just drawn Ayer to within two runs was on base with one out. Derek Migrants ripped a ground ball wide of first base that was corraled by diving Groton-Dunstable first baseman Steve Roundtree for the second out. The next hitter, John Shivo, scalded a hard ground ball that was destined for the left field line, but third baseman Frank DiMaria grabbed it with a fully-extended dive, and fired to first for the final out.

“I think those two great plays took the wind out of their sails,” said Groton-Dunstable coach Matt LeBlanc. “We had two seniors get dirty and make poised and confident plays that turned the tide.”

“The difference in the game was defense,” said Ayer coach Jim Welch. “We kept coming back, but we gave Groton-Dunstable too many extra chances. Jason Jones battled on the mound and kept us in the game. We kept fighting, but defensive mistakes cost us.”

Groton-Dunstable starting pitcher Jim Moniz earned the victory, allowing two earned runs and four hits over 4 1/3 innings, while striking out three and walking two. Carroll allowed one earned run and three hits in 1 2/3 innings, before Vince Lehman allowed a hit and picked up a strikeout in pitching the final inning.

Jones was tagged with the loss, but deserved a better fate. The senior southpaw gave up five earned runs and 12 hits over six innings, striking out seven and walking five.

The Crusaders took the lead for good in the bottom of the first as they came out swinging. Doug Starbird singled and stole second, and Chris Chenelle walked. Both runners came around to score when Lehman turned around a fastball and deposited it into the left center field woods for a three-run homer. Steve Carroll doubled and scored on Ricky Fotino’s two-out double to give the Crusaders a quick 4-0 advantage.

The Panthers got one run back in the bottom of the inning when Derek Migrants reached on an error and scored on Shivo’s hard double down the left field line.

The Crusaders rebuilt their four run lead with a run in the second on consecutive two-out singles by Chenelle, Lehman and Carroll.

Both pitchers settled down and tossed goose eggs over the next three innings and the 5-1 lead remained intact until the bottom of the fifth. Cliff Shultz walked to lead off and moved to third on Will Comerford’s one-out ground rule double, that narrowly missed being a home run. Carroll was summoned in relief for the Crusaders but was greeted by Kenny Rollins’ sharp single to right, which plated both runners to make it 5-3. That set the stage for the Crusaders’ defensive heroics, which denied Migrants and Shivo hits that would have tightened the game up even further.

Groton-Dunstable took advantage of a costly error in the top of the sixth to score a pair of unearned runs, but Ayer got a two-run single by Dan Quin to climb back to within 7-5.

The Crusaders put the game on ice with a four run burst in the top of the seventh, complete with a dose of small ball. Starbird and Chenelle set the table with singles, before Lehman capped off his great offensive day (single, two doubles, home run, walk, four runs-batted-in) with an RBI double. Moniz then executed a perfect squeeze bunt, before Ian Roundtree added a run-producing single.

Lehman came on in relief for Groton-Dunstable and allowed a two-out double to Shivo, but got a strikeout to end it.

Once again Starbird (two singles, two runs scored) and Chenelle (two singles, three runs scored) fueled the Groton-Dunstable offense from the first two slots in the order. Carroll produced from the clean-up slot with a single, double, two runs scored and an RBI), while Fotino complemented a strong defensive effort with a single and double.

“Ricky’s been working on his hitting and he came through for us today,” said LeBlanc. “He did a good job defensively and broke out offensively. Jim Moniz and Steve Carroll did a good job of throwing strikes and it is great to be off to a 3-0 start.”

Shivo paced the Panthers with a single, two doubles and an RBI, while Jon Bollinger added a pair of singles.