LUNENBURG — It’s been quite the run for the Lunenburg Phillies.
Lunenburg repeated as Central New England Baseball Association champion late Thursday with a 5-2 victory over the Clinton 76ers, taking the best-of-five championship series 3-1.
After winning three of the last four — and four of the last six — CNEBA titles, it seems the days of Lunenburg’s championship drought, which lasted nearly 20 years, are all but forgotten. Instead, the Phillies are building a dynasty.
“We are fortunate to have a core group of guys,” second baseman Steve LaJoie said. “We have a half-dozen of us who come back every year, consistently, and the pitching has always been there. We’ve been able to consistently keep winning. I’ve been with the Phillies for over 10 years and I can’t remember a year when we weren’t contending.”
The Phillies now boast seven titles as an organization, and although the league has dwindled in numbers, the competition remains fierce.
“Obviously it’s awesome and fun to win,” shortstop Alex Heroux said. “We had a good mix and a lot of veteran guys this year, and it was great to win another for (Lunenburg manager) Joe Ruth, because he works so hard on our team and the whole league in general. He deserves it, and it was so much fun playing with this team.”
Lunenburg went 20-5-1 during the regular season, and finished 25-7-1 at the completion of the year, one of the best records in team history.
“We had gone like 30 days without a loss in the regular season,” Lunenburg manager Joe Ruth said. “The biggest surprise was that we were able to accomplish what we did while losing two of our best pitchers: Jeff Swedberg and Justin Watt. Going into the season, I didn’t know what was going to happen when you lose your best two guys.”
The pitching question marks seemed to be answered fairly quickly as Kevin O’Connor ascended to be the best pitcher in the CNEBA, and fellow starter Matt Morissette was a strong 1A.
“I always try to do my best for the team when I get asked upon,” Morissette said. “This is my fourth title, Joe does a great job of recruiting guys, and it’s a really competitive league.”
Things could have been different this year, because O’Connor moved to the Boston area for work and was unsure if he could still play. He was able to work the games into his schedule though, and posted a perfect 7-0 record with a 0.43 ERA this year. If fate had gone in the other direction, it would have been a major blow.
“When all you do is start games (you can commute), and I gave Kevin (O’Connor) the same opportunity I did Jeff Swedberg,” Ruth said. “He turned out to be far and away the best pitcher in the league this year.”
Morissette (4-3, 2.66 ERA) might be one of the most durable pitchers in Phillies history and has been the pitcher to close out the last three titles for the Phillies. This postseason he played reliever in the Clinton series, a strategic move because of his endurance on the mound.
“Morissette can pitch everyday, and if I needed him tonight, he could start,” Ruth said. “My thinking on Thursday was that every out that Andrew Mooney (the starter) got was a bonus, and it’s that much less Morissette had to pitch. I hope he never retires.”
Another key pitching factor during the postseason was the return of Shawn O’Donnell from injury. O’Donnell picked up a victory Game 3 of the championship series, and allowed for Morissette to serve as a reliever.
“(O’Donnell) came off the injured list and really helped us,” Ruth said. “He was very effective in Leicester, he stepped up.”
The Lunenburg offense struggled for most of the playoffs, but picked up steam during the second half of the championship series against Clinton. Outfielder Nate Ginsberg lead the team in batting average at .415 this season, while perennial power hitter Jon Belliard hit .353 with 25 RBIs and two homers.
“Belliard is in contention for MVP of the league every year,” Ruth said. “He tailed off the last couple of weeks, but every time he comes up he’s a threat.”
Heroux was hitting over .400 for most of the season, but cooled a little bit in the playoffs, settling for still-impressive .347 season average. His contributions during the regular season were significant, and he was most concerned about team success rather than personal accolades.“I didn’t expect Heroux to be hitting near .400,” Ruth said. “You get better as you get older, and he’s a classic example of that.”
Pat Gilman did the opposite of Heroux, catching fire in the postseason and finishing with a .325 batting average this season.
“Gilman had a great last part of the season,” Ruth said. “He had a couple of home runs at Doyle the other night. Up until last night he had seven consecutive hits, with a couple of doubles and a couple of home runs.”
Leadoff hitter Cooper Bigelow scored 30 runs this season, a team high. Dave Mason will go out on top, as he announced his retirement after Thursday’s title victory, after hitting .305 with 13 RBIs this season.