Fluctuating roster didn’t help Muskrats this season
LACONIA — The Laconia Muskrats became accustomed to dealing with an ever-changing roster this season. Between injuries, players deciding to return home and even shortstop John Polonius signing with the San Francisco Giants, the team’s lineup never seemed to stay the same for long.
But that’s what made the year so memorable for head coach Matt Alison.
“The guys that stuck it out are special,” said Alison on Tuesday, just three days after being eliminated in the first round of the NECBL playoffs. “I don’t think there’s enough of that in summer baseball or even in the world, guys that will feel their commitment stay after it. We lost some key guys down the stretch and that definitely hurt us. ... But it was neat to be a part of a team that dealt with a lot of adversity and kept coming back.”
Most of that adversity came in the middle of the season. While its starting pitching struggled, Laconia dropped seven consecutive contests and allowed an average of nine runs per game.
“We definitely had a lot of bumps in the road,” Alison said. “We could’ve packed it in. We were giving up nine or more runs consistently. That’s difficult to deal with for a team.”
But the Muskrats kept improving and both Alison and general manager Noah Crane said the team played its best baseball to close out the regular season.
Laconia finished 6-4 in its last 10 games and the improvement of the team’s starting pitching — particularly of Matt Aldrich and Austin Sullivan — played a huge role.
“[Aldrich and Sullivan] really struggled at points earlier in the season,” Alison said. “Those guys went from walking a lot of guys and running their pitch counts up to going out and throwing seven innings and giving up two runs.
“Anytime you’re getting a good start, you have a chance to be in games. That’s what happened over the last couple of weeks.”
The strong finish sealed third place in the Eastern Division for the Muskrats, the team’s best finish since moving to Laconia in 2010.
“The way we played at the end was particularly rewarding,” Crane said. “We had guys playing out of position and backup catchers. Given what we lost over the course of the year, to finish that well was quite a feat for us ... Matt Alison remained even-keeled. He kept everyone focused and playing hard.”
But when the playoffs began, Laconia had to take the field without Danny Collins, a player who spent the season shattering NECBL records. While the Muskrats expected Collins to hit well this season, the third baseman’s performance at the plate still prompted Crane to call him one of the season’s biggest surprises.
Collins broke the single season NECBL home run record, hitting 19 to eclipse the previous mark of 14. He also set the records for total bases, extra base hits and slugging percentage.
And he didn’t stop there. He nearly won the league’s triple crown, finishing second in batting average (.404) and sixth in RBIs (37).
“The play of Danny Collins and the season that he had was certainly the highest moment for all of us,” Crane said. “He had probably the best season in the history of the league since it started in 1994.”
Alison said Collins’ season was one of the best storylines of the year.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to have front row seats for what he did this summer,” Alison said.
But Collins suffered a broken finger during the season and had an appointment for the injury the day of Laconia’s first postseason game. Collins then had to return to Troy University, leaving the Muskrats without their biggest offensive weapon.
“It was difficult,” Crane said. “You just can’t replace that type of player. Psychologically, it’s difficult on our team. Guys will try to take his place and get outside their skills set. It can help the other team. When they see he’s not there, they will pitch and play differently.”
Laconia won the final three regular season matchups with New Bedford, but the Bay Sox ended the Muskrats season with two straight victories in the best-of-three playoff series.
Even with the quick exit from the postseason, Alison said when he looks back on the season he’ll remember the team’s performance down the stretch that solidified third place.
“I was proud of that,” he said. “It means they were still playing hard and competing. That means they are doing something right and you are doing something right as coaching staff.”