NORTH ANDOVER — There is heartbreaking and there is cruel, and this 7-6 loss by Reading in 10 innings against Division 2 North Sectional favorite North Andover felt more like the latter.
The Rockets did everything they could to eliminate the defending (2019) Super 8 champions seemingly having the win in their grasp on several occasions before going down on a walk-off single by Brett Dunham (3 hits, 4 RBI) in the 10th inning.
“A lot of people looked at this match-up and didn’t give us a chance on paper,” said Reading coach Dave Blanchard. “Our kids took that to heart and wanted to prove people wrong and I think we did that.”
The Scarlet Knights pitching staff features three hard throwing D-1 recruits and Reading battled two of them (Northeastern commits Dunham and Ryan Griffin) for nine innings generating six runs and extending their pitch counts with patient at-bats.
The Rockets came out in the first inning and sent a strong message that they were only underdogs on paper.
Nick Marshall blasted a long two-run home run that cleared a snow fence and chain link fence 20 feet past the temporary fence to set the tone in a game that Reading never trailed until the last batter of the game.
The Scarlet Knights came out in their half of the inning aggressively against Reading starter Colin Ensminger teeing off on the first pitch and not waiting to get in a hole against the curveball specialist.
The first four batters reached on hits with Dunham bringing home two with a double.
Reading escaped further damage when Dunham’s courtesy runner tripped going around third base on Trevor Crosby’s single.
For the remainder of Ensminger’s five-inning outing he kept the Scarlet Knights off the board allowing just two more base runners through five innings.
Meanwhile Reading worked some good counts against Dunham whose wildness hurt him in the fourth inning (two walks, hit batter). This led to two runs and his exit when Jacob Carter’s single knocked home Matt Ronayne with the fourth run.
Reading looked poised for a significant upset when it touched up reliever Griffin for a run in the sixth when Carter knocked home Chris Shin, who had singled and stole second base, with a his second of three singles.
With All-League pitcher Shin on to close out the final six outs, the bottom fell out of the normally stellar Reading infield defense.
After an error led off the next inning the next two batters singled, with Andrew Perry knocking in a run.
With runners on second and third base Shin struck out the side to keep the lead at 5-3.
The seventh inning for Reading was a pure nightmare. After the first batter was retired, the next two got on with an infield hit and a high pop-up that fell on the left-field line.
A clean single followed by Dunham to close the deficit to one run and then Crosby reached on an infield error to load the bases.
The next play added to the drama of the late innings and this time it was fortuitous for Reading when Perry’s hard shot to the right looked like it was going to be two-run game winning hit but it struck baserunner Crosby on the ankle.
The runner was ruled out and the potential tying and winning runs had to return to their bases.
Now one out away from the victory, another infield grounder was misplayed and the game was tied at 5-5 and headed for extra innings.
In the top of the ninth inning Reading got a one-out double by Conor Duggan and with a good piece of baserunning Duggan motored around to score from second when Brian Marshall’s grounder to shortstop was thrown away.
Shin attempted to close out the game once again in the ninth inning and quickly got the first two batters out.
But Crosby and Perry then both singled before Aidan Lynch hit a hard grounder through the middle with two strikes to once again foil Reading’s upset bid.
In the 10th Reading put two on with two out on a Billy Beneke single and Nick Marshall walk. But the Scarlet Knights’ third pitcher Peter Mann got out of trouble with a strikeout.
In the 10th the game ended when Shin gave up a hit to start the inning followed by a mishandling in the infield on a sacrifice bunt attempt.
With one out a single by Shaun Corliss loaded the bases before Crosby’s heroics gave the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the game and the only one they needed.
Hard-luck loser Shin (5-2) deserved a better fate in his five-inning, pressure-packed relief appearance and was a tough way for his outstanding senior season to end.
“I told the team that feeling bad is when you don’t make tournament like happened to us in 2019 and we had to sit on that for two years,” assessed Blanchard. “Now to come back two years later and put up 10 wins, win the League tournament, and now to be involved in a game like this against a top team in the tournament there is nothing to hang your head about and there is a lot to be proud of.”
With loss Reading finishes the season at 10-5 playing its best baseball in the biggest games down the stretch.
A win would have advanced the Rockets further in the tournament then they had been since 2016 and arguably would have been one of the handful of biggest wins in the coach Blanchard-era (2014-21).