ESSEX — The Manchester Essex Mariners have officially reloaded.
The Mariners, Intertown Twilight Baseball League champions from 2008-2010, had a few key players leave the team after the third straight title. The team took a small step back in 2011 after losing its top two pitchers Mike Gibbon and Steve Stout falling in the playoffs to eventual champion Rowley but is back in title contention in 2012.
The Mariners have compiled a 15-5 record good for first place in the league with two games remaining on the schedule. Manchester Essex needs just one win in its final two games to clinch the top seed in the ITL playoffs.
“Right now we’re looking good,” Mariners veteran infielder Nate Bertolino said. “And we haven’t even put our playoff lineup in. Games start at 5:45 p.m. on weeknights so it’s tough for all teams to get a full squad for every game. Once we get our best lineup, our playoff lineup in, we may be in even better shape.”
Just as they did during their last three title runs, the Mariners are led by one of the most potent pitching staffs in the entire league. Right handers Mike Cain and Ryan Marques have been staples on the team’s pitching staff for years and continue to give the Mariners productive innings. But a new addition may have put the team over the top.
Left handed pitcher Rusty Tucker, a former San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox farmhand as well as a University of Maine star, has joined the team this summer and given the pitching staff an instant boost. Tucker is no stranger to pitching on a big stage as he was drafted by the Padres in 2001 and bounced around the Padres, Brewers and Red Sox minor league systems until 2008.
Tucker looked to be primed for a career in the big leagues and was considered one of the top relievers in the Padres farm system until an elbow injury set him back in 2003.
The south paw has been stellar for the Mariners this summer and his obvious talent was on display this week with a complete game shutout, 16 strikeout performance in a 5-0 win over Rowley Tuesday.
“When Rusty’s on that’s pretty much the norm,” Bertolino said. “There aren’t any pitchers in this league that can match his talent.”
Pitching isn’t the only thing the Mariners have, not by a long shot. In addition to a deep pitching staff the Mariners can hit from top to bottom in the batting order. Bertolino, a two time ITL home run derby champion, provides pop in the middle of the Mariners lineup.
Cain has been a jack of all trades type of player for the Mariners playing pretty much everywhere. Not only he is a starting pitcher with a strong bat, he can also play first base and has even caught a few games for the Mariners this season.
“He’s contributed everywhere for us,” Bertolino said of Cain. “He can pitch and catch and play the infield. Plus he’s one of our best hitters.”
At 15-5 the Mariners currently sit a half game in front of 15-6 Beverly for first place. Beverly is followed by perennial playoff contenders Hamilton and Ipswich with Rowley on the outside looking in. Defending champion Rowley, however, is just a game out of a playoff spot.
Perennial power the Rockport Townies, who qualified for the championship in each of the last three seasons, have fallen on hard times and been hit by the injury bug and as a result sit in sixth place out of seven teams with a 6-14 record while Topsfield sits at the bottom of the league at 5-13.
Whether it’s Ipswich, Hamilton or Rowley, the Mariners know it’s going to be a tough road back to a championship.
“It’s going to be a battle no matter who we meet in the postseason,” Bertolino said. “Hamilton, Ipswich and Rowley are always a tough out and Beverly is the most improved team in the league this year, it’s still anybodies game but we like the position we have put ourselves in.”