There is only one week left in the Intertown Twilight Baseball League regular season, and the playoff race is starting to shape up with two local rivals almost set to face off in the first round.
At 18-3, the Manchester Essex Mariners sit atop the ITL standings by two games. The two-time defending ITL champion Rockport Townies, on the other hand, are currently in fourth place at 7-8-2, more than two games ahead of the fifth place team.
With three games to go, the Mariners, who last won a title in 2016 (their fifth in a row and eighth in nine years from 2008-16), are looking to reach the ITL finals for an eighth straight season.
With three games remaining in the regular season, the Mariners are looking to hold off the second place Hamilton Generals (16-5). Manchester Essex can clinch first place outright with two wins, or a win combined with a Rams loss. The two teams play each other on Tuesday, which could settle or complicate the league standings, depending on what the Mariners do on Monday at Rockport. The Mariners finish off the regular season on Thursday at Rowley, the third place team in the league at 13-6-1.
The Mariners have finished in first in the regular season in each of the previous seven seasons and are looking to keep that train rolling this year.
The Townies, on the other hand, have shaken off a slow start and are now in good shape to grab that final playoff spot. Rockport has a comfortable lead over fifth place Beverly (5-15) with seven games remaining on the schedule.
Rockport can wrap up the final playoff spot with a double-header sweep on Sunday against the Topsfield Torries.
Thanks to rainouts, the Townies have a crowded schedule this week with seven games to play. Those games, however, may not be necessary if the playoff seeds are solidified. The Townies would need to win out and have the Rowley Rams lose the remainder of their regular season games to move up into third place, which is a real long shot.
If the Mariners and Townies hold on to their spots in the standings by this time next week, the rivals will meet in the first round of the league playoffs, which begin next Sunday. Game 1 would be at Memorial Field in Essex if the standings hold.
The teams played in each of the last two ITL finals with the Townies taking home the win both years. Each series went the distance and was decided by a Rockport win in a winner-take-all Game 5. If the two teams meet in the semifinals this year, however, it will be a best of three series.
A Mariners vs. Townies playoff series in any round is a good thing for local baseball fans as the quality of play always delivers. It's looking very likely that a third straight meeting will take place this summer. Will the Mariners get revenge and return to glory? Or will the Townies keep their streak going?