, Newburyport, MA

August 16, 2013

Looking to stay alive

Rowley Rams on brink of elimination in ITL finals

By Jim Sullivan

---- — As any coach can tell you, managing a baseball team is a challenge. Managing the talent, making out the lineup, deciding on the starting pitcher, dealing with injuries, all can add up to one headache after the other. Now add to all that dealing with work, sickness and vacation schedules and you’ve got the Intertown Twilight League.

“It really adds to the whole experience,” Rowley Rams coach Jeff Wood said. “As a coach, it can drive you insane. But it’s an interesting thing that every team in this league has to deal with. If the guy has got to stay at work, he’s got to stay at work. He can’t tell them, ‘Oh, I’ve got a men’s league game,’ and leave.”

Wood will likely not have to deal with any of his players missing the game on account of their work schedules tomorrow when Rowley will look to extend its season for another day in Game 4 of the ITL playoffs. Top-seed Manchester Essex leads the best-of-series 2-1. Tomorrow’s game will be played at Eiras Field in Rowley at 2 p.m. If neccessary, Game 5 will be at Memorial Field in Essex on Sunday at 2 p.m.

While the intensity of the season has been ratcheted up in recent weeks, the occasional work-related absences are one of the most endearing things about an amateur league.

“Some guys have got to work, so that takes priority,” said Rams center fielder Joe Esposito. “But it’s summer baseball, you’ve got to love it.”

After leading the Rams to their first ITL championship in 2011, Wood returned last year to find the reality of summer ball a bit much to take when five of his championship players were sidelined for most of the season. Left-handed pitcher Nick Liguori had a new job and was unable to play. Righty Mike Sloban was battling a cyst in his inner ear that saw him shut down by midseason, while second baseman/shortstop Koby Thibault also had work commitments. Another shortstop, Anthony Conte, stayed at school in Rhode Island, and Esposito was out for the season after fouling a ball off his face down the stretch the previous year, shattering his orbital and cheek bones and requiring three titanium plates and 15 screws.

“It was the first summer that I hadn’t played baseball in years,” said Esposito. “I had played baseball every summer all throughout my life. Taking a summer off didn’t feel right.”

“Every baseball guy knows you want your team to be strong up the middle,” said Wood. “You want to be strong at catcher. You want to be strong at middle infield. You want to be strong in center field. Well, I lost two infielders, my center fielder and two starting pitchers in that group.”

But even with all that, the Rams tied for the fourth seed in the playoffs, eventually falling to Manchester Essex in the semifinals.

“It was a great accomplishment, and that speaks to the Cam D’Agostinos and the Dmitri Hunts who came in for the first time,” said Wood.

This year, Wood returned to find all five of his players back and raring to go, racking up a 18-7-2 record. The Rams earned the second seed in the playoffs.

“I feel like this year we went into things fully loaded,” said Wood. “We were ready to rock and roll. We had everything in place, everybody was healthy.”

Currently back to 100 percent himself, Esposito says he’s delighted to be back on the field and back in the finals once again.

“It feels great,” Esposito said. “We’ve got tremendous talent on our team. We’ve got a great pitching staff and a solid defense. And right now at least, we’re hitting the ball really well. So, there is not much more that you can ask for.”

Still, the summer scheduling challenges continue for Wood as his starting shortstop, Conte, is currently on vacation in Italy.

“We’ve had some interruptions, we’ve had vacations,” said Wood. “We headed into the playoffs this year without (Conte). But we only have to get one more win without him, and then he will be back. I don’t want to give the impression that we win or lose because of those five guys. But they make a huge difference, they are very solid and they certainly help us put it together every night.”