WORCESTER, Mass. -- Kelsey Saucier has handled the roll of playing understudy with grace and dignity. When talk centers around who is the best pitcher in Central Mass., most cast their votes to the side of Nashoba Regional's Emily Sargent or Grafton's Kendal Roy, and deservedly so. But nary is Saucier ever mentioned in the conversation. That may start to change now.
Friday afternoon, the Holy Name flame-thrower had her moment to make believers out of naysayers. In a highly-anticipated match-up between two of the state's elite programs and hurlers, the senior went mano-a-mano against Sargent and proved to be nothing short of brilliant as she allowed four hits and struck out 14 in helping the 10-ranked Naps secure a 2-0 victory under a steady rain.
"Emily is a really great pitcher and I have been following her progress all season," said Saucier. "I knew in a game like this, unless I did something like get 14 strikeouts, it was going to be a really close game and in fact, it was a close game. I have faith in our team and I knew if we got one run across then I felt I could buckle down and try to shut them down. It was difficult early on trying to get a good grip on the ball because of the rain. One of my pitches (a drop ball) wasn't working so I needed to adjust by throwing more curves and change ups because you can't put your head down when something isn't working due to the weather conditions."
Saucier (16-2) managed to keep the eighth-ranked Chieftains off-stride with her curve, change and occasional rising fastball. Sargent, a right-hander, was equally impressive but a couple of pitches left out over the plate did her in. Sargent's record inside the circle this season remains an impressive 17-1. The Naps, who close out their regular season against Shepherd Hill on Saturday, improve to 17-2. Suffering its first defeat of the year, Nashoba drops to 19-1.
With both pitchers sporting ERA's under 1.00, it was safe to assume that a run or two would most-likely be the difference in this one. Scoreless through two innings, Holy Name got its first hit off of Sargent (4 hits, 12 Ks) in the third which would prove costly. Ama Biney, who came into this contest with a .574 batting average, ripped a 1-2 pitch into the gap between left-centerfield. The WPI-bound senior speedster never stopped motoring around the bases which resulted in an inside-the-park home run and a 1-0 lead.
"We knew Emily Sargent is a very good pitcher," said Biney. "I just wanted to go up to the plate with the mentality that I could hit her and that's what I did. I was able to get a good hit off of her. She is definitely a challenge and I just overcame today. I look to hit balls into the gap as much as possible, and when I do, I try to haul around the bases as fast as I can."
For added measure, Holy Name picked up an insurance run in the fourth. With one out, Danielle Rocheleau singled to right. On the play, right fielder Gina Hinckley booted the ball allowing Rocheleau (2 hits) to move up to second base. Two batters later, Deanna Dipilato grounded a single past shortstop Rachel Farley plating Rocheleau.
"I felt coming in that we would probably score one run or maybe two," Naps head coach Aimee Lee said. "I was figuring that whoever scores first will probably win this game. I was a lot more-confident once we scored that second run with the way Kelsey was pitching. That was her best game all season. Every pitch I called she hit every single spot and she was just so determined today and did a great job."
As a result, the two runs scored proved to be all the ammunition Saucier would need. Despite the poor conditions, the WPI-bound righty continued to challenge the Nashoba hitters, winning the majority of those battles. The Chieftains tried to rally back in their half of the seventh. Erin Cressman hit a hard grounder that caromed off the foot of shortstop Mairead O'Sullivan and out into centerfield. Alertly, Cressman took second base on the play. But Saucier simply shrugged it off and proceeded to strike out the next three betters to record the victory.
"Our team has worked so hard and we had those two losses against our rivals St. Peter-Marian," Saucier said. "As a team, we knew we had prove that we were as good as people thought we could be at the beginning of the season. I feel this win was a good way for us to show that when we do come out and play our best we can beat anyone."
Early on, Nashoba appeared poise to fire the opening salvo. In the first, Ali Lane reached on an infield single. One out later, Sargent hit a bouncer to O'Sullivan but the freshman, in her attempts to force Lane at second, threw the ball into right field. A wild pitch advanced both runners. But the threat fell by the wayside after Saucier fanned Cressman and Joyce LaBonte.
In the Chieftains' half of the third, Lane was robbed of a home run on an outstanding running catch from right fielder Sophia Monopoli. But the inning continued when Allison Gaffney lined a sharp double to left. Sargent followed up with an infield single up the middle. Gaffney never stopped running from second on the play, and O'Sullivan quickly retrieved the ball behind second base and rifled a laser to catcher Dipilato, who tagged out Gaffney to end the frame.
Over the next three innings, Saucier was unhittable, setting down Nashoba in order before the Chieftains' put up a mild threat in the seventh that also came to pass.
"This was a playoff-type game which is what you want at the end of the regular season," said Nashoba head coach Steve Kendall, his team still expected to be the top seed when the Division 1 Central Mass. seedings come out on Tuesday in spite of the loss. "I told the girls that if we are going to lose a game then I'd rather they lose now than later. We played well today and had runners in scoring position at times.
"This is the type of game you want to play heading into the postseason win or lose. Today we faced a good pitcher. Overall, I thought both pitchers pitched very well."