Eastern powers to LEC title

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BOSTON – Freshman DH Alex Parkos (Meriden) drove in seven runs with five hits to power the fifth-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University baseball team to a 13-9 victory over sixth-seeded Western Connecticut State University in the championship game of the 2016 Little East Conference Tournament Saturday afternoon at Monan Park.

The tournament title is the ninth for Eastern (23-17) – second in three years under head coach Matt LaBranche – which qualifies automatically for the NCAA Division III New England Regional Tournament, which gets underway Wednesday at the Eastern Baseball Stadium.

The Warriors' second four-run win over Western (22-20) in the tournament completes a four-game Eastern sweep which began Wednesday with a 13-6 victory over second-seeded defending champion University of Southern Maine. The Warriors defeated third-seeded UMass Dartmouth, 9-7, Thursday, and moved into today's championship round with a 7-3 triumph over Western yesterday. The Colonials had remained alive with two elimination-game victories Friday.

Eastern had lost its final six games of the regular season before rallying in the tournament to qualify for its 34th NCAA tournament.

Saturday, Parkos drove in at least one run with each of his five hits en route to tournament MVP honors.  He doubled in a run in a four-run first inning, hit a home run leading off the bottom of the third to tie the game, 5-5, had an infield RBI single in a two-run fourth that pulled the Warriors to within 8-7, drilled a three-run home run in a five-run fifth that gave Eastern the lead for good, 12-8, and doubled in an insurance run in the seventh.

At left: Alex Parkos unloads his second home run of the game -- a three-run blast in the fifth inning -- that gave the Warriors a four-run lead.

Both of the right-handed-swinging Parkos' home runs – his sixth and seventh of the season – cleared the 40-foot "Green Monster" at UMass Boston's new home facility whose dimensions match those of Fenway Park. Both of his doubles bounced off the wall.

In the tournament, Parkos was 10-for-18 with 12 RBI, six runs scored, four doubles and four home runs and 26 total bases. His 13 bases in the final was one shy of the program game record.

Eastern is now 9-2 in the finals and has never lost when entering the championship round undefeated.

Appearing in the championship round for the third time (the Colonials won the 2002 title and finished second in 2005), Western needed two victories over the Warriors to claim its second title, and erased an early 4-0 deficit with four of its own in the second inning. Western broke a 5-5 tie with three runs in the fourth before LaBranche brought in little-used freshman righty Brian Hnatuk (Trumbull) – the third pitcher. Hnatuck was pitching when Western scored its third run of the fourth inning but retired Western in order for the first time in the game in the top of the fifth and gained his first career victory when Eastern erupted for five runs in the bottom of the inning on senior Chad Adams' (Ware, MA) two-run single and Parkos' three-run, two-out blast to left.

Junior righty Sam Kosterich (Stamford) closed out the win for the fourth time in the tournament, earning credit for his third save in as many days, eighth of the year. Freshman lefty Nick Rascati (Wallingford) – the team's top middle man -- had replaced Hnatuk in the sixth, and after allowing an RBI single that made the score 12-9, got a deep fly ball to right to end the inning, then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh.

Still trailing, 12-9, Western loaded the bases in the eighth on a leadoff walk and two singles off Rascati before Kosterich was summoned. He threw two strikes to Frank Vartulli, the second one inducing an inning-ending double play started by junior shortstop Christian Budzik (Cromwell).

"The strategy coming in was that we had stay away from Rascati and Kosterich until we got the lead," said LaBranche afterward. "Brian (Hnatuk) did an excellent job for us, and then I kind of pushed all of my chips to the middle of the table, knowing, that, OK, we got the lead now, we need to get Rascati and Kosterich back in."

Five players contributed to Eastern's 15-attack against four Western pitchers. In addition to Parkos, Adams had three hits and a sacrifice fly, drove in three runs and scored two. Sophomore D.J. Scavone (Auburn, MA) had two hits, drove in two runs and scored two, and freshman Alexander White (West Hartord) had two hits and scored two runs and senior captain Tim Budd (Cheshire) reached three times with two hits and a walk and drove in a run, and Budzik walked three times and in the field, had seven assists and started two double plays as the Warriors played perfect defense for the third time in the tournament.

Junior Alex Zachary (Enfield), who was batting .385 with seven RBI and 14 total bases in the first three games, was walked three times, but managed to double to extend his hitting streak to 18, steal a base and score three runs. Budd has reached in 16 straight games.

Six of Eastern's hits in the game went for extra bases, as did half of their 50 tournament hits. The Warriors collected 15 doubles, three triples and seven home runs in four games. Nine Eastern pitches allowed ten extra-base hits – all doubles.