LACONIA, N.H. — Fighting for their playoff lives over the past week, the Sanford Mainers have had to adopt a never-say-die approach on a night-to-night basis in close game after close game.

In a must-win regular season finale on Friday night, it was exactly that refuse to lose attitude that kept Sanford’s season alive.

After twice falling behind, the Mainers rallied to score four times in the final two innings to beat Laconia 5-2 at Robbie Mills Field.

With the victory, the Mainers equal the Muskrats with a 21-23 record for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NECBL’s East Division, setting up a play-in game between the two teams at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Sanford. It’s a game that looked very unlikely when the Mainers were 3.5 games behind Laconia at the start of Tuesday.

“Isn’t that crazy? Three and a half games out on Monday,” said Sanford manager Aaron Izaryk “We’ve just been going at it, trying to win games one at a time, and it’s a really good feeling right now with the chance to go to the playoffs tomorrow night.”

It was the second nail-biter in as many nights for Sanford, which was down to its final strike in Mystic on Thursday before coming back to win 5-3 in extra innings.

“I think our hitters have been doing a good job of taking advantage of the bullpen the past two nights,” Izaryk said. “We had to grind for what we could get against their starter and then got to the bullpen and pushed a couple across.”

Trailing 2-1 entering the eighth Friday, the Mainers tied the game when Matt Verrier doubled a two-out, two-strike Evan Rahn pitch to left to score Daniel Nevares, who had singled and stolen both second and third to get into scoring position.

“That was a huge hit for us,” Izaryk said of Verrier’s double. “He made an adjustment and kept his hands back and hit a pitch up in the zone with two outs.”

After Aaron Casper relieved starter E.J. Ashworth and got out of a jam in the bottom half of the eighth, Sanford scored three times in the ninth, all with two outs, to put the game away.

The inning started with a Nate LaPointe leadoff single, but LaPointe found himself only at second two outs later. It looked like he would be stranded there when Robert Wayman then grounded a ball to shortstop, but Carter White’s throw to first was in the dirt and got away from Ryan Tezak, allowing LaPointe to come around to score the go-ahead run.

More sloppy Muskrats fielding then allowed Sanford to build the lead, with Troy Black’s liner to right field being misplayed by Eddie Macaluso as Wayman came around to score. Black then scored himself as a Nevares fly ball to left was dropped by Taylor Drake to put the Mainers up 5-2, and Casper worked a perfect ninth to pick up the win.

“We’re plugging away, trying to win every game and expecting to win every game,” Izaryk said. “You take what’s given to you.”

While he ended up with a no decision, Ashworth ”“ sporting a 1-6 record going in ”“ pitched his best game of the season when his team needed him the most, allowing just two runs on five hits and striking out six in 7.1 innings of work.

“E.J. did a great job tonight,” Izaryk said. “This was definitely the best time for him to have his best game tonight. He had his off-speed stuff going and that’s when E.J.’s at his best.”

Ashworth didn’t allow a base runner until the fourth, when Laconia’s Joe Torres led off with a single, advanced all the way to third when his steal attempt was complemented by White’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Jake Peeveyhouse’s groundout.

The Mainers got one right back thanks to some sloppy Laconia defense in the fifth, as two errors allowed LaPointe to reach third and score on Billy Bereszniewicz’s sacrifice bunt.

Sanford could have taken the lead when Wayman singled to center a batter later, but Peevyhouse gunned down Scott Heath trying to score from second to keep the game tied 1-1.

It stayed that way into the seventh, when the Muskrats took the lead in the bottom half of the inning under controversial circumstances. Nick Freeberger led off the inning with a single and was still there after Drake couldn’t lay down a bunt.

Freeberger did, however, get to second when Ashworth was called for a balk. The Sanford pitcher recovered to strike out Jacob Moody, but after intentionally walking Rob Koski, gave up an RBI single to Macaluso to put Laconia up 2-1.

“The umpire said that (E.J.) stopped twice, once at the top and once at the way down in the stretch,” Izaryk said of the balk. “E.J. thought he stopped but the umpire said he didn’t.”

Again, Sanford battled back to tie things back up a half inning later on Verrier’s double, and in the bottom half of the eighth, Laconia couldn’t convert when Torres reached third with two outs as Casper struck out Freeberger.

The Mainers went on to score the three runs in the ninth, sending Laconia ”“ which has been beset by a plague of injuries over the past week that forced three pitchers to start in the batting order on Friday ”“ to its sixth-straight loss.

Sanford will hope to make that seven in a row Saturday, with the winner earning the right to take on league-leading Newport in the three-game divisional series, which will start on Sunday.

Dylan Parker (2-0, 1.85 ERA) will get the start for the Muskrats on Saturday, while the Mainers will counter with Charlie Butler (2-0, 4.90).

Usually a reliever, it will be Butler’s first start of the season in what Izaryk called an “all hands on deck” kind of game.

“We’ve played on the road, we’ve played at home, we’ve played in one-run games, we’ve lost, we’ve won ”“ we’ve done just about everything this week,” Izaryk said. “Tomorrow night we’ll see what happens.”

Staff Writer Cameron Dunbar can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 323.



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