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For first time, Knights fail to make FCL playoffs

NASHUA – Kyle Jackson had just begun throwing his first batting practice of the 2021 Nashua Silver Knights season when a line drive screamed in his direction.

Normall, the pitching screen always used, would make the stop, but this time the ball found its way to Jackson’s rib, and the Knights manager doubled over in pain.

A huge welt was the result, but it certainly was an omen of the tough 27-39, sixth-place season that was to come, one that left the defending champion Silver Knights out of the Futures Collegiate League playoffs for the first time in the league and franchise’s 11 years.

“We had a long season,” Jackson said. “A lot of ups, and a lot of downs. The kids played hard the whole year.”

Indeed, Jackson had no problem with the effort. But the problem the Silver Knights had was simple: They were too young, with 10 either incoming or redshirt freshmen, meaning close to a quarter of the team had never played in a college game. That led to a woeful .227 team batting average, last in the league. Nashua was fifth in team pitching with a 4.69 earned run average, but offense – or lack of it – was the main culprit.

“I think 75 percent of them have become better ball players this season,” Jackson said. “But I think the team’s chemistry, they were having fun and they liked winning.

“But with the season starting super early – Cam (GM Cook) and I talked about it – we just ran into trouble of putting a Division III/high school team out, and we’re playing a team like Norwich that has a (Division) I (team) with Florida guys. …

“The talent level wasn’t there. The heart was there for us but the talent is sometimes going to win. But they kept playing every day, never gave up, wanted to get better.”

And proof of that was an eight-game winning streak after the All-Star break, which Nashua entered with only 10 wins. The Silver Knights were mathematically alive for the playoffs until a loss to Brockton eliminated them on the next to last day of the regular season.

Incoming freshmen players like Sam McNulty (headed to Boston College), Brandon Fish (UMass Lowell), and Jackson Linn (Tulane) could arguably be called the nucleus by season’s end, along with Wilmington University senior John Mead.

But the struggle over the course of what became a 66-game season was real. First, the Knights started off with a roster filled with temp players due to the fact that the college tournament season was lasting well into June. Most of the opening night lineup was gone by mid-season, if not before.

What remained was mainly a young team that was feeling its way.

NEXT YEAR

What can Nashua do to avoid the pitfalls of this season?

“We’re going to try to get a couple of guys back from this year’s group, try to bring them back,” Jackson said. “So then there is that core group. And talk to the coaches and ask for guys that have a year of experience in college, who have played, instead of getting all the incomings. There’s a lot of incomings here.

“We have a lot of freshmen, and then there are freshmen that with COVID don’t have a year of experience. Experience helps when you’re in a slump, or when you’re losing, how do you get out of it? Have you been through it? Adjustments to the college game. If you got this whole team back next year, the same guys, we’d be a threat. Because they have this and they have a whole year (of college experience.).”

But that likely won’t happen, as ironically many college coaches like to send their players to different spots to give them more experience. And Jackson will make a push for older players, because the one thing the Silver Knights lacked was leadership.

“I’d like a few, just so there’s some sort of leader that’s been there before,” Jackson said. “We didn’t have any. We had Nick Perkins (formerly of Nashua South, now of Endicott College), but we didn’t have any other position players coming back. Perkins is Perkins, and I love him to death, but he’s not a leader that’s going to be vocal.

“You need those guys that have been there, can take a team on their back; ‘oh, that’s his work ethic, I want to do that.’ And just talk to the guys. A lot of these guys can’t talk because they haven’t done a year. So I think that’s going to be hopefully a big change for us next year.”

That plus experience. Cook would like to get players who have at least 100 collegiate at-bats when talking about position players.

Enter Mead, who was a member of last year’s more experienced team – Nashua and the league were able to get those players, being the only game in town due to COVID – and things began to change for the better.

Mead said he walked into the clubhouse and immediately “Felt like the Dad of the team when I came in.”

“I was definitely the oldest guy,” Mead said. “When I came in, the guys were feeding off my energy, I was making them laugh. I could tell they were a little scared when they were playing. Then everybody was playing loose, they started gelling.”

In fact, Mead brought in the cowboy hat that anyone who hit a home run would have placed on his head when heading back to the dugout after the celebration.

“I was just trying to make it fun,” said Mead, who hit .247 but drove in 18 runs in 29 games. “I thought we were going to sneak in a playoff (spot), but what are you going to do?”

“Where (youth) shows the most is one run ball games, right?” Cook said. “Veteran baseball players win those games.”

So what does the Nashua braintrust do? Perhaps start later rather than sooner in securing players. There were a host of players who wanted to come to Nashua in March and April, but the roster, Cook said, was already filled.

“We were very much at the forefront of signing players,” he said. “I’d tell them if anything changes, we’d let them know.”

What did Vermont, which was competing this past week in the FCBL finals in its first season, do that perhaps others didn’t? The Lake Monsters didn’t put their team together until February at the earliest after joining the league in January.

“They put their team together very quickly,” Cook said. “They have a great coaching staff… There were just guys kicking around who didn’t get picked up by the Futures League or the NECBL and were hoping for a home.

“Everyone has a chip on their shoulder on their team.”

Cook was a Division III third baseman with that same chip on his shoulder, and likely would like to get more of those players rather than players who felt out of place.

Jackson said the Silver Knights have tried to keep the same mix and formula that gave them success over the first 10 years. “But now that the league has progressed with better players, we have to. We just got caught.”

“When you break it down, player by player, there’s 11 or 12 guys I’d bring back for sure,” Cook said. “You need to have nine quality guys on the field every day and four really good pitchers every single day to get a win. It’s not like basketball where you could have one or two superstars. You need a team.”

They had injuries to players who were scheduled to come and they never made it. Some had to leave early, such as Goffstown’s Connor Hujsak, who was just coming into his own after a freshman season at Virginia Commonwealth. Linn played one game and then sat out the first half of the season in preparation for the Major League Draft. Cook feels that had he played the whole year, he may have been the league’s top player.

Position players left from the Opening Night roster were Perkins, outfielder Kevin Skagerlind, and infielders Sam McNulty and Patrick Casserly.

Jackson said he plans on taking a month off as he and his wife are expecting their second child, and then begin the phone calls to college coaches, as will Cook. Then the two will put their lists together and presto, you have your 2022 roster.

“I’ve already talked to a couple of them,” Jackson said. “And there’s a couple of new schools that are going to want to send guys. There’ll be a feel-out process.”

The two players Jackson felt came the furthest this year were infielders McNulty and Londonderry’s Fish. Fish actually saw his batting average drop over time, but from the moment he arrived, he looked and played at second base like he belonged. McNulty was struggling at .200 the first half of the season but had a superb second half, finishing the year hitting .271 and leading Nashua with 22 RBIs.

“It’s honestly been a really fun summer,” McNulty said. “It was just a big adjustment going from high school to this. Coach K-Jax and I were working on an adjustment of getting on top of the ball more, and eliminating that launch angle swing. That helped a lot, not trying to hit home runs. Trying to hit the top of the ball, hit line drives, and that definitely worked for me.”

“He learned a college swing,” Jackson said. “Laying off curve balls. Launch angle doesn’t work in college here. And the adjustment with the wood bat, metal bat, are completely different. He gained in his approach big time.”

Jackson said the younger players had to learn to “go where the ball is pitched”. In other words, take pitches the other way, something he preached all season but that only seemed to take hold in the final month.

“In high school, you’re going to get pitches down the middle, guys aren’t spotting up,” he said. “Here now, guys are throwing curve balls for strikes, throwing change-ups, throwing them in 2-1 counts. First pitch, thrown for strikes. It’s paying attention to what the pitcher is doing during the game.”

The Knights’ young hitters found themselves down in the count too often.

“I think Jackson (Linn) was the biggest improvement,” Jackson said. “When we talked, since he got back here, he was swinging at curve balls in the dirt. If you stop swinging at curve balls, you’re going to put yourself in a fastball count, and that’s the biggest difference.”

“The one thing I think we did hit on is they are really fun to watch,” Cook said. “You keep your core, and you try to build around that.”

Cook says it will be a matter of working with the college coaches to get the right mix of players.

“Our sell to the college coaches will be ‘Your player is asking to come back,’ or ‘there’s a teammate who wants to come here who heard what good of a time it is. Give it a shot.’

“We’ve got guys in this league, on our team, who went to the NECBL, but there’s no gap between the two leagues now. Just isn’t. You can hold on to a guy hoping you can get him in the NECBL, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be the same thing. He’ll probably have a better experience here, or in Worcester, or in Vermont.”

Cook says the invites will be coming out to last year’s players in September – pitcher Nick Guarino, who led the team with a 5-2 mark, is expected to return, and the pitching staff will be built from there.

The college coaches the franchise has had good relationships with usually tell the Knights who they want to send.

“That,” Cook said, “is where we need to make the adjustment. We just can’t take (anyone). And that’s where summer ball becomes a crapshoot. They all have great rosters, and great schools next to their names.

“And you usually have your roster set before the college season has even started.”

Perhaps Jackson will think back to that first day of workouts and feel that, as far as the season goes, no pain, no gain.

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