By Phil Stacey
---- — So how do you determine who is the favorite?
Is it Danvers, the No. 2 seed and winners of 21 games this season, the program deep in tradition, pitching and defense, that will emerge victorious in tomorrow’s Division 2 North baseball final at Lowell’s beautiful LeLacheur Park (1 p.m.)?
Or is it Masconomet, winners of 12 straight, a team with three straight playoff shutouts playing its absolute best baseball at the most opportune time of the year?
“I think it’s going to be two really even teams going at it (tomorrow) ... and we’ll see what happens at the end,” said Danvers senior shortstop Evan Eldridge.
Masconomet (18-5) was just over the .500 mark halfway through the season when everything seemed to click for head coach T.J. Baril and his team. Having previously achieved a fulcrum of success at Swampscott High (Danvers’ Northeastern Conference rivals), it admittedly took time for the Chieftains to get used to Baril, and he to his team (and the Cape Ann League itself). But since all the working parts started functioning together, the Tri-Town team has been rolling over its opponents.
Thus far in the playoffs, the fifth-seeded Chieftains have blanked Melrose (9-0), Winchester (4-0) and Dracut (2-0). Joe Klingensmith, a junior righty who spun the shutout to beat Winchester in the quarterfinals, will likely get the call on the hill tomorrow against Danvers.
“We’re 23 games in now, so the guys pretty much know what’s expected of them. And to their credit, they’ve been making the plays and taking good at-bats,” said Baril.
“It took us a while to get to know each other, especially without a preseason with all the (poor) weather we had. It was a matter of getting on the same page and it took us a while, but they’re definitely playing their best ball right now. We’ve got some real good ballplayers on this team.”
Start with Speros Varinos, the Chieftains’ heart and soul No. 3 hitter and mound ace who can beat an opponent in a myriad of ways: with his bat, arm, legs, and glove. Center fielder Tom Budrewicz, third baseman Greg Jain, catcher Mike Manni, Will Twiss, first baseman Eddie Thayer, Josh Griffin, Chris Rich and even freshman Elias Varinos are just some of the Chieftains who can make game-changing plays in the field or the batters box.
“We know they’re aggressive: he likes to run, likes to bunt, likes to pressure. They like the play the same game we do,” Danvers head coach Roger Day said of Masconomet. “We know what T.J. likes to do, and we know they’ve got athletes.”
Like Masconomet, Danvers will turn to a junior righty tomorrow afternoon when Raffy Tylus takes the hill. He came on in relief in Danvers’ 7-6 comeback win over Reading in the quarterfinals and shut down the Rockets on just three hits and no runs over seven full innings as the Falcons prevailed in 9 innings.
Danvers has a pair of playoff shutouts (5-0 over Tewksbury and 6-0 in the North semifinals over Belmont) and has turned four double plays in their three postseason games, bumping their season total to over 20. “I haven’t seen in all the years I’ve been here us turn more double plays,” said Day. “With Eldridge and (senior second baseman Dan Connors), they’re unbelievable in doing that.”
Offensively, leadoff man A.J. Couto is hitting .444 in the playoffs with four runs scored while Joe Strangie has gotten on base via hit or walk in seven of his dozen plate appearances, scoring five times. Outfielder Ray Arocho has driven in a team-high four runs in the postseason; Connors has a .429 average and three RBI; and Tylus is hitting at a .444 clip with three runs and a pair of ribbies.
Brothers Joe Olszak, a senior catcher, and freshman third baseman Andrew Olszak have been rocks defensively; so too is senior center fielder Anthony Garron, who seems to track down anything hit in his general direction.
“They don’t make mistakes and they capitalize on yours,” Baril said of the Falcons. “They put a ton of pressure on in every inning, every at-bat. And defensively, they’re really sound. We have to be ready at anything they’re going to throw at us.
“They get guy a guy on, and he’s going to move around in some way, shape or form. You can’t keep them off base forever; you just have to try and limit their baserunners.”
There are no secrets between the two head coaches; they’re aware of each other’s style of play and aggressive nature. Expect a low scoring contest where the slightest mistake could be blow up huge by the other squad.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Baril. “We’ve got to be ready for anything.”