By Matt Williams
---- — LOWELL — The most painful word in sports is almost.
The St. John’s Prep baseball team almost extended its record breaking winning streak here at LeLacheur Park in the Division 1 North final against a determined, fearless Billerica team.
This was baseball, though, not horseshoes. The only emotion delivered by almost was heartbreak.
The Prep left the tying run on third base in the bottom of the ninth and Billerica won their first North sectional title since 1983 with a 4-3 victory last night.
The final out snapped St. John’s school-record 22-game winning streak. What was a dominant season turned out to be bookended by losses as the Eagles finished 22-2, losing only their first and last games.
“Every time you get into the tournament, it ends with a loss unless you go all the way,” said Eagles coach Pat Yanchus, who is retiring and coached his last game for the Prep after 33 seasons.
The Indians (18-6, playing in the state semifinals tomorrow) got the first two outs of the ninth as SJP’s Brandon Bingel almost hit a game-tying homer with a 335-foot flyout to the warning track in left and Keith Leavitt fanned. David Bornstein drew a walk to keep the season alive and fellow senior Paul Crehan followed with a single, sending Bornstein to third. Sophomore Nick Latham grounded to second, though, and Billerica got the force out to end the Prep’s season.
“We probably should have stolen second to make it a harder play for the second baseman,” Yanchus said. “That’s what I’ll remember about this year: the way we fought right to the end.”
St. John’s had clobbered its state tournament opponents 32-1 coming into yesterday’s North final (the program’s 10th). Billerica wasn’t intimidated, though, and jumped ahead 2-0 with single runs in the second and third charged Prep starter Justin Snyder.
“We hadn’t seen St. John’s, but we knew they had great talent and a bunch of quick pitchers,” said Billerica coach Joe Higgins. “(Snyder) was a little off and we took advantage early. That’s what you have to do in a big game.”
The Eagles were not sharp. They committed four errors, though excellent relief pitching by seniors Mike Driscoll and Dustin Hunt made sure most of them didn’t hurt.
The Indians’ final run, which turned out to be the winning run, scored on a Driscoll balk in the fifth. It was emblematic of St. John’s uncharacteristically sloppy play.
“We practiced hard. I think it’s just one of those baseball things where we didn’t play well,” Yachus said. “It seemed like we made more errors than we’d made all year — and there were mental errors too.”
Trailing 2-0, St. John’s bounced back when Alex Moore delivered their first hit on a bunt single and sophomore Keith Leavitt clobbered a 2-run double to right to tie it (scoring Bingel, who had walked and stolen second).
Indians pitcher Chris Murphy (6 IP, 2 H, 9 K on 131 pitches) didn’t allow the Eagles to grab a lead even though they had runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. The Prep put runners on in all three frames against reliever Robby Gambale, but stranded them, too.
The Eagles left 10 on base in all and failed to take advantage of 10 walks.
Billerica took the lead with a pair in the fifth. Kyle Murphy’s second hit was an RBI double; he later reached third and scored on a balk. The Eagles managed to make it 4-3 in the bottom half when senior Tommy Buonopane reached on an error, stole second, took third on a passed ball and scored on a wild pitch. They got no closer, however.
Billerica had multiple chances to extend their lead, but St. John’s turned a pair of double plays and got clutch pitching. Jack Burke escaped a bases loaded jam in the fourth, Driscoll induced a double play to end one in the sixth and Hunt came on erase one in the seventh.
To their credit, the Indians did not allow their failure on offense to effect them in the field. “Leaving the bases loaded with no outs in tough. I wanted insurance runs so I don’t have a heart attack, but I’ll take the heart attack today,” said Higgins. “We kept saying leave it in the dugout, go out there and throw the leather, and they did that.”
St. John’s had just five hits from five different players: Buonpane, Leavitt, Bornstein, Crehan and Moore. The Eagles never had two hits in the same inning. They employed four pitchers in Snyder (3 IP, 3 H, 3 BB), Burke (1+ IP, 2 H), Driscoll (2 IP, 2 H) and Hunt (3 IP, 1 HBP). The latter two, who will pitch together at Northeastern next year, got ahead in the count and held Billerica down despite trouble in the last four frames, but the damage was done.
“Mike pitched well,” said Yanchus, who had hopes to close with the hard-throwing Hunt as he had most of the season. “In retrospect, maybe we wish we had gone to Hunt sooner, but its hard to look back on one thing in the whole game.”
The Catholic Conference champions had a great 22-game run, but that elusive state championship wasn’t in the cards.
“We had a great team, a great senior group that played together, played one way and played hard,” said Yanchus. “I’ll remember the camraderie with the team and the coaches and all the enthusiasm. We played head up all year, until today.”