DANVERS — The most important at-bat of a baseball game isn’t always the last one, and it isn’t always in the last inning.
Take Saturday afternoon at St. John’s Prep, where the Eagles hosted Peabody in a rematch of last year’s Division 1 North semifinal. The Prep loaded the bases in the bottom of the third, matching their No. 3 hitter Keith Leavitt and Tanner ace Andrew McLaughlin in a battle of two of the better ballplayers on the North Shore.
The pitcher and the slugger fought to a 2-2 count. Peabody’s deft righty fanned Leavitt, then retired clean-up man Sawyer Billings, to quell St. John’s biggest threat of the game.
The Tanners finished off a 3-0 win over the Eagles, Peabody’s first over their rivals since 2010, in the chilly and windy season opener for both clubs.
“We’d lost four in a row to them, and every kid that plays baseball in Peabody knew that. There’s a lot of rivalry and a lot of pride involved,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt, who started McLaughlin in the North semifinal loss to the Prep nine months ago.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that as soon as Andrew walked off the diamond at Fraser last year, he was counting the days until today. It was his moment and he seized it.”
McLaughlin tossed 104 pitches in the seven inning shutout. He allowed four hits, fanned six and hit one without issuing a walk.
“It’s almost a relief, to find the strength within our team to battle and win a big game like this,” said McLaughlin, a senior captain who didn’t appear at all fatigued as he neared the century mark and danced around Rosario Missiti’s leadoff single in the seventh.
“Our pitching coach, Gary Linehan, works us into the ground to get us ready. I don’t want to say pitching like this is expected, but with the work we put it, our whole staff can do it.”