---- — 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.”
Outfielder Nick Latham had two hits for St. John’s, including a fifth inning double that was the Eagles only extra base hit.
McLaughlin’s curveball was dipping throughout the afternoon. His success with the hook set up the rest of his pitches, and the Eagle hitters.
“Andrew doesn’t throw 95 miles per hour, but when he’s throwing breaking and offspeed strikes, it looks like he does,” said Bettencourt. “That’s how he beats very good hitters.”
McLaughlin’s counterpart, St. John’s Prep lefty Justin Snyder, allowed eight hits in 5 2/3 innings. He was very effective with runners on base, and only truly paid the price for Mike Petrosino’s infield single with two out in the first.
The Tanners followed with consecutive base hits by David Hoar and Ryan Collins for a 1-0 lead. Matt Gonick was hit by a pitch and Sean McGarth drove in a run as Peabody went on top 2-0.
“Jumping ahead early let us exhale on the bench,” said Bettencourt. “With the lead, the nerves dissipated.”
Peabody’s other run came courtesy of Petrosino’s RBI in the third. Second baseman Christian Morales singled and stole second and third before coming home.
“They’re a fast, active team. We knew it would be important not to let their leadoff guy get on-base, and that was the only inning it happened,” said Prep coach Dan Letarte, who was making his baseball head coaching debut.
Evan Roberts got four straight outs for the Prep, coming on with men on second and third with two down in the sixth and getting a strikeout to keep it a 3-0 game. Max Burt made some nice stabs in the hole at short and Latham, Missiti and Andrew Attar accounted for their team’s hits.
“Without the mistake (on Petrosino’s infield single) in the first, it’s a 1-0 game. That’s the one inning you wish you had back,” Letarte said. “All the credit goes right to Andrew McLaughlin. He kept us off balance and didn’t give us many opportunities.”
With Peabody ahead 3-0 in the third, Attar and Latham hit back-to-back singles and Burt reached one an error to load the bags for the crucial at-bat with Leavitt. McLaughlin knew he had to be careful throwing inside to a powerful slugger capable of grabbing the lead with one swing. The pitcher was also masterful in mixing curves that painted the strike zone with those designed to fall outside and entice the hitter to chase.
With all that in his mind, he also remained focused on the catcher’s mitt.
“You have to clear out the mind and act as if nothing’s happening, while also being aware of what you need to do,” said McLaughlin. “You can’t get flustered.”
“Andrew didn’t panic,” Bettencourt added. “That’s what he does. He’s a leader, he deserved the start today and he deserved the win.”
McGrath, a senior captain, went 2-for-3 to pace Peabody’s offense and Petrosino went 2-for-4. Morales, Hoar and Collins added hits and Bobby Tramondozzi singled, walked and stole a base in his first varsity start.
Dating back to 2000, the Prep holds an 8-5 lead in baseball games against Peabody. The Tanners, however, have won the last three played in Danvers, including one Saturday paced by an excellent righthanded pitching performance.
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN. #StrikeOutALS