Around the Horn
The Peabody baseball program prides itself on reloading, rather than rebuilding.
It’s never been more evident than this season. The Tanners had seven new starters on Opening Day and in just six weeks Peabody has gelled and become one of the best teams in the state.
Peabody (13-1) has won 12 in a row and is the only unbeaten team in Northeastern Conference play at 11-0. Pitching and defense have been their hallmarks so far, with a team earned run average under 2.00.
The Tanners have also been remarkably focused in close games. They won an 11-inning game and a 15-inning marathon, they have two 1-0 decisions in their favor and they’re 9-0 in games decided by two runs or fewer.
“Our pitchers are keeping us in games. Everybody’s working hard everyday, trying to stay strong for these close games. Our hitting isn’t there yet, but we know eventually in those games it’ll come,” said senior third baseman George Tsonis, a three-year starter planning to play at Southern Maine next season.
Though they’ve won league titles in the last seven seasons, and can make it eight straight with a win today, Peabody came into the season with something to prove. Transfers like sophomore Mike Petrosino (six hits in the last two games) and senior catcher Brandon Polignone wanted to prove that they belong. Underclassmen like shortstop Ryan Collins and outfielder Sean McGrath did too.
Seniors like outfielders Maynard Wheeler, Rob Crovo and Steve Leavitt wanted to show that they could carry on the tradition. Frank Lowry has proven that he can play a strong first base while also yielding a big bat, and returning starters Matt McIsaac and Tsonis have picked up where they left off and been leaders.
“I think you had a perfect storm of guys that came in with a little chip on their shoulders,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt, averaging 16 wins a year in his ninth season.
Then there’s the pitching. Ace Pat Ruotolo hasn’t thrown a no-hitter (“He wanted to prove his fairy tale junior year was no fluke,” said Bettencourt), but he’s been as advertised with a 0.21 earned run average and four outings of seven innings or more. An absolute gamer, he also has three saves.
Junior Andrew McLaughlin (5-0) has emerged as a solid No. 2. David Apostolides, Derek Demild and Brandon Butcher also dedicated themselves to pitching, putting down their bats and spending hours with assistant coach Gary Linehan to hone the craft.
“We’re confident with any of those four on the mound,” said Tsonis. “Pat, obviously, you can put in any situation and Andrew’s getting to that point. David was great in relief against Xaverian, Malden Catholic and Lynn English, and Derek and Butch are taking care of their innings too.”
The Tanners have been gathering before school for weight training, and they’re practicing as hard as they ever have. Bettencourt has emphasized hitting, live scrimmaging and pressure situations to get his team ready.
“We have a lot of guys on this team that understand their roles and that’s sometimes hard at the high school level,” said Bettencourt. “Everybody is busting their tail and I think that’s brought us closer together. The improvement of our seniors, especially in the outfield, is a real credit to those kids.”
Peabody already has 60 stolen bases on the year and the team is beginning to break out offensively. Tsonis alone hit .500 with two homers and eight RBI in three games last week.
The squad has already extended the area’s longest postseason qualification streak to 19 years. Peabody is just 2-5 in the state tourney the last five years, though, with the last deep run coming in 2007 (Also the last time the team had a 13-plus game winning streak).
“We’ve seen some low seeds win it all, so we know the only streak that matters is your streak in the playoffs,” said Tsonis. “It’s about having the right streak at the right time.”
“You just hope this stuff pays off in June. Our track record hasn’t been good and you can’t hide from that,” Bettencourt said. “We’re going to compete, practice hard and try to make improvements. Right now, the kids are feeling confident and they’re buying into what we’re doing.”
The team tasked with halting Peabody’s winning streak is Beverly, as the NEC Large rivals meet this afternoon at Cooney Field. The Panthers (9-4) and Tanners have split their season series in each of the last two seasons, and Peabody took the first meeting, 1-0, in early April.
Beverly has dropped four games, though three of those came by a single run and two were 1-0 decisions. In both cases, the Panthers left too many runners in scoring position.
“Believe it or not, I don’t think we’ve played our best ball. Our pitching and defense have been good, but we’ve been inconsistent hitting with men on base,” said Panthers coach Dave Wilbur. “If we can bear down with men on base, we can play even better.”
Senior outfielder Luke McDonald has been one of Beverly’s more effective hitters, especially over the last two weeks. Junior Kevin Cuneo has also rebounded from a leg injury nicely; he missed the two 1-0 losses and there’s little doubt his bat might’ve made a difference.
Top-ranked St. John’s Prep (14-1) continues to roll as the Eagles have stretched their winning streak to 14. A 15th consecutive win today against Malden Catholic would be quite the accomplishment — Only three times since 1995 has a St. John’s Prep won 16 or more in the regular season, never mind that many in a row.
The Eagles can set up a Catholic Conference championship showdown with B.C. High Monday with a victory. Even with a loss, the Prep can share the title with the other Eagles if they win Monday.
St. John’s has allowed more than three runs in a game just twice all year, and they’ve scored five or more 12 times. The way they’re playing, you have to wonder if USA Today will take notice when they release updated Super 25 national rankings today.
The last local baseball team to be in USA Today’s rankings? Masconomet in 2010, which also had the last 15-game winning streak. The Chieftains won their first 23 contests before falling in a Division 2 state semifinal.
Senior Joe Strangie got a chance to get back in the lineup for Danvers recently and he’s clearly not interested in giving it up. Moving to the outfield, he’s scored 14 runs and has 11 hits in just 25 at-bats for a .440 batting average. Strangie has also drawn 11 walks, putting his on-base percentage well over .500.
“He’s stepped into a role where we can’t get him out of the lineup. He’s really solidified the No. 2 spot in our order,” said Danvers coach Roger Day. “Joe’s a throwback type athlete, a tough and savvy kid.”
The Falcons (13-1, 10-1 NEC) have a two game lead on Gloucester in the NEC Small. The rivals don’t meet again until the last league game of the season on May 22.
Bishop Fenwick (11-2) played CCL co-leader Archbishop Williams twice in three days this weekend. The Archies’ Braintree field was under water two weeks ago, so the Crusaders will play them on the road Saturday and at home as scheduled on Monday. If either team can take both games, they’d be in the driver’s seat for the CCL title.
Around the Horn, a column on North Shore high school baseball, appears in The Salem News every Wednesday during the spring sports season. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN. #StrikeOutALS.