By Matt Williams
---- — DANVERS — The infinite number of situations that can come up in baseball make it the thinking man’s game.
The number of situations in last night’s instant classic at the Twi Field, a game that went on for three hours and featured some 320 pitches, could have given even the deepest thinker a massive headache.
Peabody’s Matt McIsaac hit an inside-the-park homer in the 11th inning and earned the win by holding host Danvers scoreless for three frames as the Tanners handed the Falcons their first loss of the season, 3-2, in front of a few hundred fans.
“This one means a lot to us. We’re friendly with a lot of the Danvers kids and this is always a close, fun game,” McIsaac said after Peabody (11-1) extended its winning streak to 10 games and remained unbeaten in Northeastern Conference play (9-0).
The Falcons (11-1, 8-1 NEC) had the go-ahead run in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth innings against Peabody starter Pat Ruotolo, and again in the 10th and 11th against McIsaac. But Peabody made all the plays behind McIsaac late and Danvers couldn’t push one across.
“We didn’t put enough balls in play,” said Danvers coach Roger Day. “We’ve been working on getting on top of balls, putting them in play, and we didn’t do it.”
McIsaac drove an 0-2 pitch to deep center in the top of the 11th and Danvers’ Anthony Garron nearly tracked it down. McIsaac rounded second, then third as the cutoff throw wasn’t picked up and raced home to break a 2-2 tie that had stood since the fourth inning.
“I honestly didn’t know what was going on. I saw the ump coming out when I got near third, and I saw coach waving me in,” McIsaac said. “My eyes lit up when I saw a fastball.
“On the bench after I was just trying to calm down because I had to get three outs.”
In their last at-bat, senior shortstop Evan Eldridge hit a leadoff single and the Falcons completed their fourth sacrifice bunt to get him into scoring position. But McIsaac got Garron to ground out to earn his second win of the season, stranding the 10th Danvers runner of the game.
“I have to give credit to our catcher, Brandon Polignone. He kept me focused out there,” McIsaac said. “This was a team win. We have faith in each other, and they had faith in me.”
Three hours earlier, Danvers had taken a 2-0 lead in the first while scoring the first runs Ruotolo allowed all season. A.J. Couto (3-for-5) reached on an infield single and scored on Dan Connors’ first of three hits. Connors then scored on a passed ball.
Danvers lefty Ray Arocho held Peabody hitless for the first three innings. The Tanners broke through with two outs in the fourth as Frank Lowry was hit by a pitch, Ryan Collins followed with a single and Polignone then roped a single to make it 2-2.
“That was a huge hit by Brandon. We hadn’t been having very good at-bats to that point ,and he turned us around. He sparked our offense,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt.
With the game 2-2 headed to the bottom of the fourth, the chess match between two of the best managed baseball teams in Massachusetts began. Danvers put runners on second in the fourth, fifth and sixth on hits by Tyler Dustin, Couto and Connors, respectively.
Ruotolo (6 hits, 2 runs, 1 earned) was a bulldog in those situations. He struck out 15 batters over eight innings of work and fanned eight with runners on base. The fact that he didn’t allow Danvers to put the ball in play prevented the type of basepath gamesmanship that can end games like these.
“The way Pat throws, he’s such a power pitcher (that) he changes the game. You can’t simulate that,” said Bettencourt, who watched his ace punch out two straight after Arocho and Connors each singled in the eighth.
Arocho threw seven innings and fanned five. Peabody’s Maynard Wheeler singled but was caught stealing third in the fifth, and George Tsonis singled but was caught at second in the sixth. The Tanners left a runner in scoring position in the seventh, and couldn’t score on Danvers reliever Ryan Kelleher with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth.
Peabody only stole two bags and was caught three times as Danvers and catcher Joe Olszak seemed to get the better of that matchup, “We made them make the plays and, to their credit, they made them,” said Bettencourt.
“(Joe Olszak) helped us get out of some jams. He’s helped us immensely and been a big plus,” added Day. “Kelleher pitched well. He gave us a good effort and really just missed the one pitch, the 0-2 to McIsaac.”
Kelleher only allowed two hits and struck out five over four innings, and he sent Danvers to the plate with the chance to win three times. The Falcons best chance was probably in the 10th, when Couto singled and was sacrificed over. Peabody intentionally walked Arocho and pitched to arguably Danvers’ best hitter, Connors. McIsaac retired him and fanned Dustin to escape.
“That was two resilient teams out there. Neither team wanted to give an inch,” said Bettencourt.
For 11 innings two of the top teams in the state went toe-to-toe. It was intense, and the fact that neither team lost focus or made errors was a credit to all four pitchers — Ruotolo, McIsaac, Arocho and Kelleher — and to the meticulously prepared coaches, Day and Bettencourt.
Each team came to bat 11 times, with 33 outs recorded, and in 15 of those 22 half-innings there was at least one baserunner. The number of small things that could’ve dramatically changed the game’s outcome — a ball called a strike, a bad hop, a runner caught napping on the bag or a foul ball hooking fair — was staggering.
It was enough to make you stop and think: What a ballgame.
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.