---- — St. John’s Prep. Peabody. Folks, it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
Ten years to the day after these Division 1 baseball heavyweights met in a still-talked-about North semifinal, the Eagles and the Tanners are getting ready to do it all again tonight at Lynn’s Fraser Field (7 p.m.).
For North Shore sports fans, June 6, 2003 is one of those dates when you know exactly where you were. A loaded St. John’s Prep team touched the nation’s top pitching prospect, Peabody’s Jeff Allison, for an unearned run and clung to that lead. Allison then famously, and controversially, stole home with the go-ahead run in the eighth. Days after being drafted in the first round by the Florida Marlins, he returned to the mound from a position in the field to close out an instant classic.
If there were 8,000 people at the game in Lowell that night, there are 80,000 Peabody folks that would claim they were if you asked. It was one of the greatest high school games ever played between North Shore teams — not hyperbole, because it was No. 4 on the Top 10 list compiled by The Salem News four summers ago.
Tonight has the potential to be that kind of game.
The Prep and Peabody have combined records of 41-5. State tournament records dating back to 1996 don’t show a previous instance of two 20-win teams from the North Shore meeting in the playoffs. Since teams frequently played shorter schedules before that, there’s a good chance this is the first time it has ever happened.
St. John’s Prep comes in with a 21-1 record, a 21-game winning streak and the undisputed top ranking in Massachusetts. Repeat Catholic Conference MVP Brandon Bingel needed fewer than 40 pitches to beat Malden last Saturday in the tournament opener, and he baffled Peabody in a 14-1 Prep win back in April.
The Tanners’ ace in the hole is Pat Ruotolo, who didn’t throw in that first meeting. He threw 101 pitches Saturday and is on four day’s rest. He’s also coming off shoulder issues, and Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt wouldn’t commit to his availability after his team’s win Monday night.
Peabody could also turn to junior Andrew McLaughlin, who is 7-0 this season and has thrown two postseason innings. He wasn’t a part of the St. John’s onslaught in April, either.
The Eagles and their Killer B’s — Bingel, Tommy Buonopane, Nick Bragole and David Bornstein — have scored 27 runs in two playoff games. They scored six or more runs 15 times and scored in double-digits on nine occasions.
A dominant Ruotolo, the pitcher who lived on the black of the plate while throwing three no-hitters a year ago, is one of the few pitchers in the Commonwealth capable of shutting down St. John’s (he struck out nine Eagles over nine innings in a no-decision in the 2012 season opener). That’s what makes tonight’s match-up so exciting.
Even if he does, you have to score to win and that means Peabody has to try to solve Bingel. The Bryant-bound righty allowed one baserunner in four innings against Peabody and struck out eight. The Tanners are in the midst of their best hitting stretch of the season, but they’ll need to be markedly better than they were two months ago.
St. John’s Prep and Peabody are the two towers of Division 1 athletics on the North Shore. Every 10 years they’ve met in a big game: the 1993 Super Bowl (won 36-0 by the Tanners), the 2003 North baseball semifinal and tonight’s anticipated clash.
Both baseball programs have made the state tournament every season since 1997, and combine for 29 seasons of 15 wins or more in that span. Since 1995, they combine for 15 sectional final appearances (16 with tonight’s winner moving on) and eight North titles.
St. John’s has won the last three regular season meetings and took care of Peabody in the tournament in 2000 North final (10-5) and in the quarters in 2001 (19-0).
The Eagles have five Division 1 college baseball players in Bingel, Buonopane, Tyler Noe, Dustin Hunt and Mike Driscoll. Peabody has had two, including Ruotolo, in the last nine years. St. John’s has won a dozen state titles in various sports since the last time Peabody won one in a boys sport back in 1993.
Adding to the drama, St. John’s Prep’s best player, Bingel, and his co-captains Buonopane and Noe, hail from the Tanner City.
For Peabody, tonight’s game is a chance to get some redemption for earlier in the season. It’s a chance for the Tanners (20-4, the program’s first 20-win team since ‘03) to measure themselves against the state’s best.
The Eagles know what is at stake. They want to send legendary coach Pat Yanchus (retiring at the end of the year with at least 481 wins) out with another championship, not a loss at Fraser Field. The winner of tonight’s game may have the inside track to the state title. If it is St. John’s, and they finish they job, they’ll be remembered as one of the best North Shore baseball teams ever.
Who knows what will decide tonight’s game? Both teams like to run, so it could be a stolen base, an error forced by speed, or a
great throw that catches someone running. It could be a great pitch, or a homer. Part of the beauty of baseball is that with deep bullpens, designated defensive players and pinch-runners, it could be just about anyone on either roster.
Miracle On Ice coach Herb Brooks said that great moments are born in great opportunity. For the 40-some players in uniform tonight, that’s what the game is.
An opportunity, both to help their teams, and to carve out their own place in one of the great rivalries on the North Shore.
Something tells me you won’t want to miss it.
Salem News assistant sports editor Matt Williams promises he was really at the Prep/Peabody game back in 2003. You can contact him at MWilliams@Salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN. #StrikeOutALS.