DANVERS — Dan Connors said he was on the Danvers High varsity baseball team his freshman and sophomore years primarily for one reason: he knew how to successfully bunt.
Old habits apparently don’t desert you when you need them most.
Connors dropped down a perfect suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth inning to plate teammate A.J. Couto with the game-winning run as Danvers — which trailed by six runs back in the third inning — completed a comeback for the ages, stunning Reading, 7-6, in this extra inning Division 2 North quarterfinal gem.
“You always have to be on your toes when you’re coached by Roger Day, so I went up to the plate thinking (squeezing) was definitely a possibility,” said Connors, the Northeastern Conference South MVP this season, said of his play that improbably won the game for the Falcons (20-3).
The UMass-Amherst bound, 6-foot-4 second baseman got the sign from Day on the first pitch against Reading reliever Sean O’Neill. He dropped down a perfect bunt in front of the mound as Couto (4 runs on the night) sped home, and he slid and got his hand over the plate before a play could by made by the visiting Rockets.
“We said, ‘let’s do this first pitch.’ We thought about going with a fake squeeze before deciding to do the real thing,” said Day, whose team executed the greatest playoff comeback in his 25-year coaching career in terms of having never come back from a six-run deficit beforehand. “One pitch, and just like that the game’s over.”
The second-seeded Falcons move on to the Division 2 North semifinals tomorrow night at Alumni Field in Lowell (7 p.m.), where they’ll take on 11th seeded Belmont (13-9) for the right to play in this weekend’s sectional final. It marks the Falcons’ sixth time having reached the North semifinals in the 21st century.
The game also marked the end of Reading (13-9) head coach Peter Mosciarello’s career after 560 career victories over 35 years of managing the Rockets.
The Falcons trailed, 6-0, after two-and-a-half innings as the Rockets smashed nine hits over the first three innings of play; they’d have just two over the game’s final six innings. The visitors chased Danvers ace Brandon Hyde after just two-plus innings; junior righty Rafael Tylus was called into the game and was merely brilliant in going the rest of the way. Over seven innings of work he surrendered just three hits, no runs and no walks, and struck out six, including two in the top of the ninth inning.
“I just put the ball where Joey’s (Olszak, his catcher) glove was,” said the soft-spoken Tylus. “I got my curve working in the later innings, which helped. And the guys behind me were making great plays; Danny at second base and Andrew (Olszak, a freshman) at third. They kept me calm.”
It was the first four hitters in Danvers’ lineup that did all of the damage; combined, Couto, Joe Strangie, Ray Arocho and Connors were a combined 7-for-12 with seven walks, having scored all seven runs while driving in the same amount.
Couto got things started in the third inning with two out, tripling to left-center. After a Strangie (3 runs scored) walk, Arocho brought both teammates home with a booming triple to center field.
In the fifth inning, again with two out and nobody on, Couto walked and Strangie singled to center before Arocho knocked home Couto with a single to left. Connors followed with an RBI hit to center, and suddenly the Falcons’ deficit was only two (6-4).
“It was probably my best hitting game of the year,” said Arocho. “I had been in a slump the last 5-6 games, but I felt it tonight. Raffy pitched great, the guys in front of me got on base, and we all battled. We got done what needed to be done.”
“I felt we could get to their pitcher (starter Garrett Colantuno) if we could get guys on base and score just one run,” added Day. “Get that one run and start to put pressure on them. The top of our lineup enabled us to do that.”
Still, the Falcons were three outs away from seeing their season come to an end when they batted in the bottom of the seventh. But Couto and Strangie worked back-to-back walks, bringing O’Neill in to relief Colantuno. A double to center by Arocho (4 RBI) scored Couto to make it a one-run game, and Connors’ RBI groundout plated Strangie to tie it up and send the contest to extra innings.
“You’re going to get your chances if you stay focused and stick to your game plan. That’s how baseball is,” said Day. “On the chances we had tonight, we made something happen. It was pretty special.”