By Matt Williams
---- — LYNN — Two-time Catholic Conference MVP Brandon Bingel is as smart as he is physically gifted — and he has a pretty good sense of history as well.
Knowing rival Peabody High wanted to jump on his fastball, the St. John’s Prep senior outfoxed the Tanners by pitching backwards in a Division 1 North semifinal at Fraser Field last night.
Bingel struck out 10 and held Peabody to five hits over eight innings in a 5-0 Eagles win that came 10 years to the day after the Tanners beat St. John’s in this round of the tournament in 2003.
“It was huge for us, as a school. There was a nice little revenge factor,” said Bingel, a Peabody native. “For me, it’s my hometown and it’s always fun to pitch against those guys ... and to get the best of them.”
St. John’s Prep (22-1) won its 22nd straight game in front of about 2,000 fans and returns to the North final for the first time since 2010. They’ll face either Billerica or Westford Academy on Sunday at LeLachauer Park in Lowell (4 p.m.) as they chase their first state title since 2000.
Peabody (20-5) had no answer for Bingel, who threw first-pitch strikes 75 percent of the time. He was perfect the first time through the Peabody lineup, gave up two hits to George Tsonis (the first with two outs in the fourth) and a harmless bunt single to Steve Leavitt in the fifth.
“Bing was on. His slider, curveball and fastball were there,” said St. John’s coach Pat Yanchus. “He was getting ground balls, mixing in strikeouts and pitched very well.”
The Bryant-bound right-hander, now 8-0 on the season, went to a three-ball count just twice in eight frames. The first-pitch sliders and breaking balls ultimately left the Tanners helpless.
“It’s a nasty pitch,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt. “His breaking ball is very hard to read, hard to pick up, and we saw our better hitters struggle with it.”
The Prep jumped on Peabody junior Andrew McLaughlin in the first, making him pay for back-to-back walks to begin the game. He almost escaped by getting two straight outs, but Eagles catcher Paul Crehan sent a 3-2 offering to the outfield for a 2-run single. Senior David Bornstein, who is from Peabody, followed with an RBI single as St. John’s went ahead, 3-0.
“Andrew was one pitch away from getting out of that, and it took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t want to see that,” said Bettencourt.
McLaughlin gave Peabody six innings, struck out five and allowed five hits with four walks. The Tanners had hoped to stay close long enough to turn to ace Pat Ruotolo in the late innings, but between the early runs and their inability to get to Bingel it didn’t happen.
“I thought if we could scratch out a few runs, or God forbid get a lead, that bringing in Ruotolo would give us a psychological advantage,” said Bettencourt.
Bornstein (3 of St. Johns’ 5 hits) singled in the fourth and, with two outs, sophomore Nick Latham clubbed a 2-run homer 335 feet over the right field fence to put the Eagles in control, 5-0.
“He got the head of the bat out there and turned on it. That was a solid piece of hitting,” Bettencourt said.
That the Eagles, who had outscored their state tournament opponents 27-1 coming in, scored all five runs with two outs shows just show close McLaughlin was to keeping his Tanners in striking distance.
“Jumping out to the 3-0 lead was a big confidence boost for us. That was a big hit by Crehan,” said Yanchus. “Say that homer is a little lower (and hits the wall or is foul), this is a lot closer.”
Scoring first was also essential for St. John’s, which came in as the favorite and didn’t allow any doubt to creep in by giving themselves an early cushion against McLaughlin.
“Those two walks (hurt) him,” Bingel said. “Besides that, he was getting his curve over just like I was and he pitched very well. It was huge for us to get on top in the first.”
Ruotolo came on for the seventh and eighth innings, striking out five of the eight batters he faced. He walked two and stranded both at third base after Tommy Bouonpane (2 walks) stole two bags in the seventh, and Tyler Noe stole second and took third on a wild pitch in the eighth.
The Tanners threatened in the eighth when David Hoar had a pinch-hit single and Matt Gonick followed with a pinch-hit double. Bingel struck out the side, though, and was extremely efficient with just 90 pitches in eight innings and no frames with more than 15. With both pitchers on, the game moved briskly and ended after just two hours and 15 minutes.
“I had pretty good command of my offspeed stuff,” said Bingel. “I was trying to pitch backward and was successful with it.”
Prep closer Dustin Hunt didn’t give Peabody a sniff in the top of the ninth, retiring the side on 11 pitches to send St. John’s to the North final.
Can the state’s top-ranked team, riding the longest winning streak in program history, get three more wins and that elusive state championship?
“They’re a very good team, but the thing you wonder about is with long winning streaks, could there be panic if someone takes the lead on them?” said Bettencourt. “We were hoping to do that, scratch some runs, just to see how they reacted. It didn’t happen.”