Sunday, May 28, 2017

Pope Francis Baseball Spoils Taconic's Perfect Season

By John McGuirk (@Patsfan1313)

SPRINGFIELD - Taconic knew it was on the verge of making history, but once the Braves realized they would be in for a major tussle against Pope Francis, that mindset quickly changed to survival mode.

In a game that embellished a playoff-type atmosphere from start to finish, it was the host Cardinals who came away triumphant, following Kevin Murphy's ninth inning, walk-off RBI single which gave Pope Francis a 2-1 victory Sunday afternoon at Forest Park.

"I got up there and was supposed to lay a bunt down twice, but didn't," said Murphy. "I knew that I needed to make up for it after having missed those attempts. Fortunately, I got the hit. It is an awesome feeling and such a great win for our team."

With the victory, Pope Francis, winners of 7 of its last 8, improves to 14-7, and no doubt will be one of the favorites to win a Division 1 Western Mass title.

"Taconic has a really nice team," said Cardinals coach Pat Moriarty who, after 14 years at the helm, will be leaving after the season to take over the reins at Deerfield Academy. "Both teams battled hard and it came down to which team could get that runner in from scoring position. Fortunately we were able to. We got our lead runner on in the ninth which was something we didn't do too much today. We know Kevin is a good contact hitter and he ended up finding a hole. For us, we know how to play in games like this. I felt the longer the game stayed 1-1, then the advantage was on our side. We have played in a lot of tighter games then they have."

Taconic, which came in having won 19 straight, and was looking to be the first team in school history to net 20 regular season victories, drops to 19-1. No doubt the Braves have proven they are worthy of Super 8 consideration. But only time will tell if that comes to fruition. An announcement as to which teams will participate in the Super 8 are expected on Tuesday.

"I truly believe that we are one of the best teams in the state," said 25-year Braves coach Kevin Stannard. "If we do get an invite I have to see what our kids want to do in terms of going or wanting to play for a Western Mass championship and see where that takes us in the Division 1 tournament. No matter what happens, I am so proud of our guys. Going 19-1 in the regular season is a great feat, and hopefully we can go further."

The Cardinals, who evened this tilt in the bottom half of the fifth inning, caught a break after Stannard opted to pull his starting pitcher Izaiya Mestre (108 pitches) after eight innings. Ross Omelenchuck was summoned to to begin the Pope Francis ninth. Right away, things did not go well for the sophomore. He plunked lead off batter Joe Salvon and proceeded to walk Liam Sears. That brought up Murphy. Failing to lay down his two bunt attempts, and facing a 2-2 count, the Eastern Connecticut State University commit, bounced a single into left field that scored Salvon with game-winner.

For the most part, Mestre, bound for the University of New Haven next season, remained in control of things on the hill. The senior righty held the Cardinals to just one hit over the first four frames.

"He is such a great pitcher and he changes speeds," praised Murphy, who prior to his RBI single went 0 for 3 versus Mestre. "He is definitely a next level pitcher."

Mestre proved to be most-effective by spotting his pitches on the outer half of the plate. He mixed in his fastball with some hard-cutting action on his breaking pitches to keep the Pope Francis batters off-balanced.

"I think Izaiya is the MVP of our league (Berkshire North)," said Stannard. "He came into the game with a 6-0 record and gave up one unearned run. He's a gamer and he's going to have success at the next level. I thought he and (Cardinals pitcher Cam) Niemiec battled pitch for pitch today. Niemiec was stellar today for them."

With Taconic clinging to a 1-0 lead,  Mestre (8 IP, 3 hits, 1 walk, 7 strike outs) showed a human side in the bottom of the fifth. Jake Leahy led the inning off by roping an opposite field double into right. That was immediately followed by Kris Alvardo being struck by a pitch to put runners on first and second with none out. Troy Donohue next laid down a bunt single to right side. On the play however, Mestre fielded it but made a wild throw to first which sailed past Devon Walker, sending Leahy and knot things.

A few moments later, Tim Sears lofted a fly out to medium centerfield. Alvardo, now on third, tagged up and darted home. But the senior was tagged out at the plate thanks to a nice relay from Walker. With Donohue standing on second, Mestre kept the game deadlocked by getting Dan Fusari to ground out.

Taconic plated their lone run in the first inning off of Niemiec, who effectively went the distance, giving up seven hits, no walks and fanning two. Jake McNeice lined a one out double and Drew DeMartino followed with a single. Cedric Rose's fly out to center was deep enough to score McNeice.

"That has been our MO," Stannard said. "We score in the first inning and then we sort of go to sleep for the rest of the game. We tried to sacrifice here and there but the guys behind them didn't come through. We better fix it during the next few days. Obviously, you never want to lose and you always expect to go 20-0. But that doesn't happen all that much. We had that opportunity today but we didn't take advantage of it."

After the initial inning struggles,  Niemiec, a senior, was able to buckle down nicely the rest of the way. In the top of the fifth, the right-hander averted trouble after issuing a lead off single to Brett Murphy. Two outs later, Murphy stood on third. But Niemiec left him there by getting Deonte Sandifer to line out.

With neither offense able to do all that much, you started to believe that this affair would eventually boil down to which club would be able to move a runner into scoring position first. Pope Francis did and, as a result, came away victorious.

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