Saturday, May 20, 2017

Top-ranked St. John's Shrewsbury Baseball Edges Westborough in Greg Montalbano Classic

By John McGuirk (@Patsfan1313)

WESTBOROUGH, Mass. - It didn't take long for Sean Burke to realize, for whatever reason, that his usual high-80s velocity wasn't performing up to his standards.

Instead of fretting about it, the University of Maryland commit simply went to his other options. And it proved to be enough as the St. John's (Shrewsbury) righthander held Westborough to a pair of runs over his six innings of work during the Pioneers 5-2 victory Saturday in the 8th annual Greg Montalbano Classic.

Burke, a junior, stuck primarily to his slider, curve and change up to punch out the Rangers. When he did need to reach back for a little extra, his fastball was hitting its mark as well. Burke allowed six hits and struck out seven as the Pioneers, winners of seven straight, improved to 16-2, and should be considered a safe bet to earn their third consecutive invitation to the upcoming Super 8 tournament.

"Sean pitched fine today," said Pioneers coach Charlie Eppinger. "He is a big critic of his own performance. He didn't have his best command today but was throwing his off-speed pitches for strikes. I thought overall he was very effective."

Having scored 159 runs coming in, St. John's soon realized that it would be in for a battle against a Rangers squad which has played up and down this season.

After being no-hit by Groton-Dunstable ace Joe Simeone just 24 hours earlier, as part of a 16-0 defeat, Westborough (6-10) seemed to have trouble washing away those memories early on.

Trouble began immediately for Rangers pitcher Joe Fitzgerald in the initial inning after he plunked Ian Seymour on the very first pitch and watched Christian Jordan reach safely on catcher's interference. 

Senior Jack Gardner (2 hits) followed by lining a single into right-centerfield, plating Seymour with the first run. Things continued to snowball once Burke belted an RBI double to straightaway centerfield. A few moments later, Gardner touched home on Joe Fields' SAC fly to make it 3-0.

Westborough got a run back in the bottom of the second. Kyle Clarkson reached on an error and Dylan Connors fisted a single into left. One out later, Kaeden Bentley singled to fill the bases. Johnny Kelley's ground out brought Clarkson home before Burke fanned Ryan Shufflebarger to keep it a two-run contest.

To Fitzgerald's credit, the senior righty regrouped admirably, as he held St. John's scoreless over three frames before leaving the game. Fitzgerald, who transferred to Westborough from St. John's after his freshman season, went 4 innings, allowing 4 hits and striking out 3. Connors came on in relief to begin the fifth and went the rest of the way, giving up two hits and two unearned runs.

"Both of our pitchers gave us a chance," Rangers coach Scott Kittredge said. "We made some mistakes and St. John's capitalized. Good teams will do that. We were happy with the energy today but we just didn't make enough plays. We were mercied against Groton-Dunstable yesterday so to respond the way our kids did today against an outstanding teams shows a lot about their character."

The Rangers had an opportunity to get some more runs in the third. After Burke retired the first two batters, a walk, an error and Connors single loaded the bases. But Burke managed to fan Sam Lis to snuff out the threat.

"My velocity was a little down today so I tried to rely more on my off-speed pitches," said Burke. "Those seemed to be working for me today. I was throwing slider, curve and change up for strikes. When I needed to throw the ball out of the zone and make them chase I was able to do so. But a pitcher cannot do it all by himself and it is good to have a solid defense behind me to help pick me up." 

While the Pioneers bats (6 hits total) continued to go silent, the possibility to pull out a major upset resonated loudly throughout the Rangers dugout. St. John's did have a chance to extend its lead in the top of the fifth after putting three on with two out. But Connors induced pinch-hitter Pat Galvin to fly out. 

In the sixth, the Pioneers put two aboard but, again, failed to convert. In the bottom of the frame, Westborough took advantage of its opportunity after a single by Lis and a double from Bentley with one out. Kelley's second RBI grounder brought Lis home but that would be as close as the Rangers would get after Burke recorded the final out in the frame.

Refusing to leave this game to chance, the Pioneers made sure that would not come to fruition. St. John's was finally able produced with runners on, scoring a pair courtesy of two Ranger errors to grab a three-run advantage.

Relief pitcher Nick McDonald was brought in to close the game and the sophomore proceeded to set Westborough down in order to earn the save.

Over the years, this game has taken on special meaning as it celebrates the remarkable life of Montalbano. A Westborough resident, Montalbano was a brilliant pitcher for St. John's, under legendary coach Bill White, in the mid-1990s.

He went on to have a stellar career at Northeastern University, earning All-American honors. In 1999, Montalbano was drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round before injuries forced him to leave the organization in 2004. Montalbano returned to professional ball in 2005, pitching for the Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am League and helping lead them to a league championship.

In 2009, after a long battle with testicular cancer, Montalbano passed away. Eppinger was a close friend of Montalbano and it was upon his decision to make this game a yearly event. 

"Greg was a larger than life guy," said Eppinger. "Everyone who met him was drawn to him. He had a magnetic personality. He was working full-time, and pitching for the Tornadoes, and would still come over and help us during our practices for as many hours as he could. He was such a positive person despite all the difficulty he went through. He was such an inspiration, not only to our baseball program, but to so many other people. This game every year helps keep him alive in everyone's memory."

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