Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Taconic Baseball Edges Pope Francis in D1 West Pitching Duel

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

SPRINGFIELD - After the final out was recorded, and the traditional handshakes and goodbye hugs were done, Pope Francis coach Pat Moriarty took a stroll all by his lonesome across the Forest Park diamond one last time.

Wanting to spend a few minutes to gather himself, Moriarty had come face to face with the reality that he had coached his final game in a Cardinals uniform.

Having announced earlier this season that he, along with his family, will be moving to Deerfield Academy, where he will be taking over the head coaching responsibilities there beginning next season, Moriarty was trying to come to grips with it all.

Making things more difficult was the fact that his team had just been eliminated from the Division 1 Western Mass. tournament, falling to Taconic 1-0 Wednesday afternoon in eight innings.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," said a somber Moriarty, who has been with the Cathedral, now called Pope Francis, program for 22 years as both a player and coach, including the last 14 as head coach. "What means the most to me is not the baseball players but the young men themselves. These kids have such fine character here and are always held to a high standard. This school has continued to develop really, fine polish Cathedral/Pope Francis young men that I have truly enjoyed coaching over the years. The wins and losses were all great, but it is the memories I will have here and the friendships I have made for life. That is what I will miss most."

After seeing this quarterfinal tilt delayed two days because of rain and poor field conditions, the weather finally cleared and it was time to play.

What followed was a masterful pitching duel between Taconic's Izaiya Mestre and Pope Francis' Cam Niemiec. The two initiated themselves into an intense battle royal, with each seemingly competing against one another more than the opposition at the plate.

Inning after inning, the two seniors matching zeros on the scoreboard, and continued to keep the other's offense in check.

Through seven innings, nothing had been decided. But in the eighth, the No. 5 Braves finally went on the attack. Ironically, it was Mestre who opened things by legging out an infield single. After moving to second on a SAC bunt and then to third on a ground out, Taconic (20-1) found itself in the unique position of being just 90 feet away from scoring a run. Only once prior did the Braves place a runner on third, but to no avail.

This time, however, Taconic capitalized on its opportunity. Senior Jack Cooney flared Niemiec's first offering into left field for a single to give the Braves the lead for good.

"I got a pitch up and middle-in," Cooney said. "I didn't get my hands through it all the way but was still able to get enough of it to get it down. (Neimiec) was keeping the ball low in the zone all game, so I was looking for something up in the zone where I could put it in the air. Fortunately I was able to do that."

With the victory, the Braves move on to the semifinal round where they will meet No. 1 Westfield tomorrow at Westfield State University, beginning at 3:30.

Despite giving up the run, Niemiec (CG, 6 hits, 1 K) avoided further trouble in the frame, keeping the deficit to one run.

Mestre, bound for the University of New Haven next season, was nearly un-hittable throughout. The right-hander, using his fastball and slider exclusively, held the fourth-seeded Cardinals (14-8) to just two hits during his 7 2/3 innings on the hill. He also fanned eight. Remarkably, Mestre has yet to give up an earned run this season as he improves to 7-0.

"For me to get out of jams definitely gets my confidence up," said Mestre, who stranded runners in scoring position in three different frames. "I was able to get out of a few so my confidence was pretty high. I knew their one through five hitters can really hit the ball so I just tried to keep them off-balance as best I could which was key."

Coming out to begin the bottom of the eighth, Mestre quickly issued a walk to lead-off batter Colin McCarthy. Joe Salvon followed by fouling a bunt attempt that resulted in a questionable diving catch by catcher Brett Murphy. To the naked eye, it appeared as though Murphy trapped the ball. However umpires ruled it a catch. Moriarty was denied an appeal on the play.

Following the controversial out, Mestre (114 pitches) would be pulled in favor of closer Jake Flynn. The senior quickly got McCarthy out at second on a fielder's choice, but walked Kevin Murphy, putting two runners aboard. But Flynn bore down by getting Jake Leahy to fly out and end the game.

"Niemiec was fantastic for them today," said Braves 25-year head coach Kevin Stannard. "He continued to keep us off-balance. We really didn't have any good swings against him. He pitches to contact and his defense played well behind him. Jack has been great for us the past two years. We were waiting for someone to step up and today he was the guy. This is a great win for us moving forward."

These two clubs previously squared off a week ago, when Pope Francis handed Taconic its lone loss of the season, coming away with a 2-1 nine-inning triumph.

"Kudos to Taconic because they are very good and are very well-coached," Moriarty said. "Unfortunately, someone had to lose this game. It was two really good teams going at it just like it was a week ago. It was going to come down to who gets the timely hit with a runner in scoring position and today it was them. Both pitchers battled great throughout."

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