SHREWSBURY, Mass. -- Although New Bedford and St. John’s of Shrewsbury have already punched their respective tickets to the Division 1 baseball postseason tournament, there was still plenty at stake as the two powers met this afternoon in a non-divisional showdown.
In the final regular-season game for both teams, the last thing either wanted was to head into next month’s tourney with a loss. With that notion in the back of their collective minds, something had to give.
From St. John’s standpoint it did. Behind Mike Sullivan’s 5 RBI outing, the Pioneers clipped the Whalers 9-3 at Pioneer Field to improve to 20-2 having now won 12 straight. St. John’s, which lost to the New Bedford back on April 25th, avenged that defeat by putting this contest away early, scoring three times in the second inning and adding three more the following frame.
“We wanted to go into the tournament with some momentum,” said Pioneers coach Charlie Eppinger, who team was playing its third game in as many days after defeating Algonquin and Wachusett on Friday and Saturday, respectively. “We had games Friday, Saturday and Sunday so we knew this weekend was going to be a testament to our mental toughness. You’ve got graduation going on here and other things and these guys are tired.
"But I thought we showed a lot of heart and a lot of self-discipline to win our last three ball games. I’m really impressed with my team in how they handled these last three days.”
St. John’s starter Ben White (5-0) was not as sharp as in previous outings. But nonetheless, the junior righthander had enough in the tank on this hot afternoon to last six innings, allowing 2 runs on 9 hits and striking out 4.
Like St. John's, New Bedford also had a grueling stretch of contests on its schedule. Playing their third game in 24 hours, having defeated Oliver Ames Saturday morning before falling to Brockton later that evening, the Whalers (13-7) were able to mount some pressure on White early.
They blew a chance to score a run in the opening inning after Chandler Debrosse was gunned down at the plate by St. John’s center fielder Jimmy Smith after trying to score from second on a Rick Moraes single. The next inning New Bedford left three on base with nothing to show for it.
In the Pioneers' half of the second, they refused to let their opportunities on the base paths slip by. With two out and Owen Shea on second, Sullivan cracked a single to center plating Shea with St. John’s first run. Connor Kurtz followed with a triple extending the lead to two, and moments later PJ Browne grounded a single past second baseman Jake Souza sending Kurtz home with the Pioneers' third run off of Whalers' starter J.T. Sylvia (3 IP, 6 runs, 7 hits, 1 K).
After coming away empty-handed in their first two times at bat, New Bedford finally answered the call in the third. Javier Lozada started things with a lead-off single. White would retire the next two batters before walking Jon Finnerty. Kyle Prudhomme came to the plate next and grounded a single off of Kurtz’s glove at second base scoring Lozada. Finnerty would follow Lozada in a short time later thanks to Sylvia's single cutting the deficit at 3-2.
But any momentum gained by New Bedford had soon vanished in the bottom of the frame as the Pioneer offense continued to wreak havoc on Sylvia. Smith opened with a bunt single and proceeded to steal second and third. Two outs later Scott Manea lofted a soft single to center scoring Smith. Jake Byrne kept things alive with another single. Up stepped Sullivan, whose hot bat stayed that way, as he launched a shot off the top of the right field fence for an two-run double extending the Pioneers lead to 6-2.
“I saw the ball good today but we got the win and that’s all that matters,” said Sullivan, a junior. “In practice we work a lot on two-out, situational hitting. We do things like bunt runners over and then try to get them in. Today we were able to do that very well.”
With Finnerty on in relief of Sylvia to open the fourth, the senior was able to stop the bleeding as he kept the Pioneers off the board over the next four innings. But in the St. John’s eighth, the offense re-awoke. Sullivan blasted a two out, two-run triple and Kurtz followed with an RBI single which put the Pioneers ahead by seven.
"Mike has a great swing," Eppinger said. "Earlier in the year we saw a great swing during batting practice but not in games. It just wasn't translating. It was just a matter of confidence with him I feel and him going up to the plate with a mentality that I can hit and I am going to do this. He's been really swinging the bat well lately which is a credit to him and also a credit to his teammates for pushing him."
New Bedford managed a solo run in the ninth on a Mike Rapoza RBI single against Browne, who had come on in relief in the seventh. But the Whalers slim chances at a comeback were just that as they drew no closer.
"You can't give good teams extra outs and at times I thought we did that," New Bedford coach John Seed said. "We also left a lot of runners on base early on and couldn't come up with that big hit. That's going to hurt you. You need to take advantage of those opportunities.
"When we get chances to score like that we have to. St. John's is a good team and obviously you need to play at your best to beat them. But now the pre-season, as I call it, is over and it's time to get ready for the tournament. I think we'll be ok. Everyone is 0-0 to start so we'll see what happens."