BRAINTREE, Mass. -– It wasn’t intuition that prompted Dwayne Follette to call for one of the most daring unorthodox plays in a coaching career at Plymouth North practically defined by the unorthodox.
It wasn’t body language, a tip-off, a quirk, or anything of the such that got Follette the itch to try out a play they had just worked on a day earlier during practice –- part wheel play, part psyche-out -– at the most crucial point of the Division 2 South baseball final no less.
It was basic inhibition, really.
But North starter and winning pitcher Jake Stearns put it more bluntly: “That’s Dwayne Ball right there for you.”
The defending Division 2 state champion Eagles captured their fourth South title in five seasons with a gutsy pickoff play in the bottom of the seventh inning, holding a 4-2 lead but with Dighton-Rehoboth runners on first and second base. Third baseman Vinny Tavernelli and first baseman John Myette charged for home crouched in anticipation of a bunt, screaming “Bunt!” all the while.
Nevermind that Falcons freshman batter Ryan Murphy wasn’t even showing bunt. D-R’s pinch-runner on second took two hard steps towards third before realizing what was going on; by then, North second baseman Jamie Dougherty had broken for first, and shortstop David Murphy slipped behind second base to make the 1-6 pickoff tag.
Follette slammed his hat to the ground and exploded in euphoria. Behind him, the capacity crowd at Braintree High’s field was ecstatic. The Falcons managed to get one run across the plate, but the Eagles retired the final two batters to come away with the 4-3 victory.
“It happens to me all the time -– you put in a pinch-runner, they always make mistakes,” Follette explained. “That’s what prompted me to do it...They had to bunt, right? They had their No. 7 hitter up, that’s a bunt situation, so that’s what prompted me.”
Prodded further about whether there was any body language that tipped him towards that decision, Follette continued, “No, when he pinch-ran, really. Happens to me a lot. You put a pinch runner in and he wants to do something special. They’re over-anxious. Pinch-runners are always over-anxious.
“He didn’t do that bad of a job, he just creeped off one step too much and we got him. We executed it perfectly.”
Added David Murphy, “It actually doesn’t work that much in practice. I can’t believe it worked, and it turned out to be a great play.”
This all clouds, our course, the fact that the Falcons were still in danger of tying it up and sending it to extras. After the successful pickoff, Ryan Murphy ground out to first, for the unassisted second out. The next batter, Shane Gousie, scored pinch-runner Nate Swartz from second with an RBI single. But on the next at bat, the senior lefty Stearns (5 hits allowed) jammed Dave Araujo into a 5-3 to clinch the win.
Down 2-0 after one inning, the Eagles got one back in the second inning when Myette swiped home on a passed ball. They pulled ahead in the fifth with back to back RBI singles, first from Connor Follette, followed by David Murphy, who was thrown out at first on a routine 6-3 but scored Dougherty.
North tacked on some insurance in the sixth with an RBI single from its No. 9 hitter, junior centerfielder Ryan Moskos.
Stearns settles down: The start to Stearns’ night on the hill for North went exactly like Friday’s semifinal against Oliver Ames, when staff ace Alex Rozak let up a two-run shot to the second batter of the first stanza (the Eagles went on to win, 12-3).
Tonight, in the second at bat in the bottom of the first, D-R’s Evan Mondor (2 for 3, 2 RBI) took an 0-1 pitch deep over the fence in left-center for an immediate 2-0 lead. But just like Rozak, Stearns settled down after that, going right at the aggressive D-R batters with a fastball that had plenty of movement on it tonight.
D-R is one of the state’s premier hitting teams, loaded with college-ready talent like Adam Benvie (UMass) and Bryan Rocha (Bentley) and hitting around .400 as a team all season long. Yet tonight, the Falcons were held to just five hits.
“I’ve always said the mark of a Plymouth North team is quality pitching, and we’re getting it,” Follette said. “Jake Stearns just did that. He was awesome. He was tough.”
Stearns was deferential to his teammates playing behind him when asked about his performance on the mound.
“[There was] big plays in the field all around,” Stearns said. “It’s easy to throw strikes and get the job done when everyone’s making plays behind you.”
(Half) Decade of D2 Dominance: The Eagles are returning to the Division 2 Eastern Mass final for the fourth time in five seasons, having won state titles in 2008 and last year, and losing to Auburn in 2009’s state final.
They came into this tournament with seven losses, but just like the 16-8 Xaverian team that won the D1 South title just before their game, an air of confidence from all of that playoff experience.
“We have plenty of experience, we’ve all been in the playoffs a lot,” Stearns said. “We figured the seed doesn’t matter, we come here and [try to] put on a six-game win streak and become state champs. Right now, we’re two wins away.”
This team is a different look from last year’s row of long-ball mashers, led by All-State catcher Matt Walsh. What the Eagles lack in power they make up for in speed, and they’ve rode those small-ball tactics back to the Eastern Mass. Finals yet again. For that, this year feels especially rewarding.
“It’s awesome. It’s definitely rewarding,” David Murphy said. “We had a bunch of seniors last year carry us throughout the way, we had a great team last year. But a lot of players stepped up this year, and we look great.”