LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- The way St. Peter-Marian came out swinging the bats and piling up the runs early on, it would have been an easy decision for Leominster head coach Rich Barnaby to remove starting pitcher Tanner Jakola. Through the first two innings, the Guardians had jumped all over the right-hander, scoring five times and collecting six hits.
But what some at Doyle Field may have expected never did. The first-year head coach of the Blue Devils had enough confidence in his senior by allowing him to remain on the mound. The decision would pay off nicely as Jakola got stronger and more-confident as the game progressed.
Over the final five frames, Jakola allowed just one hit, while his teammates answered the bell at the plate, coming from behind to post a 7-6 victory Saturday afternoon.
"I never lost confidence in my defense and I knew we could get those runs back because there was still a lot of game left," said Jakola. "I had full-confidence in my team. I know we have the best defense in our league and they're always behind me 100 percent, and as we also proved, we can get it done with the bats too."
The Blue Devils' comeback journey began in the third. With one out, Neil O'Connor reached on an infield single. Guardians starter Steven Albert then plunked Tyler Vaillette before serving up a double to Brennan Cuddahy that scored O'Connor to make it 5-1.
Albert (2 1/3 IP 2 hits, 3 HBP's) was removed in favor Danny Bushe. But the senior righty started off by walking Brett Corliss to load the bases. Nick Cordio then laced a double down the left field line plating two more runs. Corliss, standing on third, came home a short time later with Leominster's fourth run after Bushe was charged with a balk.
"When we got that four spot in the third inning I knew we could come back in this one," Jakola said. "I was feeling very confident after that. My change-up was working early but I kind of lost that and starting going with my curve ball more and was trying to spot my fastball on the outside corners. As the game went on I was just trying to throw strikes and make (SPM) earn it."
In an instant, the Guardians' big lead and momentum had vanished. The smiles early on now showed a look of shock. That demeanor only worsened once Jakola had found his rhythm on the hill, showing more-consistency with his pitch selection and location. All of a sudden, SPM (7-3) couldn't buy a hit off of him. The same couldn't be said for the Blue Devils.
The four-run third gave this team a much-needed boost. In its half of the fourth, Leominster would take the lead for good. Ryan Lever led things off by looping double just inside the right field foul line. One out later O'Connor was struck yet again by a pitch.
Vaillette followed by grounding a ball to shortstop. But Nate Frederick failed to field it cleanly which allowed Lever to sprint home from third with the tying run. Pat Gallagher was brought in to relieve Bushe, who appeared to injure his right shoulder and was taken out for precautionary reasons. Gallagher immediately served up a wild pitch which scored O'Connor from third and give Leominster a 6-5 lead.
O'Connor's solo home run over the left field fence in the sixth upped the Blue Devils lead to a pair. To their credit, the Guardians refused to go down quietly in their half of the seventh. Jon Crimmin opened with a walk and eventually came around to score on a wild pitch to cut the deficit to a run.
With Eric LaCaire (walk) standing on first representing the tying run with two out, Jakola induced Gallagher to pop out to end the game and secure the improbable triumph.
"Tanner didn't give in," said Barnaby, his team having now won three straight to improve to 7-3. "That is why I left him out there. That is what seniors are suppose to do. When adversity struck he picked up the ball and kept getting us outs, and then the offense picked him up from there. We don't worry about this group when adversity hits. We knew if we just kept plugging away we would have our opportunities and when we did we were able to execute."
The way SPM started out in this one, you figured the Blue Devils would be in for a long afternoon. Jakola retired the first two batters he faced before Jack Riley smashed a double to center and came home moments later on Frederick's single. LaCaire then reached on an error by Lever at shortstop. Both Frederick and LaCaire would cross the plate shortly thereafter following another Lever miscue on a ground ball from Mike Pezzano to lead 3-0.
The Guardians kept it rolling one inning later. Brandon O'Connor legged out an infield single and Riley belted his second double to right. Frederick then took an 0-2 letter-high fastball deep to center for a double, sending O'Connor and Riley home. But from there, Jakola went into lockdown mode as he was able to stifle SPM's high-octane offense the rest of the way.
"Our pitchers had trouble throwing strikes and when they did, Leominster was sitting on it," Guardians head-coach Ed Riley said. "When you give a good team like Leominster a chance to comeback that's what will happen to you. They took advantage of our non-strike throwing ability today. When you give a team like that opportunities they will take advantage of it.
"They got some timely hits when they needed to. I told our kids to not think about any rankings or the Super 8 tournament, etc. I just want us to focus on our next game (Sunday vs. Grafton). I think sometimes kids get caught up in that stuff and, for us, we just need to focus on getting back to the basics of playing solid, fundamental baseball. If we don't then we won't be going anywhere."