WORCESTER, Mass. -- The sun was setting in the distance behind Fitton Field’s left field foul pole as Leominster’s Neil O’Connor was putting the finishing touches on his team’s season.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Norwood’s John Galvin stepped into the batter’s box. The senior had himself a strong tournament run until that point. He went 4-for-4 at the plate and threw a complete game against Andover in the Eastern Mass. Finals. He was 1-for-3 with an RBI and pitched three strong innings until that point.
His team’s season was in the balance and he was able to work a full count. O’Connor went with a high fastball and it was enough to put Galvin away. O’Connor threw his glove high in the air, higher than the protective netting behind home place.
Leominster defeated Norwood 6-1 in the Division 1 State Baseball Final. It is the fourth baseball state title in school history.
“Leominster is a baseball town,” said Blue Devils coach Rich Barnaby. “I was on the 1996 team, which is the last state title team we had. It’s the fourth time we’ve been here and the fourth time we’ve won it. It means a lot to the community.”
Barnaby played third base on that state championship team. Leominster also won state titles in 1986 and 1988.
His team got on the board first in the top of the third on a perfectly executed suicide squeeze by Brett Corliss. Nick Cordio opened the inning by hitting a rocket to deep left that one-hopped the wall. He advanced to third on a groundout before being knocked in on a well-placed bunt down the first base line.
Norwood tied it in the bottom of the inning when Denis Drummey scored from second on Galvin’s base knock to center. There was going to be a play at the plate, but Corliss’ throw was high enough for Drummey to slide in under the tag.
Leominster tacked on four more runs in the fourth, two coming on wild pitches. Another came on a Corliss sacrifice bunt.
The Blue Devils were able to use small ball tactics to move runners over and put them in position to capitalize on Norwood’s mistakes. When it appeared the bleeding was going to be stopped after one run in the fourth, David Barry’s grounder to second was mishandled by Connor Flynn. All runners were safe and it went on to score two more runs in the inning.
“Since the first practice, Coach has always been preaching small ball, do the little things to get the runs,” said O’Connor. “It payed off. We had a couple of big hits and a couple of big squeezes that helped us out today.”
Neil is nifty: O’Connor threw 98 pitches in the complete game effort, striking out six and only surrendering 4 hits and two walks. His most effective pitch Saturday was his curveball. The University of New Hampshire football commit was able to throw it at any point in the count and keep hitters off balance. He controlled it enough so it caught the inside corner of the plate against right-handed hitters.
“Coach was calling a good game and my curveball was working,” he said. “They’re a very good fastball hitting team and when they sit on the curve they can hit that too. I was just trying to mix it up and keep them guessing as much as I could.”
O’Connor’s curve was so nasty that it began fooling righties into thinking the ball was coming at them. Normally, a hitter takes his first stride toward the pitcher in order to generate power upon contact. Some Norwood hitters were taking their first step backwards away from the plate, believing the pitch was coming in high and tight before it eventually drifted back over the plate for strikes.
“He almost has more confidence in his curveball,” said Barnaby. “The one thing about playing a team we’ve never played before, it took us one or two times through the lineup to adjust to their hitters. They’ve got some good hitters, and they put some good contact on it. That’s a good team.”
Case for Super 8? Entering this postseason, there was discussion and complaints from Central and Western Mass. baseball fans and media regarding no Division 1A “Super 8” tournament representation from those regions. Many had differing opinions of how strong a Central Mass. schedule was in comparison to Eastern Mass. teams. When it came time to select the field, Leominster was one of the teams caught on the outside looking in. The tournament selection committee chose to nominate St. John’s of Shrewsbury for consideration over the 16-4 Blue Devils.
This state title win will only strengthen the argument that Leominster should have been in the “Super 8,” but players were not using the win as an opportunity to gloat Saturday.
“We were just trying to play baseball,” said O’Connor regarding the win. “We tried to do whatever we could. Whatever games we played, we tried to win. We just left it at that. We’re happy with where we are right now.”
Throughout the season, coaches have been more outspoken than the players regarding their teams’ respective candidacy. Of the teams left out, Leominster certainly has the ability to say “See? I told you so.”
“All year, our philosophy was control what you can control,” said Barnaby. “If we’re in the Super 8, we’re in the Super 8. If we’re not, we’re going to try to beat everyone the MIAA wants us to beat. We kind of kept a positive spin. On the bus today, I said, ‘Hey, if we don’t beat this team, the Super 8 is right, we don’t belong. If we beat them, maybe next year they’ll consider a Central Mass. team.”