WALPOLE, Mass. -- The Xaverian Hawks entered the MIAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed in Division 1 South at 12-8, but understandably mushrooming with confidence, having entered the tournament with 10 losses each of the last two seasons only to advance to a state final one year and district final the next.
And so, in a sport once famously conjectured as "90 percent half-mental", perhaps Yogi Berra's wisdom is the best explanation for why Hawks starter Nick Ahearn took a quick side bullpen session following the top of the first inning, after retiring the first three batters in a row. Perhaps he, like his teammates, was so fired up that he was overthrowing it across the plate.
Whatever the case, the senior righthander worked out whatever kinks he had. He surrendered three runs in the fifth, but by then his batsmen had already spotted him a nine-run lead, and he retired the last 10 batters he faced as the Hawks went on to win 9-3 over No. 2 seed Walpole, before a lively capacity crowd behind Walpole's Johnson Middle School.
Xaverian -- which sat at 5-7 on May 6 -- improves to 13-8, and travels to Silver Lake tomorrow afternoon for a D1 South Quarterfinal. Walpole ended its season at 18-3.
"[After the side session] I kinda found my fastball," Ahearn said. "It helped my off-speed a lot too. And then the score, it's always nice pitching with a cushion like that. You can go right at the hitters."
Ahearn is not one to rack up an impressive number of strikeouts, or blow by the meat of an order with high-velocity heat. But he's been one of several reliable arms for the Hawks over the last month of ball. Today, he threw 109 pitches in eight innings, scattering five hits and striking out two while allowing three earned runs.
"I was just trying to find my release on the fastball," he said. "I was kinda coming around on it, spiking it down to the left side of the batter's box, kinda scraping the ball. The heartbeat's going a little bit, you know?"
Elsewhere -- i.e., in the batter's box -- that overconfidence was welcomed. The Hawks were aggressive without being overly aggressive, taking cuts at first-pitch strikes but never losing control of the at bat.
Up 1-0 to start the inning, Tyler Campo plated the first run of the fourth by drawing a four-pitch walk with the bases loaded. Chris Hoyt made it 4-0 on the next at bat when he blasted a 1-2 looping curve into centerfield. Ahearn added to the mix with a line drive to right for a 5-0 advantage.
Three at bats later, Fairfield-bound outfielder Tim Duggan ripped a two-run single. He was immediately followed by Mike LaVita, who cleared the bases with a stand-up double for a 9-0 lead.
"To get all those runs, and to get that win is a huge momentum swing," said Hoyt. "We've come in that last two seasons as a low seed and taken out a top seed. It's just great any time you can get that."
Playing to protect -- and serve: Most impressive about the Hawks' six-hit, eight-run fourth inning is that all of the runs came with two outs.
"We talk about the same thing all the time -- two outs, you just want to put the ball in play," head coach Gerry Lambert said. "You don't want to take a third strike to end the inning. You want to put the ball in play to make a play."
Referring to a hit during the inning that took a wild bounce in front of Walpole shortstop Johnny Adams -- likely a routine putout for the Boston College commit in less soggier conditions -- Lambert continued, "That's a tough play [anyways], but he's one of the few guys that can make that play. It was wicked, it almost ricocheted over his head, but we catch a break there.
"Mike LaVita might have been the only guy in that string who didn't have a two-strike hit. And two-out, two-strike hits are huge. They make the difference in so many baseball games, [and] they certainly made the difference today."
Here they come -- again: Stop if you've heard this before: the Hawks are ready to make another deep run in Division 1 South and beyond, with a fresh stable of arms to go to -- and, for the first time all year, completely healthy, with Austin DeCarr looking like he may finally be over the shoulder issues that have sidelined the flamethrowing junior for most of the spring.
OK, now raise your hand if you thought you'd be waking up on June 6 and there would be just one Catholic Conference school left in the MIAA baseball tournament -- and that one team was the Hawks, not BC High or St. John's Prep.
The tournament took a turn for the astutely wild on Tuesday afternoon, with a chunk of the state's heavy hitters in Division 1 taking hits across the state. First, BC High succumbed to a terrific outing by Framingham ace Johnnie Lacy and fell 3-2 to the Flyers. Next up was St. John's Prep, which faltered 7-4 to Newton North.
North and Framingham entered the tournament a combined 21-17 and the middle of the pack in the wood-bat, nine-inning Bay State Conference. Outside of I-495, D1 contenders Milford (10-4, to St. Peter-Marian) and Springfield Cathedral (6-2, to Springfield Central) were upset by teams with a combined 18 regular-season losses.
What does it all mean for Xaverian? It means the runway is a little bit cleaner, but by no means any safer. Still, it's hard to look past recent history. The Hawks are certainly confident.
"It seems like we always do this," Hoyt said. "We always scuffle to get into the tournament, and we're 10-10, or 11-9, or 12-8, and then we just kind of save all our energy for the tournament. We play great defense, throw strikes and hit well."