SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Never mistake St. John's of Shrewsbury head coach Charlie Eppinger as being the calm, cool, collective type. Eppinger coaches the game with great enthusiasm.
But following Tuesday afternoon's intense 4-3 eight-inning triumph over Springfield Cathedral (1-1) at Michael T. Downey Fields at Forest Park, the Pioneers' front man needed to take a step back for a moment, exhaling a few sighs of relief and knowing full-well his team was able to escape hostile territory in securing this win.
In its season opener, this new-look St. John's (1-0) club showed tremendous grit, fortitude and stamina to fend off a very talented Panthers squad.
Trailing by a run heading into the final inning, the Pioneers piece together a couple of big hits to tie matters before scoring a pair of runs in the eighth to prevail.
"I just told (St. John's pitcher/outfielder) Ian Seymour I might not live to see my grandkids after a game like this one," laughed Eppinger. "It was a great first game. These guys have really come together quickly and have come together well. We lost a lot of players from last year but our returning guys and some of our newer players have really gelled together quite well."
With this tilt knotted 2-2 entering the eighth, St. John's moved ahead to stay. It all started with a leadoff walk to the sophomore Seymour, who then stole second on a close play. Moments later, however, Seymour appeared to be picked off by relief pitcher Peter Crinella.
Following an argument from Eppinger, umpires got together and decided to reverse their call, calling Seymour safe after concurring that the ball had hit the ground before the tag was made. Cathedral head coach Pat Moriarty came out to object but the reversal stood.
As a result, the call paid huge dividends for the Pioneers. Tyler McKeon then proceeded to smash a one-out fly to deep right that was dropped by right fielder Dan Petrick allowing Seymour to come home with the go-ahead run. Senior Kevin Quinlivan followed with a triple to center to plate McKeon, putting St. John's on top by a pair.
"Originally we were getting guys on base, moving them over but just weren't getting the runs in," Quinlivan said. "Some of the guys were getting a little frustrated at the plate and started jumping on some bad pitches. But we never let up and grinded things out. It feels good to get the win in our first game of the year. It really builds up a lot of momentum for us moving forward."
Although staked to a two-run advantage, the way this one was being played out, it never felt safe. In the bottom of the frame, Seymour -- who came on in relief of starter Dan Barlok with one out in the fifth -- opened things by walking Cam Griffin and Crinella. Matt Cieboter reached on a fielder's choice with Crinella forced out at second. Cieboter then stole second but the throw down sailed into centerfield allowing Griffin to come home easily.
With Cieboter representing the tying run at second, Seymour got out of the jam by inducing the next two Cathedral batters to pop out to close things out.
The Pioneers took a 1-0 lead in the opening frame on an RBI groundout by Quinlivan. Over the course of the first five innings, St. John's had ample opportunities to pad its lead. Panthers starter Nick Sears went the first 3 2/3 innings on the mound, allowing 1 run on 3 hits but walked six. Yet the senior was able to dodge away from trouble thanks to some solid defense behind him, and his ability of keeping hitters off-balance by changing speeds.
As a result, the Pioneers stranded 10 base runners (six in scoring position) against Sears and reliever Petrick over the first six innings.
One scenario in particular stood out from the others in the top of the fifth. Sam Shaw (three hits) opened the frame by doubling to right-centerfield and advanced to third on Derek Lefebvre's bunt single. With Lefebvre taking off for second on a delayed steal, Panther shortstop Kris Alvarado alertly cut off the throw and fired a strike to the plate to cut down Shaw, in the double steal attempt.
"Overall, I thought we played pretty good defense today," said Moriarty. "We're used to playing defense with guys on base and pitching with guys on base. I thought we played scrappy but were a little over-whelmed at the beginning. I thought we adjusted to (Barlok's) velocity as the game wore on. I just wish we had executed a little better on offense."
On the other side, Barlok -- a senior headed to Holy Cross next year -- was tearing through the Panthers early, able to keep his one run lead intact. The hard-throwing righty held the Panthers hitless over the first first four frames. But after recording the first two outs of the fifth with ease, Barlok ran into trouble when a throw to first on Aiden Tiernan's grounder went wide, allowing him to advance to second.
Griffin then came up to the plate and broke up Barlok's no-hit bid by lashing an opposite field single to left to tie the game 1-1. With Griffin taking second on the throw to the plate, Crinella followed by hitting a hard grounder to Rosen that wasn't fielder cleanly as it rolled onto the edge of the outfield grass. Griffin, who never stopped running on the play, came around to score, putting Cathedral in front 2-1.
With Petrick keeping the Pioneers off the scoreboard and three outs from securing the victory, he ran into trouble in the seventh. After getting Craig Corliss to open by grounding out, Shaw smashed his second double of the game.
With Pat Galvin pinch-running, Crinella -- who started Cathedral's season-opening win versus Agawam on Monday -- was brought in to close things out. But on an 0-2 pitch to Lefebvre, Crinella threw a bender that caught too much of the plate. Lefebvre, a junior, lined a sharp single to center plating Galvin and pull St. John's even.
Crinella was able to retire the next to batters to move this contest into extra frames before the Pioneers had just enough to squeak this one out one inning later.
"We talked about adversity and realize we are going to see adversity throughout this season," Eppinger said. "We asked our kids how are you going to handle adversity when it comes? Down one run in the top of the seventh was a good example. We had already left what seemed like a million runners on base. But then we were able to battle back. Shaw comes up with his third big hit of the game in the seventh and Lefebvre did a great job in his at-bat right after. Overall, this was a huge team win for us."