LOWELL, Mass. -– The fire remained within.
Matt Tulley leaned against the fence at the top of Lowell High’s dugout, arms outstretched, and gazed out at the BC High players warming up in the outfield at Alumni Field. He was his usual self -– that is, quiet, calm, relaxed, but locked in.
“Do you have the time, sir?” he politely called out to a nearby reporter in the dugout.
“Quarter past,” the reporter responded, and the senior righthander flashed a small grin. Forty-five minutes before first pitch meant time to warm up, time to go to work, time to buckle down and brace himself for one of the state’s best hitting lineups.
Tulley earned a scholarship to Virginia Tech this past offseason in part for the low-90’s velocity and late life on his fastball, but also for his competitive streak. In the big games, Tulley always wants the ball, and he never gives off signs of panic.
Unlike his earlier starts this season, there weren't scouts visibly out front, radar gun in tow, clocking his every pitch warming up in the bullpen. Tonight was a change of pace –- a capacity crowd for “Senior Night”, charting each of his strikeouts with “K” signs posted just below the press box windows –- and as usual, he rose to the occasion.
To end the first inning he delivered the looping 12-to-6 curveball that has become his vicious outpitch, and punched the air as he stormed back to the dugout. The next time up, Tulley ran into some trouble when an Eagles baserunner took two bases off a throwing error by Tulley on the pickoff to first. Head coach Danny Graham walked out to the mound to calm him down; Tulley exhaled, and retired the next batter to end the inning.
More trouble came in the fifth, when Rich Roach raced home on a wild pitch and easily beat Tulley’s would-be tag at home plate, tying it up at 1. Roach appeared to mutter something as he got up, and Tulley jawed right back. Tulley then got No. 2 hitter Ryan Tufts looking on another breaking ball to end the inning.
“Kid slides into home, beats the throw, Matt tags him, no big deal,” Graham said. “Kid says something to him, Matt says something right back. It probably lit a little fire under his a--. He is kind of mellow, a little bit laid-back sometimes, but the fire is within.”
More trouble in the sixth. UConn-bound cleanup hitter Bobby Melley crushed one off the wall in left-center, for a stand-up triple, then came home on another passed ball.
You get the idea by now -– Tulley grabbed the ball, and finished what he started. That was the final hit Tulley allowed, as he struck out 11 batters with just four hits scattered to pick up his fourth win of the season. That accompanies a pretty decent job at the plate, which included a sacrifice bunt and an RBI double.
“I knew I had to not just be on my A-game, but my A-plus game,” Tulley said. “They were coming for me, and everyone else.”
“His pitch count’s getting up there, I don’t know whether I’m going to have to make a move or not, how tired he’s getting,” Graham said. “When he came in in the sixth, he grabbed the pitching chart, and he’s studying it. And I know he’s not studying it for our relief pitchers that are coming in.
“So maybe that did ring true in the back of his head. This is a meaningful spot for him, with a two-run lead, and if there’s anybody out there finishing this game out, I want it to be me.”
Tulley went into the last offseason with some kinks to be worked out with his curve. And so he went to a local legend, Mark Deschenes, a Lowell native and UMass-Lowell star who at one point was one of the Cleveland Indians’ top pitching prospects. Among other things, Deschenes stressed the importance of not tipping his pitches, and keeping a consistent release point.
To say it’s worked would be fair. Whereas a year ago at this time, Tulley went mostly fastball-cutter, he was now pounding four pitches for strikes. Half of his strikeouts tonight came by way of the backwards-K.
“Coming into this season, I didn’t think my curveball was going to be my plus pitch,” Tulley said. “But it has been all year. I could always throw it for a strike.”
Noted BC High head coach Norm Walsh, “It’s not so much the fastball, it’s the ability to change speeds on the breaking balls. He goes from the hard slider to the softer curve with a bigger break to it. And he competes – that’s the biggest thing.”
And to that last point, Tulley recalled a recent conversation with Graham, where the coach reminisced about legendary former Peabody hurler Jeff Allison, a former first-round draft pick seemingly destined for a promising big league career before highly-publicized off-field issues derailed the path.
In Allison, Graham always appreciated the gritty side. Asked about recalling the conversation with Tulley, Graham lit up.
“Grittiness, that’s it,” he said. “I think people want to see grittiness. They want to see you be the guy that wants the ball in the most meaningful spots in the game. That’s it. If you’ve got something in the tank to give, they want to see it.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to show emotion out there, it’s just the grittiness. It’s in your body language, it’s your presence out there on the mound. Just showing it.”
Across the basepath, Tulley’s toughness drew praise from Walsh as well.
“He gets right back up on the mound, and he wants to go right after you,” Walsh said. “That’s exactly what you want to see in a pitcher. Be aggressive, go after hitters. Melley took him deep and he’s right back up there, and that’s exactly what you want from a pitcher.
“Nothing phases him. The passed ball, wild pitch, whatever you want to call it, he didn’t care. He went right back out and threw it again.”