FRANKLIN, Mass. -– The Taunton High baseball team made history on Friday night at Longley Field on the campus of Dean College. The Tigers 3-2 victory over Franklin clinched the team’s first ever Hockomock League, Kelley-Rex division title.
Of course, this is only the first year that Taunton has played in the Hock.
“It means a lot; I can’t downplay this at all,” said a jubilant Taunton head coach Jeff Sylvia shortly after being doused by the obligatory bucket of water.
He continued, “We controlled our own destiny and that was the best thing. We didn’t need any help. First time in the league and it means that we are the first Taunton team to win the Hockomock. We’re just very excited.”
The Tigers (12-6, 11-4) scored the winning run in the top of the seventh inning. Pinch hitter Mike Bunker led-off with a base hit off Franklin starter Brendon Kuzio (6.1 IP, 6K, 7H, 2BB, 2ER, 115 pitches). With two strikes, number nine hitter Ben Clark laid down the perfect sacrifice bunt to move Bunker into scoring position. Brad Alconada followed with a hard hit grounder past third to plate the go ahead run.
Sylvia admitted after the game to having doubts about the decision to keep the bunt on with two strikes, but he trusted his player and it paid off.
He explained, “I was a little leery about bunting with two strikes but we had our best control guy up. We felt that we needed a guy in scoring position and once we turn the line-up over, like Ben has been doing, we had a shot.”
Connor Ladino, who reached base in three of his four at-bats, lined another base hit to chase Kuzio from the game. Panthers relief pitcher Andy Skaza came in to get a strikeout and a pop=up in foul ground to end the Taunton threat.
In the bottom of the seventh, Matt Nunes was brought in from right field to relieve starter Connor Johnson (6 IP, 1K, 8H, 2BB, HBP, 1ER, 84 pitches). Nunes showed no ill-effects from having pitched on Wednesday and struck out a pair of Franklin hitters to close out the win.
“Matt started yesterday lobbying to pitch today and when you have a player that wants the ball, there’s nobody better out there in the last inning with a one run lead,” remarked Sylvia.
It was Franklin (10-6, 8-6) that jumped into the lead in the second inning. Senior Neal Hart lined a triple to right to lead-off the inning. Drew Inglesi followed with a liner to Nunes, who fired home despite Hart staying at third base. The throw sailed and went out of play for an unearned run.
Taunton came right back in the top of the third with a pair of runs. Clark started the inning with a weak grounder that he beat out for an infield single. After a line-out and a walk to Ladino, designated hitter Sam Moor singled to center to drive in Clark, but the ball got by centerfielder Brandon Eccher (playing just his second game in the field this season because of injury) and Ladino scored from first to make it 2-1.
Kuzio retired 11 Taunton hitters in a row from the third inning to two outs in the sixth. This allowed the Franklin offense to manufacture a run to tie the game.
Freshman lead-off hitter Nick Santucci doubled to begin the fifth, was sacrificed to third by Anthony Chaiton, and the Tigers elected to intentionally walk Bryan Abbott, who was 2-2 to that point. Second baseman Tripper Rowean came through with a hard hit liner to center that was snared by a leaping Ladino, but was enough to get the run home.
The Panthers nearly took the lead in the sixth on a two-out rally. Chris Roche was hit by a pitch and Stephen Shea followed with a single. Santucci hit a grounder down the first base line that Johnson elected to field it himself and, in the process of tagging the runner, dropped the ball. Roche was waved around and tried to score, but the Tigers recovered the ball and threw him out by several feet.
“It was a gamble and we lost. We had to try something against him,” said Franklin head coach Dave Niro, who was disappointed that the team could not come through with the clutch hit that they needed, but sees improvement in his inexperienced squad.
There is plenty of respect between these two programs, which also met in the playoffs last season when the Tigers upset the top seeded Panthers.
“When you can beat a team like Franklin, we feel playoff ready,” said Sylvia.
Niro could only shrug and congratulate the new league champions.
“We just came up short today and they were the better team,” he said. “Tip our caps to Taunton, they’re well-coached, they play hard, and it was a good high school baseball game.”