SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Must-win is a term often over-saturated by its use in the world of sport. Coaches refer to it regularly whether their team sits in first place or dead last. In essence, not every game has to be considered a must-win.
But on Thursday, the term held relevance for one club desperately in search of a victory -- not only to lift their depleted spirits, but get them over the hump for a postseason berth.
St. Peter-Marian has been reeling of late, wondering if its hot start to the season had deserted them for good. All indications seemed to point that way before a sophomore pitcher gave the Guardians the lift they needed. Pat Gallagher baffled the Springfield Cathedral batters throughout his six innings of work, limiting the Panthers to no runs on just two hits en route to a convincing 5-0 triumph at Walker Grandstand on the grounds of Forest Park.
An unknown commodity up until this point, Gallagher showed no signs of nerves against one of the more productive programs in the state. The righthander effectively kept his fastball low in the zone while mixing in his breaking pitches to keep the Panthers off-balance.
"I was just trying to throw strikes out there and let them hit to the defense," said Gallagher, who also picked up four K's. "I think this win gets our confidence back and we're just going to go out rolling from here on out."
With the win, SPM improves to 10-6 overall and, in the process, earned themselves a postseason berth. It marks the 42nd time in the last 43 years the Guardians are playoff bound. After opening the season 7-2, SPM had gone 2-4 since May 3 before today's triumph.
"Pat is our MVP of this game," SPM head coach Ed Riley said. "He's only 15 years-old. To go out there and face a good team like that, I really didn't know what to expect today. All I know is when Pat gets on the mound he's an animal. If you can pitch like that against this type of team, that's something he can really build on.
"I told him to just go out there and relax. There is a lot of good things we saw today out of him and some other kids. As a coach, I didn't know where we were going of late. We weren't getting blown out but we also weren't playing good baseball either. Today was very positive and hopefully it will continue moving forward."
Before Gallagher ever took the mound, his teammates had already supplied him with a comfort zone. In the top half of the first, the Guardians jumped on Cathedral starter Peter Crinella for three runs. Mike Pezzano led things off with a walk.
Brandon O'Connor followed with a single. Now in an early hole, Crinella -- facing SPM's best hitter, Jack Riley -- tried to throw a fastball below the senior's hands. But Riley stayed with the pitch, unloading a deep triple to right field to make it 2-0. Moments later, Riley would cross the plate courtesy of Nate Frederick's ground out.
Crinella, a junior, who has been effective as the Panther's No. 2 pitcher all season, settled down after that, allowing just three more hits before exiting with two outs in the sixth.
"I felt we never quite got settled into this game," Cathedral head coach Pat Moriarty said. "Pete kept us in the game for a while and he is an ultimate competitor. After giving up three runs in the first it didn't get him down. We asked him to give us a shot and to keep us in the game for a while and he did that. But kudos to St. Peter-Marian. They played a nice game today."
Through the first four innings, Gallagher never allowed a Panther beyond first base as the Guardians defense stood tall by turning a pair of double plays and Gallagher picking off a runner. In the fifth, Cathedral senior Matt Kenney tried to will his club back into this affair by ripping a two out double. But Gallagher struck out Kevin Hassett to silence the threat.
The Panthers (11-6) did themselves no favors. This loss, coupled with Tuesday night's defeat against Westfield, may have hurt their chances considerably for a Super 8 berth. Obviously, they will need to finish out the regular season strong to endure any consideration for an invite.
"We've got to score," Moriarty added. "When you don't score things magnify immensely. We knew a couple of weeks ago that we were going to hit the toughest part of our schedule beginning this week. The loss to Westfield stung a little bit but I thought we were ready coming into this game. We just fell behind early today and couldn't get it back."
The way Gallagher was pitching, as the game progressed, so too was a belief that three runs would be enough. But for safe measure, SPM would add a couple more in its half of the sixth. With one out, Frederick singled and took second on a wild pitch. After Crinella induced Eric LaCaire to ground out, the righty served up a run-scoring double to Jon Crimmin.
Gallagher then helped his own cause by lining a single left plating Crimmin and put an end to Crinella's day.
Gallagher retired Cathedral in order in the bottom of the inning but began the seventh by walking Andrew Noonan.
Riley, the team's ace, was brought in to close this one out. The UConn-bound lefty, who will also play this summer for the newly-formed Worcester Bravehearts of the Futures League, started things by picking Noonan off at first and then recorded outs from two of the next three batters he faced to seal it for the Guardians.
"We usually jump ahead of teams but don't finish things," Jack Riley said. "But we finally finished it today. We needed this win very badly. We sort of lost our mojo last week and I think we just got it back. The whole team contributed to this win and Pat pitched great for us."