WORCESTER, Mass. -- Mason Johnson was itching for a shot at redemption.
The Tabor Academy third baseman had made a costly error in the fifth inning of Saturday night's championship game of the Thomas Blackburn Tournament, which allowed Cushing Academy to score a pair of runs to take the lead.
The Penguins would add a few more runs to their total one inning later to go up by four, and entering the seventh, they were just three outs away from securing the Central New England Prep School Baseball League title. But the top-seeded Seawolves maintained their never-say-die attitude. They started to peck away at the deficit during their final at-bats.
Four runs from a different set of circumstances allowed them to tie the game. Then, with the bases loaded and one out, it was Johnson's turn at the plate. In a script that could only be written for Hollywood, the junior got enough of his bat on a Doug Hartshorn fastball, sending a medium fly ball to left field that resulted in a SAC fly that scored P.J. Poulin from third to give the Seawolves an improbable 7-6 comeback victory and the program's first CNEPSBL championship at Holy Cross' Fitton Field.
"After making that error in the fifth I knew I had to do something to help out the team," said Johnson, a Norwell native. "When I was up at the plate I knew I had to get it done somehow. I was just trying to get the ball out of the infield. It ended up working out and we won. I think there was a general thought that we could come back. We kept the faith. We just needed to make a miracle happen in that seventh inning and we did."
Tabor (11-5) began the rally with Jared Gamache walking. Pinch-runner Chris Pearson moved to second on starting pitcher Tim Bouchard's wild pitch. Sam Bacchiocchi then singled to put runners on the corners. Another wild pitch plated Pearson was soon followed by a walk which spelled the end of Bouchard's evening. Prior to that, the sophomore was solid, surrendering just four hits.
"Tim simply ran out of gas," Cushing head coach Wayne Hancock said. "He pitched a great game but he ended up throwing a lot of pitches tonight and that team hit the ball. Tabor didn't give up and never quit. I've been around this game long enough to know how it feels to be on the winning side and on the losing side in games like this. It stinks right now but I thought our kids battled hard all the way."
Hartshorn, who was the winning pitcher in the Penguins' 6-3 victory over Worcester Academy in the semifinal round earlier in the day, came on an immediately served up an RBI single to Evan Abbott. Poulin followed with a ground single to center that scored David Mitchell (who walked) to make it 6-5.
With Abbott aboard at third, Hartshorn walked Jeremiah Adams, but his last pitch bounced to the back stop allowing Abbott to cross the plate with the tying run and advancing Poulin to third. Hancock opted to walk William Knight to load the bases in the hopes of getting a force out at the plate or, better yet, a double play. But Johnson dismissed those theories with his SAC fly to seal the triumph.
"It was an unbelievable comeback," Seawolves head coach Tom Angelo said. "This team never quits. They basically willed it to happen. I'm just so proud of Mason who made that untimely error which opened the flood gates for them earlier and then to hit the SAC fly in the end to win it. You couldn't write it any better than this."
Tabor jumped on Bouchard for a pair of runs in the third after loading the bases with none out. A run-scoring fielder's choice by Adams and a proceeding wild pitch put the Seawolves in front. Poulin, who threw a complete game no-hitter in Tabor's 2-0 semifinal win over defending two-time champ Phillips Academy a couple of hours previous, was given the ball to start the finale.
After throwing a mere 70 pitches in the first game, Angelo felt his lefty had enough left in the tank to begin the finale. Early on, Poulin, who hails from Mattapoisett, was looking sharp as he held Cushing (12-8) to zero runs through the first four frames.
But fatigue had finally caught up to him in the fifth as he was beginning to leave pitches up in the zone in which the Penguins took full advantage. Singles from Shawn Clark and Trevor Kacz got things kick-started. With one out, Russell Olive lifted an opposite field single to left, sending Clark home. Ryan Bajjaly followed with a single to load the bases.
Austin Wood then hit a grounder to Johnson, who immediately came up firing to home to try and get the force out. But his throw bounced in front of Adams, playing catcher, and veered toward the backstop resulting in two runs to cross the plate, giving Cushing a 3-2 lead.
The Penguins, the No. 3 seed, kept their foot on the gas pedal the following inning. With Bacchiocchi now on the mound in place of Poulin, the righty quickly ran into problems by putting two runners on. Clark would deliver an RBI single and Kacz followed with a two-run double down the right field line to make it 6-2. With two out, Cushing would load the bases but Bacchiocchi, a sophomore, managed to avoid further damage by getting Wood to fly out.
After going three-and-out in the bottom of the inning, things were not looking so good for the Seawolves. But in the seventh, they developed some new-found life which would propel them to the pinnacle of success.
"Everything just came together for us in the seventh," said Angelo, who has no post-graduates on his roster. "In that inning all of us felt we would come back and we did."
Semifinals: Tabor beats Philips Andover: Tabor's victory over Phillips Andover, Poulin was feeling proved it as the game progressed. The junior lefty seemed to get stronger with every pitch thrown. Not only did Poulin master the strike zone with a mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches, he literally dominated. Enough so that he kept the Big Blue hitless.
"I've thrown a few (no-hitters) in Little League but not for a long time," said Poulin. "I think every single one of my pitches was working today. This is unreal right now. I can't even put it into words. I knew going into the seventh that I had a no-hitter but I just tried to keep the same mind-set and go out there and was able to do it."
Only three PA batters would reached base. Two were hit by pitches, and the other came via a fielder's choice. Other than that, Poulin kept the hottest team coming into this tournament at bay throughout. After starting out the year 1-7, the fourth-seeded Big Blue came on strong, closing out the regular season at 7-1. They end the season at 8-9.
"(Poulin) was just stellar today," said PA head coach Kevin Grabor. "He was always around the plate, changed his speeds and threw hard. It got kind of lonely out there coaching third base and not being able to give any signs."
Tom Lane got the starting nod for the Big Blue. The Boston College commit worked his way out of a minor jam in the second but couldn't escape trouble the following frame. Mitchell led off with a single and was sacrificed to second.
Poulin hit a comebacker to Lane. But the junior didn't set his feet and threw wildly to first resulting in an error which allowed Mitchell to come home with Tabor's first run. The Seawolves added another run one inning later. Johnson belted a single to center and moved to third on Zach Bannon's two-out single. Johnson touched the plate moments later on Mitchell's single.
Lane pitched into the fifth before being lifted in favor of Andy Hamel, who didn't allow a hit during his two innings of work. But the way Poulin (1.21 ERA) was in total control, it didn't seem to matter much as the PA's offense was no where to be found.
"D.J. has been doing it for us all year and for him to come out and throw that kind of game in one of the toughest games we were going to play in this year is truly incredible," Angelo said. "We knew Phillips could swing the bats. But we also knew that all we had to do was put a couple of runs across the plate and that would be enough for P.J. and we did that."
Semifinals: Cushing beats Worcester Academy: The Penguins got a strong outing from Hartshorn to knock out Worcester Academy in their semifinal tilt. Hartshorn, a Gardner native, went the distance, allowing 8 hits while striking out 4.
“I felt good today and had great defense behind me,” said the junior right-hander. “Two of my best pitches (fastball and curveball) were working for me today. I don’t throw 90 miles-per-hour so I was just trying to hit my spots. I just sort of let them hit it and let my defense do the job behind me.”
Cushing jumped ahead 2-0 in the first inning on an RBI double by Jonathan Bianchi and a run-scoring ground out from Dakota Mulcay. The Hilltoppers, the No. 2 seed, got a run back in the third after John Marculitis tripled and later scored when Bianchi, playing left field, dropped Mariano Ricciardi’s fly ball.
Cushing simply shrugged off the miscue by plating a pair of runs in the fourth to make it 4-1. Mulcay, a freshman from Goffstown, NH, fouled off several pitches before ripping a home run to deep right. A short time later, sophomore Scott Harlin singled home Thomas Schelling, who was hit by a pitch.
“We were able to get some clutch hitting,” Hancock said. “We played well and got some good defense from our infield. Doug pitched very well. He is more of a pitcher. He makes guys hit the ball and put it play and when you have a good defense behind you that’s what you want.”
In the Penguins half of the sixth, they would score twice more, WA starter Nick Johnson walked Bianchi and Mulcay reached on an error (one of four committed by the Hilltoppers). Hartshorn singled to drive in one run and Cushing added its final run when Wood (pinch-running) for Mulcay sprinted home from third after Matt Varga (also inserted as a pinch-runner) intentionally got himself caught in a lengthy rundown between first and second base.
The Hilltoppers showed some life in the bottom of the inning as they scored a pair of runs on RBIs from Brad Waddell and Marculitis to cut the deficit to three. Austin Young belted a two-out triple for WA in the seventh but he was stranded at third after Hartshorn induced a line out by John Friday to end the game.
“Today we made four errors which resulted in four unearned runs,” said WA head coach Dana Forsberg, his club finishing the year at 13-8. “When you are playing a game in the playoffs you have to make the plays. The good thing is our kids didn’t give up and put a little pressure on them late. But today Cushing was the better team.”