BRAINTREE, Mass. -- They’re a raucous bunch, those Mustangs of the Norwood baseball team. With their hitters at the plate, the blue-clad Mustangs roared from the first pitch -— deliciously, to them, a ball —- to the last, proving the chattiest bunch in a chatty sport.
But, it was the final pitch of the top of the seventh inning that really sent Norwood into a frenzy. The Joe Rydzewski offering was smacked to shortstop John Galvin, who slung it to first baseman Jake O’Rourke to secure the game’s final out, clinching the MIAA Division 1 South Sectional Championship via 4-3 decision over New Bedford at Braintree High School.
The aforementioned Rydzewski stemmed the tide for the No. 6 seed Norwood (15-9), relieving John Ryan in the top of the fourth inning and not allowing a hit thereafter. Rydzewski allowed just one of the last 10 Whalers faced to reach face, via hit-by-pitch.
“I feel great for him, he’s struggled all year,” said Norwood coach Kevin Igoe of his senior captain. “We’ve moved him around to different spots, and he just persevered. He’s just a great kid.
“He pitched last Saturday and again Wednesday. That’s just on guts and heart.”
Sure-armed Rydzewski was; sure-handed the New Bedford defense was not. In the game-swaying fourth and fifth innings, the Whalers committed three errors, one wild pitch and twice allowed runs to score on infield singles. Those miscues erased an early 3-0 lead and allowed Norwood to take control.
“Some of our kids felt that, (with) Jared shutting people down all year, we’d end up winning 3-0,” said New Bedford coach John Seed. “We made a couple errors that hurt us. That’s been our thing all year. The games when we’ve gotten beat, it was our defense that hurt us. Today, there were a couple plays we should’ve made and didn’t.”
In the first inning, Rydzewski made his contributions defensively at first base, flashing some leather to prevent two runs from scoring. The No. 13 seed New Bedford (12-12) came out swinging, with leadoff man Chandler Debrosse reaching on a first-pitch grounder through the left side of the infield. A steal of second base put Debrosse in perfect position when first baseman Andrew Rapoza smacked his own single through the left, grabbing a 1-0 lead before an out had been found.
Ryan, who allowed five hits, a walk and two hit-batsmen in his 3.1 innings of work, escaped further trouble by recording three straight outs to end the inning. The inning-ending out came courtesy of a diving Rydzewski snag on a hot shot down the first base line, taking it himself unassisted to strand runners at second and third.
Tall and talented New Bedford freshman Jared Shuster frustrated Mustang hitters early on, allowing only one hit and a walk through his first three innings on the mound. The righty-heavy Norwood lineup buckled at the left-hander’s curveball, which he complemented with a consistent fastball in the mid-80’s.
Living by his own off-speed offering, Ryan recovered in the second inning before control problems struck in the top of the third. Quinn Indio’s one-out single past the dive of Norwood shortstop John Galvin got things started. From the stretch, Ryan plunked the next two Whalers to load the bases. Third baseman J.T. Sylvia then hooked a two-RBI single to straightaway left field, hitting the fence on one bounce. Indio scored and Rapoza’s slide beat the throw, as New Bedford earned its 3-0 lead.
Ryan’s outing was wrapped two batters into the fourth, throwing 27 strikes on 51 pitches (53 percent) and striking out two. Ben Clark opened that inning with a first-pitch liner to right field for a single.
Rydzewski entered with one out, but was rudely greeted by another first-pitch swinger, Debrosse, who belted a line drive to right field, where Denny Drummey’s circuitous route led to an error when he leaped to correct his course. Debrosse was caught stealing, but Rydzewski walked a batter to again put runners on the corners. Rydzewski froze Rapoza for a third strike, ending the danger.
The bottom of the fourth saw Norwood’s championship campaign begin in earnest. The No. 2 hitter Ryan -— zeroing in on his own first pitch —- singled on a liner to the left of the third baseman Sylvia. Jake O’Rourke’s slice down the right field line put runners on first and third, though he was nabbed at second base on a steal attempt.
On the next play, cleanup hitter Jack Sheehan’s grounder to deep short scored Ryan, with Sheehan beating it out for an infield single.
Then came the New Bedford fielding gaffes. Paul Galvin’s grounder to third base went through the wickets, putting runners on first and second. A wild pitch advanced both runners into scoring position. Then, with two outs, pinch-hitter Mike Doliner’s hard grounder to short got under the glove of Indio, allowing two Norwood runners to scamper home and tie the game.
Still, the Mustangs tagged Shuster (46 strikes on 66 pitches) for three hits in the frame as the hurler seemed to tire.
“He’s thrown so much better this year than today,” Seed said. “Today was probably the least pop he’s had on his ball. Maybe the heat got to him. He’s only a young kid, so you can’t expect everything. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pick him up today.”
Rydzewski downed the Whalers in order in the top of the fifth, then Norwood got to work on pushing across the winning run.
Dominic Sullivan-Souza relieved Shuster, perhaps making the Whalers best defensive play in the contest, sliding to catch a popped-up bunt attempt for the first out of the inning. A hit-by-pitch and steal by pinch-runner Jake Ryan was followed by an error by the first baseman Rapoza, putting runners on the corners with two outs.
In a repeat of his previous at-bat, Sheehan hit a ground ball to short, then beat the throw to first as Ryan scored the winning run.
Neither New Bedford nor Norwood would advance a runner to second base through the final three half-innings. Rydzewski snagged the final three outs in the top of the seventh via ground balls, sending the Mustangs to the Division 1 State Semifinals, against the winner of the Division 1 North Championship between Chelmsford and Andover on Sunday.
“It’s everything,” said Igoe of winning the South title. “I’m real proud of these guys. This is hard work paying off today. You know kids; when they start believing, it’s dangerous.”