BROCKTON, Mass. -- Coming into the Division 1A “Super 8” tournament, Newton North coach Joe Siciliano did not know if Tommy Hodgson was ever going to get an opportunity to start a game given how the schedule was playing out.
And then, there he was, starting the most important game of the season for the Tigers Monday in the final against Braintree.
And then he hit Billy Keane with the first pitch of the game.
Keane stole second and third six pitches later and scored on a Connor Columbus single to left. Three batters into the game and Hodgson was already working to minimize the damage. He was initially erratic, with two passed balls by catcher Alex Joyce in the first inning.
He got out of the inning giving up just the one run and settled down through the next five. He gave up two hits, two walks, and struck out two Braintree batters over the remainder of his outing before being relieved in the seventh by Theo Resnick.
“We haven’t figured it out yet,” said Siciliano. “We think we should have him pitch off the field in a regular game and then come in. He’s done that a few times, where he gets shaky in the first inning, but once he gets finished that first inning, he really throws very very well after that.”
The final was a well-documented battle between two Bay State Conference teams, down to the use of wooden bats. The entire Super 8 tournament was conducted using aluminum bats, but BSC rules are that any time two conference teams play each other, regardless of venue, it must use wooden bats.
Braintree and North split their regular season series, with each team winning 2-1 over the other. Both coaches have years of familiarity with each other’s tendencies and their rosters. That was part of the reason why Hodgson got the start Monday.
“They haven’t seen Tommy for two years,” said Siciliano. “I was worried that if we had to play them, and we had to pitch some of the other guys they’ve seen, that hurts. You saw what happened when Catholic Memorial faced (Teddy) Rodliff for the second time (in the first round of the Super 8). He blew them away the first time. The second time, he lasted six innings and they made him throw a lot of pitches. That familiarity is huge.”
Tommy Hodgson's middle innings today against Braintree. Settled down after 30-pitch first to stay in control of game pic.twitter.com/ypYdRMHyD8
— Andy Smith (@andy_smith88) June 10, 2014
Hodgson isn’t the hardest-throwing North pitcher, but he locate his fastball over all parts of the strike zone while using his off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance.
After a walk and a throwing error put runners on first and third with nobody out in a 1-1 tie in the top of the sixth, he got Anthony Venuti to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. Yes, the run from third scored, but he again minimized the damage by pitching to contact.
He began the at-bat with two fastballs up in the zone, before coming back with a low breaking ball and a curve on the outer part of the plate to induce the ground ball.
Next up was Scott Creedon. Hodgson initially attacked the outer half of the plate before coming back inside with a fastball and change up. He went away with a fastball for the strikeout and end the nine-pitch at bat. He surrendered a run, but hit pitching kept the game well within reach and set the table for Theo Resnick and Dylan Sbordone to finish the 6-2 victory in relief.
“It’s great to be able to rely on every pitcher to go out there and get outs,” said Hodgson. “We knew coming in we could get it done with every pitcher we had.”
Chart of Scott Strachan's middle innings today in Super 8 against Newton North. Kept score tied and pitch count low. pic.twitter.com/o36xMNogXd
— Andy Smith (@andy_smith88) June 10, 2014
In an odd way, a Newton North strikeout may have been the turning point in the game.
Entering the bottom of the sixth inning, Strachan had rolled along against the North lineup, throwing 59 pitches and only throwing more than five pitches in an at-bat once.
A walk, single, and fielding error loaded the bases with one out in the inning. Mike Barbieri grounded to the first baseman, who threw home for the force out for the second out.
Curtis Beatrice stepped to the plate and faced an early barrage of pitches on the outside part of the plate. He fouled off five of the nine pitches he faced before eventually striking out looking on a fastball on the inside half. While North stranded the bases loaded, it brought Strachan’s pitch count up to 82 pitches.
He came out to start the bottom of the seventh and quickly got Tommy Joyce to ground out. Christian Cox came up next and poked the seventh pitch of the at-bat into right-center. Strachan hit Eric Mah to put two runners on with one out. With a pitch count now at 96 and the game in the balance, Braintree coach Bill O’Connell decided to pull the junior in favor of Matt Bickford.
“We decided to put in our senior captain, but give them credit, they put the bat on the ball,” said the coach. “The top of their order was coming up again. (Ben) Porter was up. He was going to see Strachan for the fourth time. We just felt like it was a good matchup, righty on righty, and they got the hits, that’s all there is to it.”
North got three hits off Bickford on its way to a five-run seventh. The four-fun lead allowed the team to change strategies and use pitchers like Sbordone and Rodliff if necessary rather than worry about conserving arms for a potential second game on Thursday.
Having faced Braintree twice in the regular season, the Newton North hitters were familiar with Bickford and the challenges he presented.
“With them being one game away from losing and being out of the tournament, they had to use him a lot, and I think that helped us,” said Siciliano.
Bickford last pitched in Braintree’s 5-4 victory over St. John’s Prep last week. Having played two games since then, including a 7-5 win against defending Division 1 State Champion Bridgewater-Raynham Sunday night, O’Connell had a depleted pitching staff. He felt bringing in Bickford at that point in the game was the right move and did not second-guess himself at all after the game.
“Our pitching staff was pretty much depleted there,” he said. “We knew Bick probably had two or three innings, so we just went for it right there. We didn’t have much on the back end with much experience that we felt comfortable to go out there at that point. We felt it was the right thing, and Bick wouldn’t want it any other way. It just didn’t work out this particular game. But we’re proud, 21 wins is a great season around here.”