SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –- It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Leominster trailed Cathedral in Tuesday’s Division 1 state semifinal at Western New England University.
The Blue Devils (20-4) went down 2-0 to Cathedral, the Western Mass. champion, early in the game. But they slammed the door shut in the later innings thanks to precise pitching, flawless defense, and an abundance of timely hitting. Before Cathedral (16-8) could blink, Leominster had plated eight runs in the sixth inning to extend their lead to 12-2 and put the game seemingly out of reach.
The Panthers took an early lead in the first inning, plating a pair of runs via a two-run single by Matt Kenney off Leominster starting pitcher Brennan Cuddahy. Starting Cuddahy was an attempt by Leominster coach Rich Barnaby to get as many innings as possible out of his staff –- a staff that was stretched pretty thin during their run though the Central Mass. tournament.
When Cuddahy got into trouble in the second inning, it was reliever Chris Piper who came through to get out of the jam. The Blue Devils tied the game in the next inning on an RBI single by Tyler Vaillette, Leominster’s key cog at the plate in the Central Mass. championship game, and never looked back thanks to five innings of shutout ball from Tanner Jakola.
“We knew Tanner couldn’t go seven so we went with Brennan for the first two," Barnaby said. "He did alright, but Chris Piper came in in a tough spot -– he’s been our reliever all year mid-inning and he’s still got a zero ERA for the year. He came in, got a big out and kept us in the game."
The turning point for the Blue Devils may have come in the fourth inning, when they showed just how much time they’ve put into practicing bunts over the course of the season. After Jay Valera (2-for-3, double, walk) doubled to start off the fourth, Jakola (5 IP, 4 hits, 0 ER) put down a bunt to sacrifice Valera over to third. A couple pitches later, Nick Cordio (2-for-3, 4 RBI) converted a flawless squeeze bunt to score Valera.
“I don’t think anyone in Massachusetts works on bunting more than we do,” Barnaby said. “I coached under Coach [Emile] Johnson for about 10 years; so we bunt, we squeeze, the hit and run was another play that kind of took the pressure off us. We played small ball early and then we were able to open up with some big hits late. That’s what championship teams do.”
The big hits came mainly in the sixth, when Leominster pounded the Panthers’ bullpen, catalyzed by a three-run double from Cuddahy that nearly left the park, and a two-run single by Cordio.
“He’s a leader behind the plate, he’s a leader up at bat,” Barnaby said of Cordio. “He’s streaky, he won’t get a hit for awhile but then when there’s a runner on base you know Cordio’s going to come up with that big hit – that’s what a senior leader, as a catcher, does for us.
“Pitchers can’t take a deep breath once they get to 6, 7, 8, or 9 because those guys can still hit. There’s no holes in our lineup, you have to stay focused and pitch to all these guys.”
Business as usual: There was little celebration, if any at all, from the Blue Devils following the victory. Like with their win over St. Peter-Marian in the Central Mass. championship, seeing a fist-pump was a rarity and a dogpile celebration was out of the question. Barnaby couldn’t help but recall the silent bus ride home after Leominster had won their first district championship in 18 years.
“On the bus ride home the kids were kind of quiet, they weren’t really celebrating,” he said.
Goal-making has been an important part of the Blue Devils’ streak, which includes wins in 16 of their last 17 games. The ultimate goal for Leominster comes in Saturday’s state championship game against Eastern Mass. champ Norwood. The likely man to get the ball Saturday would appear to be senior ace Neil O’Connor (3-for-3, 2 RBI, BB), who last threw about 40 pitches against SPM.
“They have more to do, the district title was a great goal, but they’re not satisfied with that. We made sure we’re not satisfied with that, there’s a bigger goal,” Barnaby said. “So we wanted to make sure to come in and give our best effort today… We’re at the ultimate goal of playing for a state championship, I think they’ll rise to the occasion.”