Why 'meaningless' games vs. Red Sox mean plenty to college players

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If a former American League MVP is at a loss for words on baseball technique, what chance does a collegian have?

That's what Boston College infielder Joe Cronin had to be thinking as he played first base in a 6-0 exhibition loss to the Boston Red Sox at Jet Blue Park on Monday. It was the bottom of the first inning, and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia had just singled. Cronin knew he would be leading off the second inning against knuckleballer Steven Wright, who had struck out the side in the top of the first.

So Cronin engaged Pedroia to see if the four-time All-Star could offer any advice.

"I said, 'Hey, how do you hit a knuckleballer?' Because I've never faced a true knuckleballer before," Cronin said.

"Dude, I have no idea," Pedroia responded. "Good luck."

As it turned out, Cronin legged out an infield single off Wright when Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval was unable to secure a slow grounder. Cronin also delivered a solid single to right in the seventh off Red Sox lefty Robby Scott. Those hits will be cherished for a long time by Cronin, a senior from Scarborough, Maine, who was hitless in three previous games against the Red Sox.

"Knowing it was my last year, I was taking it all in a little bit," Cronin said. "I just wanted my first base knock."

The final score is of secondary importance to college players who get the opportunity to play against major leaguers. They realize the odds are against them defeating an MLB team. But they savor the experience, knowing that most collegians will not play professionally and few will reach the major leagues.

Boston College head coach Mike Gambino played in five such exhibitions -- four times as a Boston College player against the Red Sox and once as a Red Sox minor leaguer against the Eagles.

"You're playing against people you grew up idolizing," Gambino said. "You get to look across the field and see Pedroia and Sandoval. That's who these guys want to be. It's the type of thing these guys will remember their whole lives."

The Eagles are now 0-26 against the Red Sox -- albeit with four one-run losses -- and Northeastern dropped to 0-14 against the Red Sox after losing 8-3 in the second game of a doubleheader Monday. But sometimes man bites dog. Division II University of Tampa beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2 last year, and Manatee Community College defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-4 in 2009.

Justin Dunn usually serves as Boston College's closer, but he got the start against the Red Sox. After throwing two innings to earn a save Saturday, he didn't pitch on Sunday. When Dunn found out Sunday night on the bus back to the team hotel that he would start Monday's game against the Red Sox, teammates went nuts and began screaming his name.

"I was definitely gonna throw the whole kitchen sink against those guys," Dunn said. "Those are the best hitters in the world, so you can't really game plan for them."

Although the Eagles lost, Dunn can take away a measure of satisfaction. As someone who grew up on Long Island as a New York Yankees fan, he can truthfully say he threw a scoreless inning against the rival Red Sox. Dunn is a sophomore who was drafted in the 37th round of the MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. He said the experience of playing against big leaguers is a good measuring stick for someone who hopes to play professionally.

"It's unreal. I don't know if words can describe it," Dunn said. "Those are guys you grow up watching. It's just a great experience overall. Competing against those guys is a great time."

Like Cronin, Northeastern catcher Josh Treff had been hitless against the Red Sox. He has played in five such games -- a quirk because he was able to play in one during a redshirt year. Treff hit a triple in his first at-bat Monday against Red Sox right-hander Sean O'Sullivan. It wasn't his personal highlight against the Red Sox, though.

"I threw out Mookie Betts stealing last year," Treff said. "But the triple is a close second."

Northeastern right-hander Tyler Brown said his team was unfazed by an itinerary that required them to fly from Abilene, Texas, to Tampa on Sunday night. Then the team trucked 130 miles south to the Red Sox complex Tuesday morning.

"We got in late last night and had to get up early for a two-hour bus ride," said Brown, who threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings Monday. "But it's definitely worth it."

Meantime, the coaches want to make sure their seniors get to play. If pitchers miss out because they pitched in previous days, coaches want to accommodate them to be able to play the following year.

"From a coach's experience, it can be a little stressful because you're trying to get as many players into the game as possible," said Northeastern head coach Mike Glavine, brother of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. "It's always a special day -- always a day we circle on our calendar."

But those are small concessions to be able to compete against some of the best players in the world. Win or lose, the glass is always half full.