Birdball Knocks Off Virginia With Wild Walk-Off Strikeout

It was a fitting ending for Boston College baseball against the reigning national champions.

After scoring two early runs against University of Virginia starter (and leadoff hitter) Adam Haseley, the Eagles went quiet. As the sun went down and Shea Field went cold, so did BC’s bats. The Cavalier pitching staff retired 18 straight hitters after the third inning, and owned all the momentum after Pavin Smith tied the game at 2-2 with a blistering RBI double in the sixth.

So how did head coach Mike Gambino’s crew pull out a win against No. 16 Virginia?

A walk-off strikeout:


Gambino must practice that play all the time.

The two-out, ninth-inning rally started when pinch hitter Chris Balogh singled up the middle against UVA closer Tommy Doyle, who relieved Haseley after eight innings of five-hit ball. Inserted into the game as a pinch runner, Dominic Hardaway quickly made his presence felt when he stole second and advanced to third on an errant throw from catcher Matt Thaiss.

Meanwhile, shortstop Johnny Adams stood at the plate. He was hitless on the day but made a crucial run-saving play up the middle in the fifth inning. Adams has struggled at the plate this year, hitting only .200, but has found ways to make impacts elsewhere. With two outs and two strikes, Adams chased a breaking ball in the dirt, leaving Thaiss with the duty of throwing the ball to first base to put a stamp on the strikeout.

But Adams was clever. As the junior sprinted toward the base, he veered to the left of the base line to block Thaiss’ throwing angle toward the bag. At third base, Hardaway waited for the ball to leave Thaiss’ hands before breaking for the plate.

Thaiss’ throw glanced off Adams’ leg, scooting away from the first baseman and giving the Eagles (15-11, 4-8 Atlantic Coast) a 3-2 victory over Virginia (20-13, 7-7), their first win in 10 days.

“You just gotta find a way,” Adams said. “I got a little bit up inside the baseline—probably a little more than I’m allowed to—but we’ll take it. Anything to get a win.”

While the storyline will most likely revolve around the paradoxical final play, the real heroes of Saturday were Birdball’s pitchers.

Ex-closer Justin Dunn earned his first start of the season for BC, replacing Jesse Adams as the Saturday arm. The junior flamethrower attracted an entourage of radar guns to his outing, as scouts waited with baited breath for a “97 mph” to flash across the screen. They got plenty of those.

From the first pitch of the game—a 97-mph high heater that Haseley couldn’t catch up to—to late in the fifth inning, Dunn’s fastball rarely dipped below the upper-90s. And, more importantly, he kept his go-to pitch down in the zone, away from the powerhouses of Virginia’s sluggers. If there was any discomfort with his transition from the bullpen to starting role, no one noticed it. Dunn appeared relaxed, poised, and confident as his favorite rapper, Jay-Z, played before each inning and his signature gold chain bounced freely around his neck.

Held to a strict pitch count in his first start, Dunn was pulled before the sixth inning, but his line was impressive nonetheless: five innings, two hits, zero runs, five strikeouts, and only one walk.

Middle reliever Brian Rapp took over for Dunn and lost the lead after Smith’s RBI double. In need of a reliable pitcher in the later innings—a situation normally reserved for Dunn—Gambino called upon Adams, the very same pitcher he had swapped for Dunn to start the game.

The switcheroo paid dividends.

Adams kept the game tied despite running into trouble during the eighth inning. Ernie Clement pounded a leadoff double down the left-field line, and advanced to third on a grounder to the right side. Gambino elected to intentionally walk Smith, putting runners on the corners with only one out. With shortstop Daniel Pinero, who had two strikeouts in three prior plate appearances, up to bat, the Cavaliers chose to run a suicide-squeeze bunt, but Adams was ready for it.

He and catcher Nick Sciortino coordinated a fastball high and outside to make it difficult for Pinero to push the bunt toward the chalk. The bunt catapulted right back to Adams, who glove-flipped it home while charging toward the plate. Sciortino laid the tag down, and the crisis was averted.

Adams would go on to allow just one hit in 2 1/3 innings of work, picking up his third win of the season.

“Sometimes you got a guy No. 2 or No. 3 in the order, and you drop him down to No. 7, and all of a sudden they relax and start swinging it. That’s kinda what Jesse did,” Gambino said of his transition to the bullpen. “All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Alright, cool, just let me go pitch.’ He was great today. It was awesome to see.”

The win also marked the first home game for Birdball that truly felt like a spring baseball atmosphere. Fans and alumni packed into Shea Field to witness Dunn’s debut as a starter against last year’s champions. Kids sprinted and competed for control of foul balls. Onlookers chirped at the officiating crew when a questionable call didn’t go their way. At long last, the Birdcage returned.

And for those who stayed all nine innings despite the rapidly dropping temperature, it was an ending that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

“Can’t get anything past the Birdcage,” Dunn said. “It has a lot of wild tricks up its sleeve.”

Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff

April 9, 2016