Spring, Top Story

After Honoring Frates, Birdball Steals Series Win From Wake Forest

“We play for Pete every day”

-Johnny Adams

It’s really hard to steal the show from Pete Frates.

The former captain of Boston College baseball has been the face of the program—not to mention one of the faces of the University—for almost a decade now. Frates, who has Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), has joined his family and the BC community to raise over $200 million to the disease, much of which was spearheaded by his Ice Bucket Challenge social media fad last year. Many famous people from all spheres have participated in the challenge, from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Gates.

“Whenever you have an individual that prompted the Chancellor of Germany to dump a bucket of ice water on her head, you immediately see the global impact of this guy,” Director of Athletics Brad Bates said. “He epitomizes men and women for others.”

In an emotional pregame ceremony, Frates became only the second member of the Eagles to have his number retired. With his wife, Julie, parents, John and Nancy, and daughter, Lucy, in attendance, BC unveiled Frates’ No. 3 jersey on the wall in right field, right next to Eddie Pellagrini’s No. 13. With over 2,000 people in attendance fighting off the pouring rain, Frates acknowledged the crowd with a beaming smile in a touching show of gratitude for what BC has done for him.

It’s really hard to steal the show from a guy like that on a magical day like this. But let’s be honest. He probably preferred it this way.

With Frates sitting just to the right of home plate, the Eagles didn’t disappoint. Needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt, BC (27-18, 11-14 Atlantic Coast) came back against Wake Forest (28-19, 11-13) in a 4-3 final. The sweep in the ALS Awareness Doubleheader clinches a few firsts for BC and head coach Mike Gambino. BC’s fifth series win in the ACC is now a program-best in a single season. Gambino’s 11 ACC wins is a personal best, and his 27 wins overall ties a program record and clinches his first winning season as skipper of the Eagles. Most importantly, BC now sits at 10th in the conference, putting it in a position to control its own destiny at a late run to the ACC playoffs.

“It’s never any fun to have to scoreboard watch,” Gambino said of his ballclub’s unfamiliar position. Though they can still get in with help, the Eagles must take two out of three against Georgia Tech to ensure a trip to the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2009.

They had Mike King to thank for that, though they almost had him to blame.

The junior starter had trouble with his command early on. He normally employs a sinker to force opposing hitters to pound the ball into the ground and let his infielders do the work for him. But throughout the first three, King struggled to keep the ball low, allowing Wake Forest’s dangerous trio of Nate Mondou, Gavin Sheets, and Will Craig—the last of whom entered the day hitting a whopping .422—to tee off on his fastball, which ranges from 87 to 90 miles per hour. When King did get the ball low in those first three innings, it often went to the backstop and allowed runners to advance on the bases.

King’s lack of command led to a quick 3-0 lead on eight hits in the first four innings. Without his defense, it could’ve been more. In the first, center fielder Michael Strem gunned out Wake Forest’s Stuart Fairchild at the plate on a single from Craig. In the next three, King’s middle infielders showed some stunning range, highlighted by Jake Palomaki’s sprawling play up the middle in which he corralled a ball that hit off the second-base bag. Much of that was due to shifts put on by Gambino—at times, he would have three of his infielders on the left side against left-handed hitters, others had a second baseman or shortstop playing in the short outfield. And, despite the rain on a damp infield, King said he was never nervous.

“Johnny, Joe, and Mak are all scrappers, they love this,” King said of pitching in the wet conditions. “Being in the Northeast, that’s all I pitched in any way.”

But by that fourth inning, things began to click. After letting runners on the corners with one man away, King fought back to get Johnny Aiello to pop out and catch Jonathan Pryor looking with a heater. That, Gambino believes, changed the game.

“He had no stuff in the first three innings, and a lot of guys would wilt and go away,” Gambino said, “And Mike looked at that and said ‘I got it.’ What he did after the fourth inning was complete domination.”

King’s in-game adjustments in and after the fourth inning helped him give up only two baserunners on seeing-eye singles the rest of the way. When speaking after the game, King was so on point that he go through every at bat and the result of each pitch—notably, he recalled facing Craig, one of the country’s best hitters. The game plan to neutralize him was simple: changeups on the inside part of the plate, and don’t be afraid.

“We’re not going to go around him just because he’s hitting .400,” King said. “We’re going to attack him every time.”

He finished with 7 2/3 innings on 121 pitches—a personal high—giving up nine hits, striking out five against one walk, and giving up only those three runs.   

While King heated up on the mound, the Eagles were able to match at the plate. Using Gambino’s patented small-ball mentality, BC scrapped for a run in the fifth, as Mitch Bigras helped a red-hot Johnny Adams score on a fake bunt that led to an E3.

In the sixth, the Eagles rallied again. Palomaki led off the inning with a double down the right field line, followed by an infield bunt single by Strem on a controversial call—it had appeared, on the play, that the first baseman Sheets tagged Strem’s bag on a swipe tag, but with no umpire in place to watch it, nothing could be done.

The play rattled Sheets just enough to cause another error on a Sciortino bunt to drive in another run. Scott Braren, the man behind many of BC’s walkoff wins, came through in the clutch again with a single to the right side to tie the game at 3-3. And once again, Adams put on the finishing touches of the inning with an RBI groundout to give BC the lead for good once closer Jesse Adams shut the door in the ninth. Gambino, for one, is impressed by the man he gave Sonny Nictakis’ No. 8 to at the beginning of the year.

“Early in the year, he was pressing a touch,” Gambino said. “Now, he’s making quality at bats, getting good pitches to hit, and having a great approach.”

As for Frates, the Eagles play for him every day. But, on the off chance they get to see him, they like to put on a good performance. On Saturday, by giving him two wins and putting BC in a place to make the playoffs, they gave him the grandest performance he could possibly ask for.

“Unbelievable, it’s unbelievable,” King said. He’s such an inspiration. It’s such a pleasure to put on a show for him and give him two wins.”

Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor

May 8, 2016