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Start Believing: Birdball Earns First Bid to ACC Tournament Since 2010

In February, I took a gamble.

I predicted that, after five years of treading water at or toward the bottom of the conference, Mike Gambino would take Boston College baseball to the Promised Land: Durham, N.C. That might not be your idea of El Dorado or Atlantis, but for Gambino, it might as well be heaven. Durham represents justification for patience in his coaching, legitimization for his unique process, hope for the future of this program, and the culmination of everything he has worked for in his career. Durham is the site of the ACC Tournament, the first step to reaching the NCAAs, and, with some luck, the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

For five years, Gambino has attempted to makeshift an Eagles team that could soar into Durham Bulls Athletic Park. It’s been plagued by bad weather that has cancelled games and, in one season, destroyed its only on-campus practice facility. The Eagles’ roster has been hampered by stringent academic requirements and a lack of scholarship funding. They have been forced to play in the toughest college baseball conference in the entire country. For five years, the Eagles have been grounded long before they could even talk about playoffs.

But now, those days are over.

Following a series win in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, BC baseball (31-19, 13-15 Atlantic Coast) is headed to the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2010. The Eagles had entered the three-game weekend set with only one win all-time at Russ Chandler Field, needing to take 2-of-3 to keep their hopes alive.

Now, the Eagles will enter the postseason as the No. 8 seed in Durham. They come into the same pool as Miami, North Carolina State, and Florida State in the round robin part of the tournament. But first will come a one-game rematch with the Yellow Jackets (35-20, 13-16) slated for Tuesday at 3 p.m. This time, as Gambino reminded me over the phone, there won’t be any secrets when they meet. Still emotional from his team’s victory, however, Gambino had high praise and many thanks for his team leaders for getting BC this far.

“This senior class, I’m so proud of these guys,” Gambino said. “They came in at a time when they knew it would be a tough first couple of years. They took their lumps, they kept working, and just kept working at getting better.”

After dropping the first game, 6-3, with their ace Mike King on the mound, the Eagles chances didn’t look so good, worsened only by rain on Friday that forced a Saturday doubleheader. But with superstar arms like Justin Dunn and Jacob Stevens, anything is possible. And with an offensive performance like the Eagles on Saturday, they’re unstoppable.

Dunn, the fireballer from Freeport, N.Y. took the bump in the first game of the day, efficiently mowing down hitters with a blazing fastball that touched 97 on the black. He was practically unhittable in the first five innings, allowing a mere five baserunners total.

On the other end, BC’s bats came alive against Georgia Tech’s trio of freshman pitchers. Senior Joe Cronin knocked in Jake Palomaki with an RBI single in the first, followed by Mitch Bigras’ RBI single in the second—seven hits in the first 2 1/3 innings quickly knocked out starter Jake Lee. His successors weren’t much better, as Cole Pitts and Micah Carpenter each allowed a run in two innings of work. More than halfway through, BC staked a 4-0 lead for a pitcher who is likely headed to the pros in the first round of the MLB Draft.

Dunn stumbled slightly in the sixth with a sac fly and balk cutting BC’s lead in half. No matter, said the Eagles’ offense. The team responded with four runs in the top of the eighth inning, using walks, balks, and a two-RBI double by Nick Sciortino to put the game out of reach.

The last time Dunn pitched in the ninth inning of a ballgame, he struggled as the Eagles’ closer. Now, he was merely finishing what he had started. Dunn’s final line: the first complete game he had thrown at BC, a career-high nine strikeouts, no walks, and three runs (only one earned) on an economical 106 pitches. And if this, an 8-3 victory, is the last time we see Dunn in the Maroon and Gold, he certainly left his mark on BC baseball history.

“Justin was completely dominant,” Gambino said. “He dominated one of the best lineups in the country. Numbers-wise, that’s the best offense in the ACC.”

While Dunn kept the drama out of the first game, both pitching staffs kept the blood pressure high in the second. Danny Hall’s starter, Burton Delaney, gave up a quick four runs in the first two innings. Reliever Zac Ryan wasn’t much better in his 3 2/3 of working with three runs allowed. And, as it should be, all of the damage was done by the top of the order. Cronin got an RBI double his first time through the order, while Palomaki tacked on two with a double and Michael Strem another with a single. Palomaki added his third RBI in the fourth inning with a base knock up the middle. Cronin put the finishing touches on with a two-run home run in the fifth.

“Those are really good arms all the way through, and the boys did a really good job of committing to our plan, getting good pitches to hit, and it happened top to bottom,” Gambino said of his offense.

On the mound, the Eagles bent as much as a pitching staff can. Stevens only allowed a run in three innings, yet his inconsistency and lack of command forced a quick hook from Gambino. Normally, Gambino would allow his young starter to work through a rough first third of a game. But, as the head coach reminded me, it was BC’s “Game Seven.” When you’re in that position, you don’t have the time to allow a pitcher to work through his issues.

Thankfully, Dunn gave Gambino that chance. With his bullpen fully rested, out came Brian Rapp, who gave up two runs in only 1 2/3 innings. Bobby Skogsbergh nearly gave up the lead in a five-hit, three-run eighth inning. Yet once Jesse Adams shut the door in a two-inning save, the Yellow Jackets had left 15 men on base and BC hung on to win, 7-6.

As soon as the final batter popped out, Gambino got to live out one of his dreams: watching his boys celebrate on the mound. He said he has always wanted to watch a joyous mob after a postseason-clinching victory, noting that it was “one of the highlights of my athletic career.”

Then, BC baseball celebrated in a unique way that only this team can. As the Eagles boarded the bus, Cronin, the team’s captain, scrambled to gather everyone together. The goal? FaceTime Pete Frates. The former BC captain, who has become the face of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) awareness through the Ice Bucket Challenge and recently had his No. 3 retired at Shea Field, has been the Eagles’ primary inspiration since Gambino took over. And there was no way they were celebrating without him.

But reaching the playoffs is merely Gambino’s first goal. Now it’s a matter of making noise in the ACC Tournament and in an NCAA Regional. There’s no reason to believe this scrappy Eagles team won’t. They can claim four walkoff victories this season, including two against defending champion Virginia. They took a series versus a Louisville team that closed its regular season with a 46-10 record and .325 team batting average. They’ve won a Beanpot. They’ve claimed six ACC series, most in program history, including two on the road. And it’s all only the beginning.

“Long term, it’s part of the step of developing this program into what we want it to be,” Gambino said. “I think we’re going to have the chance at Omaha very soon.”

And in a year of disappointment for Boston College in the ACC, why shouldn’t they be the last team standing? Of any BC squad, Birdball is the one that everyone believed in the least. And it’s the one that accomplished the most. So it’s time to start believing in Gambino’s squad, now and for the future, as the one that will make BC baseball a feared team in the Northeast and the ACC. I know I certainly do.

Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor


May 21, 2016