Top Story, Spring, Baseball

Cunningham’s Field Day Powers BC Past Virginia Tech in Series Opener

Tuesday’s debut of Brighton Field was historic, given that it hosted the second-longest game in Boston College baseball history. Friday’s game, on the other hand, was memorable for other reasons.

The Eagles outlasted Virginia Tech, picking up their third ACC win of the season, and, more importantly, their first at the brand new stadium.

This day has been a long time coming, especially after the tail end of a New England winter postponed BC’s first few home games. On Friday, the inaugural home victory finally came, as the Eagles came back to defeat Virginia Tech, 7-4, thanks to late heroics from Jack Cunningham, who recorded a career-high four RBIs. BC pitching bent but did not break, allowing eight hits and stranding nine Hokie runners.

The Eagles’ (8-11, 3-4 Atlantic Coast) ace, Jacob Stevens, came out looking dominant in the top of the first, needing just 12 pitches to retire the side in order. After two quick flyouts, the junior pitched VTech (9-11, 3-4) three-hole hitter Luke Horanski backwards, starting with two backdoor breaking balls before getting a weak swing-and-a-miss on an outside fastball.

After falling behind, 2-0, to Jake Palomaki, VTech starter Connor Coward settled in to match Stevens with a one-two-three inning of his own. Dante Baldelli just missed one, sending a 1-0 fastball to deep left center before it was pulled in just shy of the warning track.

Stevens surrendered the first hit of the game in the second—a two-out flare to Sam Fragale—but Gian Martellini picked up his pitcher by gunning down Fragale as he tried to steal second.

Both teams threatened in the third, when a base hit and a hit by pitch gave the Hokies their first chance with a runner in scoring position. Stevens buckled down, however, forcing the VTech leadoff hitter, Tom Stoffel, to pop up a 2-0 fastball, escaping the jam.

The Eagles loaded the bases in the bottom half of the frame—the rally started with a two-out single by Anthony Maselli, who finally broke an 0-for-19 start to the season. Palomaki reached on an infield single, and a free pass to Baldelli set the stage for Cunningham.

“Well, I struck out my first at-bat, and looked pretty silly, so I was going up there, had some runners on,” Cunningham said. “I was just looking for something to barrel up to get the job done, and I got a pitch to hit.”

The sophomore took Coward to a full count and, with the runners in motion, ripped a bases-clearing double to stake the Eagles to a three-run advantage.

It was a welcome sign to see Maselli playing a vital role to jumpstart the team’s offense. The senior only had four starts prior to Friday, but head coach Mike Gambino didn’t hesitate to turn to him in this game.

“The kid’s always ready,” Gambino said. “He’s an ultimate team guy, and every time we put him here he has great at-bats.”

The Hokies immediately started chipping away at the deficit in the top of the fourth, benefitting from a Fragale two-out double that barely slipped past the glove of Eagles’ third baseman Jake Alu. A Darion Jacoby leadoff double in the fifth and a subsequent sacrifice bunt allowed Jack Owens to drive in another run with a groundout, cutting the BC lead to one. VTech was drawing deep counts as opposed to BC attacking early in the sequence. After five innings, Stevens had thrown 72 pitches, compared to just 58 for Coward.

BC had the opportunity to extend its lead in the bottom of the fifth, when Mitch Bigras was hit by a pitch, and Palomaki drew a base on balls. A heads-up steal with Coward focused on the batter gave the Eagles two runners in scoring position with Cunningham at the plate. This time, however, Coward got Cunningham to chase a breaking ball in the dirt to keep the deficit at one.

In the top of the sixth, Cam Irvine and J.D. Mundy recorded back-to-back singles, the sixth and seventh hits off Stevens. Relying on small ball to tie the game, Fragale squared around, laying down a safety squeeze that brought Stevens just far enough off the mound to score Irvine. Stevens stranded the runner on second by striking out Nick Menken.

Coward logged another shutdown inning in the sixth, but not without a little drama. After a walk, Alu attempted to advance to second on a pitch in the dirt. The throw clearly beat him, and Alu slid hard, taking out Hokie second-baseman Owens. VTech head coach John Szefc argued for Alu’s ejection, to no avail.

After a leadoff hit by pitch in the seventh, and another bunt to get Jacoby to second base, Gambino went to his bullpen. He called on the big righty, Sean Hughes—BC’s best reliever this season, as far as ERA is concerned. But Hughes immediately surrendered a hit to Owens, and in deja-vu fashion, Stoffel laid down a safety squeeze just off the first base line to give the Hokies their first lead of the game. After pitching around and walking the strong Horanski, Hughes, who would ultimately get the win, averted danger by forcing Irvine to fly out.

In the bottom of the frame, BC struck in unusual fashion. Brian Dempsey drew a leadoff walk, chasing Coward. Reliever Andrew McDonald faced just two batters, hitting Bigras and walking Maselli, both of whom were trying to bunt to move the runner over. Nic Enright came on in the hardest possible situation: bases loaded with no outs.

The pitch after Palomaki hit a frozen rope that landed two feet to the wrong side of the right field foul line, he tied the game on a sacrifice fly. But Bigras was another victim of aggressive baserunning, getting thrown out at third trying to advance on another dirt ball. Now with two outs, Baldelli took four balls and made his way to first.

Cunningham came through yet again, muscling a single into short center field, bringing home the go-ahead run and notching his fourth RBI of the afternoon. Even though the Eagles made two baserunning mistakes in the previous two frames, the Hokies couldn’t capitalize, all because of two defensive miscues. A throwing error on a first-and-third steal play brought home one, and a passed ball from Horanski capped off BC’s four-run, one-hit inning.

BC relievers Will Hesselink and Thomas Lane combined for an eventful, but scoreless, eighth. They combined to walk three, but Lane fanned Owens with the bases loaded to preserve the three-run lead.

Lane stayed on for the ninth, and in a game that featured so many base runners, it was a relief for Eagles fans to see him retire the side in order, securing the BC’s first victory on the turf of Brighton field.

All season, the Eagles have been leaning on their offense, but on Friday, the pitching staff—although far from perfect—pulled through when it mattered most. That said, VTech’s four runs are slightly misleading. Its eight hits, on the other hand, are an indication that the ACC foe has the potential to get the bats going at any time, as evidenced by their four 10-plus run performances this year. Whether or not BC records its first ACC series victory of the year could very well come down to hill.

Featured Image by Lucas Bassoli / Heights Staff

March 23, 2018