Photo: Belmont High’s Max Meier strikes out the final batter of the game for Belmont’s 6-4 victory over Reading.
The wait is over.
Twenty-six years since winning its last league title, Belmont High Baseball will hoist the 2017 Middlesex League Liberty Division championship banner on the wall of the Wenner Field House after the Marauders captured its first league pennant since 1991 with a hard-fought 6-4 victory over defending champions Reading Memorial High with a combination of clutch late-inning hitting and a gutsy pitching performance by the team’s lefthanded ace.
“How about that league championship?!” asked long-time Head Coach Jim Brown to his ecstatic players as the speakers blasted a new version of King Harvest’s 70’s classic “Dancing in the Moonlight.”
“You had a goal right from the beginning of the season. And you accomplished it. You made this town proud,” Brown told the players.
The team – 16-3 overall and 13-3 in the league – will end the regular season taking on one-loss Division 3 leading Lynnfield (17-1) on Friday, May 26 at 3:45 p.m. at “The Grant.” The Marauders will then finish the season hosting The Brendan Grant Tournament later in the week.
The Marauders’ secured the victory with a clutch two-out, two run rally that gave junior starter Nate Espelin the margin he needed to hold on for his sixth win with a herculean 119 pitch performance over 6 1/3 innings.
“I walked too many people, but I didn’t have to worry about striking out people because we made the defensive plays,” said the southpaw, who raised his record to 6-1.
While Espelin could not match his high teen strikeout numbers that he produced against Wilmington, Lexington and Reading the first time he faced them – a 1-0 9-inning loss – he relied on his curveball “which worked a little better today.”
On Wednesday, the Marauders’ bats were working as the top four of the order – junior leftfielder Connor Dacey, junior shortstop Steve Rizzuto, catcher Cal Christofori and junior first base Dennis Crowley – went a collective 8 for 13 with two doubles (both by Christofori) and 5 RBIs.
“I think I’ve seen the ball well lately. It’s just looking bigger and getting a good piece of it and driving it the other way [to right field],” said Crowley.
Belmont got off the mark quickly against Reading’s All-Star starter Corey DiLoreto in the first with a walk, a fielder’s choice and two singles with Crowley punching a single through the infield to bring home Rizzuto. It appeared the Marauders would increase the lead as a sacrifice fly by junior Ryan Noone sent Christofori home, but the plate umpire called the senior captain out for leaving third early.
Espelin had already thrown 40 pitches in the top of the third when he walked Reading’s Joe Bradley to bring up DiLoreto who pulverized an Espelin offering over the deepest part of the center field fence (352 feet) to give Reading its only lead of the game, 2-1. The inning ended with Rizzuto going deep in the hole to throw out the batter by half-a-step.
The Marauders swiftly recaptured the lead in the bottom of the frame, starting with Rizzuto (1-3) waiting on a slow curve to belt it between first and second for a single. Christofori (3-3 with a walk) then smashed a fastball into the gap between center and left that one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double.
“[Christofori’s] enthusiasm and passion today rubbed off on the entire team,” said Brown.
Crowley followed by taking a full-count pitch into center for a single, bringing in Rizzuto to tie the score. Junior right fielder/pitcher Max Meier continued the hitting onslaught with his own single to send Christofori across the plate. The Marauders’ final run of the inning came when Crowley scampered home on a Bryan Goodwin sacrifice fly, upping the lead to 4-2.
The title was sealed with two down in the sixth when Reading took out DiLoreto. Belmont quickly pounced on reliever Mike Rainone loading the bases on a Conner Dacey single and walks to Rizzuto and Christofori.
Dennis completed his big day at the plate battling back from a two-stroke deficit to rocket a 2-2 pitch into center to bring in Dacey and Rizzuto to double Belmont’s lead from two to four at 6-2.
“He got me down 0-2 on a pitch I thought was a little low. But what are you going to do? I took the next two pitches to even it up then got a pitch I liked and ripped it,” said Crowley who drove in half the team’s runs and scored once.
“This team knows what to do with the stick [bat] and are selective with their pitches. They work at it,” said Brown.
Those final runs were critical as Reading staged its own late rally in the top of the 7th. DiLoreto walked, and after a sacrifice bunt, consecutive infield errors and a Ben Fischer single that dropped in front of Goodwin saw the Rockets cut the lead in half to 6-4 with the go-ahead run at the plate.
“I was making sure [the athletic trainer] had the heart defibrillator ready because I didn’t know if I could take it,” said Brown.
With nearly 120 pitches in the book, Brown elected to pull Espelin for junior righthander Meier. With Rockets at the corner, Meier relied on his fastball to strikeout the 8 and 9 batters; the final punch out caught the batter looking.
After the celebrations which included running through a “victory tunnel” set up by the Boys’ Rugby team and a bucket of water over Brown’s head, the coach again heaped praise on his team and the eight seniors.
“This is the best group of kids I’ve coached. They know how to battle for the entire game, the entire season,” said Brown.