Photo: Cal Christofori.
Resiliency – the ability to bounce back after getting punched in the gut – is a quality discovered only when tested by adversity. In sports, after an opponent’s blow has turned the tables on the game, some teams will fall apart. But others show that ability to return to the fight with determination and a will to win.
When Belmont High School sophomore pitcher Nate Espelin threw what he called later “a fat one” which Beverly High School catcher Luke Samperi sent over the short left field fence for a two-out, two run, game tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, the blast could have done in the visiting Marauders in their first-round matchup of the MIAA Division 2 North sectionals.
But as Samperi crossed the plate and joined the wild celebration on the field, Belmont’s senior captain Cole Bartels – who just saw his seven innings, two-hit, 11 strikeout dominate performance go for naught – began yelling, “We’re still in this. We’re going to win this. Stay in the game!”
And his teammates responded, soon speaking confidently that they would come away with a victory in this unexpected away game.
It just took a while. Like five extra, extra innings. But the combination of outstanding relief pitching from junior Cal Christofori, solid defense, and clutch hitting by the middle of Belmont’s lineup resulted in a 13-inning 4-2 victory from the Marauders over the Panthers.
“Our guys plugged away, scratched and clawed and finally got a little bit of a timely hit in the 13th inning,” said Jim Brown, Belmont’s head coach.
“This was awesome, playing in games like this, extra innings when everthing is on the line. This is why you play sports, these are most fun games,” said Christofori, the team’s starting catcher who has yet to give up an earned run in relief this season.
The game – which began at 1 p.m. on a school day to accommodate the Beverly High senior prom scheduled for that night – between a pair of 14-6 teams was expected to be a close one. Facing Belmont’s southpaw was Beverly’s sophomore phenom Spenser Brown (1-6, single and three strikeouts) who was named the league’s co-MVP earlier in the week batting over .450 as well as being a starting pitcher.
Both pitchers got out of early jams with Bartel facing Panthers reaching third in the second and third innings. In the bottom of the third, Christofori smelled out an attempted squeeze bunt and threw to third base David Bailey to get the runner attempting to return to the base. The junior All-Star than ended the inning by easily throwing out Panther’s Sean Hanlon attempting to steal second.
But for most of his time on the mound, Bartels’ fastball – reaching 90 mph – and a nasty slider that looped in to hit the outside corner on right handers put the team’s ace in position to sit down batters. In his seven innings, Bartels struck out two Panthers in five.
On the other side, Brown kept Beverly in the game as Marauder batters could not figure out the youngster, sending lazy flyballs in the outfield or grounders to the Panthers’ air-tight defense.
In the first extra frame, Belmont got started with one out when Christofori’s high infield pop fly was dropped for an error. Left fielder Connor Dacey (2-7, two singles) singled followed by Bartels who was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Second base Noah Reilly then took a full count offering for a ball that allowed Matt Kearns, who ran for Christofori, to walk home with the game’s first run. Shortstop Steve Ruzzuto followed with a slow roller to third that allowed Dacey to race home with what appeared to be the all-important insurance run.
In the bottom of the eighth, Espelin hit shortstop Garrett Desmond with a pitch before getting the next two Panthers out on long fly balls. But his one mistake to Samperi – who would go 1 for 6 in the game with a home run and five strikeouts (!) – set into motion what would be consecutive extra-inning playoff marathons between the teams as they played a 16 inning game in 2014.
Coming into the game in the ninth, Christofori relied on his fastball and changeup to keep the hosts off the bases, finishing his five innings with three strikeouts while giving up only one single with only one runner reaching second.
“He’s tough as nails. He’s one of those throw back players, he always wants the ball. He may not have the best stuff but he has the best determination out there,” said Brown of Christofori, a three-sport starter (football, hockey, baseball).
In extras, Belmont began hitting their stride at the plate against Beverly’s reliever senior captain Dylan Stevens. The Marauders collected 10 of their 13 hits – all singles – from the ninth inning on.
“We just wanted to continue to string hits together and look for someone to make a big play,” said Brown.
It would be a lucky 13th inning for Belmont which started with a sharp single up the middle by center fielder Bryan Goodwin (2-6, two singles) who advanced to second on a passed ball. Pinch-hitter Trevor Kelly beat the throw to first on a sacrifice bunt to give Belmont players at the corner with no outs. After Christofori popped out, Dacey’s infield hit that pinballed around the mound brought Goodwin home for the go ahead third run. Bartels followed with a long sacrifice fly to right that had Kelly waltzing home for the final run.
Christofori allowed the Panther to finally head off to their prom with a 1-2-3 final half inning.
Belmont will again be on the North Shore on Monday, June 6, to meet the number 1 seed Danvers in a repeat of last year’s quarterfinal that Belmont lost in extra innings, 3-1. In last year’s game, Bartels and Danvers’ ace Andrew Olszak pitch dual one-hit masterpieces over eight innings.
“If [Bartels] can go [Monday], he’ll go,” said Brown.
The game starts at 4 p.m. at the town’s middle school playing field.