Andrew McLaughlin took the mound in the top of seventh Tuesday afternoon with a 5-1 cushion in his back pocket against visiting Gloucester High.
Using a hard-breaking curve that he had at the top of his arsenal all game, the Peabody High junior struck out the first hitter before recording the second out on a ground ball to third baseman George Tsonis , who had put the Tanners ahead for good with a two-run double in the fourth.
Then, on his 15th pitch of the frame, McLaughlin jammed the batter, inducing a bloop just over the head of shortstop Ryan Collins . But the ever-alert sophomore chased down the ball and made a spectacular bobbling catch worthy of a highlight reel.
It was fitting that Collins would help finish off a win for McLaughlin, the team’s starting shortstop a year ago.
McLaughlin loved to play the position. But Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt had another idea.
After the Tanners were ousted in the Division 1 North tournament by Lynn English, the 21st seed, Bettencourt was determined to build more depth in his pitching staff. He had watched his ace, Pat Ruotolo , put together a dominant regular season, punctuated by back-to-back no-hitters. But by the tourney, Ruotolo, as well as the other pitchers who were also position players, was exhausted.
Bettencourt and his staff know pitching. After playing collegiately at Boston College, he served as the Eagles’ pitching coach, and then had a six-year run as head coach at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
He wanted a legitimate pitching staff, players who would be willing to give up starting positions in the field and dedicate their time to the mound. So he approached McLaughlin, his shortstop, second baseman David Apostolides , first baseman Derek DeMild, and catcher Brandon Butcher , all sophomores on the varsity, and asked if they would be willing to make the transition.
The answer was a resounding yes.
“I was prepared for them to say ‘no, I want to compete and I want to win my job,’ and I would’ve accepted it,” said Bettencourt. “But I was also very happy I had kids who were more about the team than the individual. Usually those [seasons with selfless players] are special years. The other guys, the younger guys especially, see what those four did. They see them never pick up a bat and work hours with the pitching coach every day. [Their attitude] took over the team.”
McLaughlin said he misses his days at shortstop, but ultimately “I know what’s best for the team, and I want to do that so that we can win. It’s not about me, it’s about us.”
That “we, not me” attitude propelled the Tanners to an 11-1 start and first place (9-0) in the Northeastern Conference. Their only blemish came in the second game of the season against powerful St. John’s Prep.
Following the loss, the Tanners ripped off 10 straight victories, including a 3-2, 11-inning thriller Wednesday night under the lights at host Danvers. The Falcons were unbeaten entering the matchup, but Ruotolo and senior captain Matt McIsaac held Danvers scoreless after the first inning (Peabody is 6-0 in one-run games this season, and 2-0 in extra innings).
But how did a 16-6 club that lost 80 percent of its infield win 11 of its first 12 games?
Leadership and preparation.
First, Bettencourt changed his practice routine. The sessions are longer, and the focus is on game situations and scrimmages. The varsity and junior varsity work out together, so from Day 1 every player has faced top pitching.
The result: a competitive atmosphere in which Bettencourt “isn’t afraid to pull a senior for a sophomore” and has resulted in “probably 10 different lineups,” according to the coach. Players dive for balls during batting practice.
“On any given day, I could play 18 different guys,” said Bettencourt. “Everyone knows they have to be ready at all moments.”
Because of this competitive nature, Bettencourt said he knew the type of talent he had, along with the type of gritty seniors he could slot in as well.
Tsonis, a captain, mans the hot corner, and McIsaac has taken over at second. Frank Lowry – another captain and formerly the team’s designated hitter – is playing first. Senior Brandon Polignone , a catcher and a transfer from St. Mary’s of Lynn, has been terrific.
“For a kid to walk into a pitching staff like ours . . . he’s taken them all on and done an excellent job defensively,” Bettencourt said.
Collins continues to impress at shortstop. His presence in the middle of the infield has made everyone around him better, too.
Senior Max Gordon, the first bat off the bench, has delivered pinch hits in pressure spots, including a pinch double that sparked a come-from-behind rally against Lynn English.
“He paces on the bench waiting, and like a caged lion we cut him loose when we need a big hit,” said Bettencourt. “He’s completely bought into that role. You couldn’t ask for anything better from a senior or his maturity.”
Gordon does not start; he knows his role and accepts it.
“Everyone does it now,” said Bettencourt. “That’s why we win.”
Tough to score on Amesbury softball
After a 16-4 campaign and a trip to the Division 2 North quarterfinals last spring, the Amesbury softball team won nine of its first 10 games, including an 8-1 mark in the Cape Ann League to top the Division 2 CAL standings.
Amesbury has allowed 20 runs in 10 games, shutting out Ipswich (16-0) and Newburyport (18-0). In seven of its 10 games, opposing teams have scored two runs or fewer.
At the plate, the Indians are averaging 10.6 runs per game.
Last week, University of Rhode Island recruit Cassie Schultz was 13 for 16 with eight RBIs.
Odds and ends
Pat Ruotolo passed 300 career strikeouts last week, and is fast approaching Mike Proto (a lefty in the ’90s who went on to play for Clemson) and Jeff Allison (drafted by the Florida Marlins 16th overall in 2003) on Peabody’s all-time strikeout list. . . . Stoneham senior catcher Gia Raczkowski hit two grand slams, one that sparked a rally against Winchester that ultimately fell short in an 11-10 game, the other in a 19-4 thrashing of Belmont. . . . St. John’s Prep (12-1) won its 12th straight, avenging its only loss of the season against Catholic Conference rival Xaverian, 7-4.