LOWELL — With the bases loaded and two outs, senior shortstop Kevin Huscher jumped on the first pitch he saw, watched as it sailed down the right-field line, and was relieved when it fell in foul territory.
“If [the right fielder] catches that, that’s a tough loss,” Huscher said. “I’m just happy it fell and I got another chance.”
Huscher capitalized on his second chance and powered a two-run single up the middle to lift Middleboro to a 4-3 walkoff victory and the MIAA Division 3 state championship Saturday at LeLacheur Park.
“I got another fastball, I was expecting a curve, but I just adjusted for the fastball and pieced it up the middle,” Huscher said. “I just put a level swing on it.”
It was an emotional victory for Middleboro (21-5), which dedicated the season to Jim Braga, sophomore catcher Cody Braga’s grandfather, who was killed in a car crash in March .
Huscher rounded first base with a heavy heart. All he could think about was his grandmother, Marie, who lost her battle with cancer five years ago, and Jim Braga.
“She was one of the biggest inspirational people in my life,” Huscher said. “That was for her. And I told Cody that was for his grandpa, he was a soccer coach of mine. He was a great guy.”
Hopedale (21-4) clung to a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, and center fielder Ian Strom entered to close the game. Daniel Mantoni went six innings for Hopedale, and allowed just five hits but threw 116 pitches.
Strom, who pitched a complete game in the Western Mass. final Wednesday, staggered two walks and two strikeouts, and then walked Neil Perry to load the bases.
“Those [walks] will kill you,” said Hopedale coach Joe Small, who is retiring after 24 seasons. “You get to their best hitter. He’s their most clutch hitter and you can’t ball-four to get to him. Devastation sets in.”
In the top of the fourth inning, Hopedale capitalized on two errors to take a 2-1 lead.
With two outs and Strom on third base, shortstop Chris Embree hit a fly ball to shallow right field, and Perry, the second baseman, collided with right fielder Taylor Frazier as Strom scored to tie the game, 1-1. On the next at-bat, designated hitter Nicholas Holmes hit a hard grounder that hopped over Perry’s shoulder, scoring Embree.
“We’ve played pretty solid defense all year, and I think it was just nerves in the beginning,” Middleboro coach Bill Lawrence said. “I said, ‘Hey, relax,’ and [we] played our style of baseball game.”
In the bottom of the sixth, Huscher hit a one-out double and stole third base. With two outs, Andrew Card smoked an opposite-field triple to the base of the right-field wall to tie the game.
But in the top of the seventh, against relief pitcher Alex Bean, Hopedale used three singles, the last from Cole DeDonato, to take a 3-2 lead and pull within three outs of the school’s first state championship.
Middleboro senior Cody Younger pitched five efficient innings and was not charged with a run. In the fifth inning, with a runner in scoring position, sophomore left fielder Paul Sances made back-to-back diving catches to prevent a run from scoring.
“I left a couple of fastballs up and they put them in the gap,” Younger said. “Paul coming in on a short one, and then taking away a gap hit again was great. Really got our team back up.”