NORTHBOROUGH, Mass.—Jeff Burke had one thing on his mind after Mike Gambino took the ball from him midway through the eighth inning. When he got on the bus after the game, Burke wanted someone to blast “Baton Rouge.”
Down in the bayou, fans of Louisiana State University roared in between innings when the loudspeakers blared Garth Brooks’ southern anthem. For LSU supporters, the song doesn’t only represent pride in their hometown, but it also serves as an audial manifestation of winning. And in its three-game set against the then-No. 4 Tigers last month, the Boston College baseball team heard that song more than it had hoped.
The powers-that-be showed BC no mercy heading into the 2015 season, scheduling three series for BC against ranked teams—LSU, Louisville, and Florida State. Each of the nine games resulted in defeat. Some the Eagles had no shot, like throughout the series against the Tigers when the Eagles got swept by a combined score of 31-10. Some broke hearts, like BC’s late inning collapse against FSU. For a team to constantly lose against schools that have the resources a New England college can’t compete with, such as heat, it can be demoralizing to have this happen each week.
At the New England Baseball Complex 40 minutes north of John Shea Field, which still is unsuited for playing conditions, BC got that boost it desperately needed, largely thanks to the starting pitcher. As winds swirled in chilling 29-degree weather, the Eagles (6-12, 1-6 ACC) defeated North Carolina State University (11-9, 2-5 ACC) by a 3-1 margin.
Throughout the game, each time the Wolfpack threatened offensively, BC pitchers shut them down, especially Burke, who scattered seven baserunners—five hits, two walks—over 7 1/3 innings. Even when threats early on, Burke held strong. In the top of the second, Burke allowed two men on with one out before inducing designated hitter Ryne Willard to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
His success at keeping runners off base came largely from his stellar infield defense on the left side, with Joe Cronin at third and Johnny Adams at shortstop. “It’s pretty easy to get through seven innings when you know ground ball after ground ball won’t get by you,” Burke said.
Sometimes, the lanky pitcher didn’t need the help of that infield at all. With a runner on first in the fifth, Burke snagged a soft liner from NC State shortstop Joel McKeithan, catalyzing a 1-3 double play, while also notching three strikeouts. Gambino credited Burke for his ability to lock down the corners of a somewhat inconsistent strike zone with excellent pitch placement. “He was locating his fastball, and he had his slider for a strike going,” the BC head coach said. “I think it’s not really a surprise to all of us to see him do that to a very good NC State lineup.”
NC State’s only threat came in the eighth. After allowing a walk to McKeithan, Burke was pulled in favor of hard-throwing righty Justin Dunn. The reliever, however, brought shades back to his meltdown against FSU, allowing a double to Brock Deatherage to score the Wolfpack’s first run and following it up with a walk to Preston Palmeiro. After the brief scare, Dunn settled down, retiring cleanup man Andrew Knizner to end the eighth, closing out the 9th with a 1-2-3 inning.
At the plate, BC shined. Chris Shaw started a rally in the second by getting on with an infield single. The big man got into scoring position thanks to NC State’s starter. Cory Wilder’s wildness, throwing consecutive pitches to the backstop, allowed Shaw to lumber down to third. Once there, left fielder Donovan Casey upped his team-leading batting average to .342 with an RBI single up the middle.
The Eagles also showed off their depth—with Blake Butera and Gabriel Hernandez were both unavailable for this game, allowing freshman Mitch Bigras to find a spot in the starting lineup. Bigras thanked Gambino by rocketing an RBI triple down the right field line to score Eagles’ DH Logan Hoggarth. Moments later, leadoff man Jake Palomaki tacked on the insurance run with a single to give BC its third run of the game.
With no remaining teams on the docket that are currently ranked, the most difficult stretch for BC appears to have ended. Still, it’s hard to compete even against the non-elite teams, especially when many schools in the conference come from below the Mason-Dixon where 110 inches of snow (and counting) don’t lay on the ground over their home baseball fields as it does at Shea. Yet for the Eagles, a team that has struggled to overcome the natural advantages of those ranked teams, finally getting that first ACC win may confirm a hope in their talent can sometimes seem elusive.
“We’ve had six of those nine ballgames where they got the hit,” Gambino said. “It’s not surprising to any of us because we believe in it.”
On the return trip to the friendly confines of Chestnut Hill, Burke got his way. The entire team sang along to the (perfectly memorized) chorus of the LSU victory song in disjointed harmonies, letting loose that fun demeanor they’ve showed all season. One player stood up and shouted above the deafening off-key rendition of a 20-year old country song what likely was on the minds of many of the Eagles. And it’s something Birdball hopes to say a lot more this year on its upward return to respectability. “Winning is fun!”
Featured Image by Michael Sullivan / Heights Editor