Last Monday, former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, a longtime friend of head coach Mike Gambino, stopped by Boston College to check in on Birdball before its big weekend series against defending national champion Virginia. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
Youkilis watched as Gambino’s team grabbed shovels and cleared the blanket of snow surrounding home plate in order to take batting practice in 20-degree weather. The very next day, the Eagles did the same thing. On Thursday, they took swings outside in the pouring rain before their Friday matchup with the Hoos.
But players weren’t complaining—they’re more than used to this by now.
Birdball has embraced its identity as a Northeast ACC program with lackluster facilities, a team that shovels snow off its own field while its conference opponents bask in the sun. This squad spent six weeks on the road before finally returning to the comfortable confines of the Birdcage, only to see three consecutive home games postponed due to weather. Not to mention, the Eagles were forced to share the Bubble with intramural and club sports during winter training and didn’t actually use Shea Field until their home opener (which actually got postponed … twice).
Maybe it’s the grit and brotherhood developed over the last few months—and, for some, the last four years—that can somehow explain what the hell happened this weekend against No. 16 Virginia.
Sunday’s series finale featured yet another pitching duel in the rubber match. Junior ace Mike King tossed seven innings of one-run ball, but the score remained tied at 1-1 until the 10th inning. After a hit and a walk put two runners on for UVA, Gambino opted for lefty specialist Kevin Connor to face lefty cleanup hitter Tavin Smith. Connor’s only pitch of the game was swatted over the right-field fence for a three-run home run, pushing the Cavalier lead to 4-1, essentially out-of-range for a scrappy, small-ball lineup like BC.
Boom. Game over, right?
But while UVA was celebrating its surefire victory, the Eagles quietly loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the frame. Down to their last strike, they turned to doubles machine Michael Strem for late-game heroics. The outfielder sent the Birdcage into a frenzy when he ripped a 3-2 pitch down the third-base line for a bases-clearing, game-tying double.
With two minutes left before Birdball would have to settle for a tie, late-game substitute Scott Braren launched a game-winning single in the 13th inning to complete one of the craziest comebacks in recent program history.
To find the last time that BC walked off against the reigning national champions, you’d have to go all the way back to … Saturday.
The second game of the series saw ex-closer Justin Dunn make his first start of 2016, and he certainly lived up to the hype. About 15 scouts’ radar guns followed Dunn’s every pitch until he exited the game after five scoreless innings.
In the bottom of the ninth inning with the score knotted at 2-2, the Eagles began an unlikely two-out rally. Pinch hitter Chris Balogh knocked a single up the middle before pinch runner Dominic Hardaway stole second and advanced to third on an errant throw from UVA catcher Matt Thaiss. With the winning run standing 90 feet away, shortstop Johnny Adams struck out, but a dropped third strike forced Thaiss to make a routine throw to first to end the inning.
But his throw barrelled into Adams’ leg, trickling into right field as Hardaway scored the game-winning run from third base. A walk-off strikeout: perhaps the epitome of small ball.
On Friday, Cavalier ace Connor Jones blanked BC in a 3-0 victory. The projected first-round pick in the MLB draft tossed a complete-game, one-hit shutout. But even in the loss, the Eagles discovered something astounding: Jacob Stevens, a freshman right-hander who squeaked into the starting rotation in February as the Sunday arm, could handle the transition to the Friday role and compete with filthy ACC aces.
Stevens allowed zero earned runs in six innings of work, improving his ERA to 0.45, best in the country as of April 12. Gambino’s secret weapon has only allowed two earned runs in 40 innings pitched this season.
Yet, even after the crazy series win against the reigning national champions, Birdball received zero media attention outside of a few local outlets. Collegiate baseball rarely grabs national headlines, but BC’s thrilling weekend barely generated buzz within small circles of the college baseball community.
The real slap in the face came on Monday, when the weekly New England Baseball poll ranked Bryant ahead of BC in the Division-I rankings.
Now, Bryant is a great club with top-notch facilities that would make any Eagle jealous. But while BC was walking off against the No. 16 team in the nation, Bryant was busy losing to Fairleigh Dickinson (a New England Conference school with a 14-16 record this season).
Perhaps the national view of BC baseball was best exemplified by Virginia’s drop in the top-25 poll from No. 16 to out of consideration entirely:
“The Cavaliers lost two of three to Boston College? Are they really that bad?”
No, Birdball’s new and improved pitching staff is just that good.
Together, Dunn, King, and Stevens have a combined ERA of 1.61. I’ll take my chances with that trio up against any pitching staff in the country. Plus, despite Donovan Casey’s long-term injury, the bats in the lineup are finally coming alive: outfielder Michael Strem has eight hits and 10 RBIs in his last three games.
And don’t forget that all of this has been against elite competition. You have to venture all the way down the current top 25 list to No. 16 Clemson in order to find a program with more top 25 wins than the Eagles’ four.
Not only should BC be the unanimous top dog among New England baseball programs, but the team deserves a top 25 nod if it can sweep Notre Dame on the road this weekend.
As much as the disrespect irritates fans like Youkilis, Gambino & Co. can only shrug it off with a laugh. After all, they’re used to it.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor