Three’s Company Last season, one All-ACC Freshman selection was huge for Birdball. This season? They had three.

L

ast season, Chris Galland enjoyed one of the best freshman seasons in Boston College baseball history, slugging and stealing bases to the tune of an All-ACC Third Team selection—the highest honor for a first-year player in Eagles history. Galland missed out on earning The Heights Breakout Male Athlete of the Year award, though, as football star and Heisman candidate A.J. Dillon was an absolute force in the fall.

Head coach Mike Gambino and Birdball had something up their sleeve for the following season, though. After struggling to 17 wins in 2018, the Eagles very nearly vaulted to 30 wins in the regular season in 2019—all on the back of a trio of freshmen from assorted backgrounds. One entered as a flamethrowing righthander from California fresh off a shaky summer, one was a three-sport athlete who has been told his whole life he’s too small, and the third was a smooth-hitting middle infielder who chose BC over several rival ACC schools.

Mason Pelio. Sal Frelick. Cody Morissette. Three incredibly talented freshmen who didn’t go through the typical adjustment period and instead rose to the occasion when the ides of conference play set in. For that reason, with all earning All-ACC selections, there’s no reason that just one should earn the distinction of the Breakout Male Athlete of the Year.

L

et’s start with Pelio. On paper, the cards didn’t line up for the 6-foot-4 righthander to enjoy a breakout first season on the Heights. A native of Rancho Bernardo, Calif., Pelio’s family moved to New Hampshire after his senior year, and he went on to play for the Nashua Silver Knights, a member of the Futures Summer Collegiate Baseball League. For Pelio, the adjustment was far from easy.

“The Mason Pelio Mystery is a novel the Nashua Silver Knights would rather not be reading,” the Nashua Telegraph’s Tom King wrote after Pelio’s third start of the year, one in which he didn’t get out of the second inning and saw his ERA balloon to 17.55. Silver Knights pitching coach Kyle Jackson described him as “overmatched,” and for many a young pitcher, the confidence seemed to be an issue.

Gambino, though, saw nothing but potential to grow.

“The family moved, graduated high school, going to college—that’s a lot,” he said. “Now you show up and you’re trying to pitch and you’ve got all these expectations. His summer was kind of a whirlwind but it was a great learning experience.”

Gambino and Pelio talked a lot during the summer, stressing the importance of eliminating all the noise and just worrying about getting better and pitching and competing. Pelio showed up on campus and just got better and better, quickly getting comfortable to the point where he was ready to pitch to his true ability in the spring.

Pelio was a highly-touted recruit, summer ball struggles aside, as he was nothing short of dominant for Rancho Bernardo High School. After recovering from an injury suffered sliding headfirst into home plate when he was a sophomore, Pelio returned with a low-90s fastball and progressed from there. A hard worker who has quickly gained acclaim for hitting weights to failure, Pelio was a Perfect Game All-American who struck out 77 batters in 58 innings and held opponents to a .158 batting average as a senior. It didn’t take long for that to translate to BC, as his third start of the year—against top-10 Louisville, nonetheless—was brilliant. Pelio pitched into the eighth inning, allowing a lone unearned run on four hits in a win.

Two outings later, he shut down another ranked foe in Florida State, holding the Seminoles scoreless for seven innings while striking out eight. He fanned seven against North Carolina State, allowing just one run, then stepped up again against Clemson in the ACC Tournament with six innings of two-run ball. While he slowed down near the end of the season, likely the result of getting adjusted to the grind of a 50-plus game college slate, he was still crucial throughout the year. Time and time again, Pelio was the arm that the Eagles turned to as teammate Dan Metzdorf really got going—but Gambino still thinks he’s not scratching the surface of his potential.

“He just kept getting better and better all fall,” Gambino said. “Then you saw who he really was this spring. I still he think he’s just starting to tap into how good he can be. Look at the Florida State game—he didn’t have great feel for his changeup or his breaking ball and he kind of did that with one pitch.”

Scouts are taking notice, too. His smooth mechanics and 6-foot-4 frame translate well to projections for a professional baseball future, and the Eagles will reap the benefits of a MLB Draft prospect hurling gems on the mound for the next two-plus years.

F

relick, meanwhile, arrived with plenty of momentum after playing in the same league but for the North Shore Navigators. The league’s Top Pro Prospect, Frelick made the transition to college baseball look easy—but BC was the only school that saw that potential. A three-sport athlete, Frelick passed up the suggestion to dedicate more time to baseball, and it resulted in 12 varsity letters at Lexington High School but just one scholarship offer. Standing just 5-foot-10, Frelick’s electric speed and cannon of an arm did wonders on the football field but didn’t translate to a college football career, and that diverse skill set fit perfectly to Gambino’s mold.

“Sal doesn’t have a huge baseball database because he was a three-sport guy,” Gambino said. “He’s played baseball but he hasn’t played as much baseball as some other kids that were baseball-only, which I love.

“He has a really good knack for understanding competition and competing against somebody else. You can see that really early with him, and I just remember a tremendous athlete, tremendous competitor, great makeup, and really good hand-eye [coordination].”

After a nagging injury sidelined him for fall practices, Frelick returned in the spring and, as a designated hitter, went 3-for-4 with a two-run home run in his first game with the Eagles. It was an electric debut against Jackson State, and it caught the eye of fellow Lexington High alum—a name that Birdball fans are very familiar with—Chris Shaw.

Shaw, currently on a five-game hitting streak with the San Francisco Giants’ Double-A affiliate Richmond, responded to a BC tweet about Frelick’s home run with one word—“Weird…” Shaw, after all, rose to prominence with the Eagles, playing three seasons before being drafted 31st overall. Shaw hasn’t been a stranger to his Frelick during his rise, serving as a mentor of sorts.

“Chris is an awesome guy,” Frelick told a UConn reporter after a win earlier this year. “He’s really helped me out tremendously from the moment I committed here. He helped me pick classes, decide what school to go into, and how to approach my first game as a freshman. What he’s done for me is absolutely phenomenal.”

Shaw hit just .165 in his first year on the Heights, though. Frelick, meanwhile, had an astronomical rise before going down with a season-ending knee injury he suffered in a loss to Duke. In 38 games, Frelick led BC in average (.367), on base percentage (.447), slugging percentage (.513), and stolen bases (18), and ranked second in home runs (4) and RBIs (32). His numbers at times were something you’d see in a video game, as he had four multi-hit days in his first five games and had a batting average north of .400 until his 20th game of the year.

Not only was he wreaking havoc on opposing pitchers—Frelick drew 22 walks to just 16 strikeouts in 150 at bats—but he was also piling up web gems in the outfield. Gambino noted that Frelick would’ve factored more in the infield if he’d had time to adjust to the difficulty of the position at the college level, but his skill in the outfield was still on full display. His pure athleticism and instincts allowed him to make the move seem effortless, as he made several outstanding plays throughout the year that reflected the ability of a seasoned veteran.

Against UConn, Frelick robbed a home run and threw out a runner trying to stretch a double into a triple. The first play was smooth timing, and the second was a cannon of a throw from deep center field after he crashed into the wall after misjudging the path of the ball. They showed both his youthfulness and awareness, as well as advanced his starting point is as he continues to grow.

“Infield is a super technical position in college and I’m a very athletic player so I think I snuck by in high school,” Frelick said. “A spot opened up in the outfield so I got to take it.”

Gambino put him out there because of the speed, but quickly found that Frelick “had a tremendous ability to track the ball for somebody who has never played the outfield.” It translated to a diving catch into the bleachers against North Carolina and a mid-catch adjustment against Duke at the wall—suffice to say, the move paid off.

While injuries popped up and limited Frelick’s excellent first year, BC has high hopes that he’ll follow Shaw’s trajectory. He piled up nine hits in a three-game series against the Tar Heels—the only team that managed to sweep BC this year—and will only grow more comfortable in the outfield (or infield) as his time with the Eagles continues.

F

relick wasn’t the only incoming three-sport athlete, though, as Morissette arrived fresh off a senior year decorated with accolades. New Hampshire’s Mr. Basketball at Exeter High School, Morissette also played as a quarterback, punter, and defensive back before leading his baseball team to a state title. That dynamic combination—paired with the fact that he decided to stay in the Northeast rather than pursue baseball in the South—made for a similarly impressive first year with the Eagles.

“My parents always told me, play all three sports,” Morissette told the Nashua Telegraph. “If you don’t, you’re going to regret it. Once you get to college, you stick to one.”

The Eagles sure are glad he chose baseball.

Morissette homered twice in BC’s ACC Tournament opener against Clemson, a fitting punctuation mark on an excellent season. The freshman saw his average dip below .300 just once on the year—in mid April—and he responded by going on a tear to close out the year. Morissette had hits in 15 of his last 16 regular season ACC games, making a living against some of the toughest pitchers the Eagles saw, and paired that with strong defense at second base.

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody who watched Morissette develop as a player, though. His talent was visible at an early age, with his high school coach Kevin McQueen feeding into the legend by describing a six-year old Morissette.

“I kicked him out of the batter’s box,” McQueen said in an interview with Seacoast Online. “I watched him as a 5- or 6-year-old hit about 12 straight balls into the bleachers intentionally foul just so he could stay there and hit. “

McQueen watched Morissette grow, and by his junior year, he was his conference’s best player. He struck out just three times as an upperclassman, hitting .421 as a senior and posting a sub-2.00 ERA on the mound en route to leading Exeter to a title. He committed to the Eagles as a junior, falling in love with the campus, Gambino, and team, moving on from his original dream to play in the south. A part of his change in the heart was the bond with his younger brother, Josh, whom he played a season with at Exeter both on the hardwood and the diamond.

“As we went through the process I realized I really wanted to share this experience with my family,” Morissette said. “They’re my biggest fans, my biggest supporters and I can’t thank them enough for that.”

After graduating from Exeter, Morissette followed in Pelio and Frelick’s footsteps and spent the summer in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. He played alongside Pelio on the Silver Knights, but found more success. In 38 games, he hit .310 with 17 RBIs and five doubles, ending August on a five-game hitting streak. His play drew rave reviews from Nashua’s head coach and Director of Player Development, B.J. Neverett, who even compared him to BC alum Johnny Adams—who played for the Knights in 2013.

“When [Adams] left here, we said, ‘He’s going to have a good career,’” Neverett told the Telegraph. “And Cody is also going to be very successful.”

Adams finished his career with his name scattered throughout the BC record books in at bats, games played, and games started. He was an eventual 22nd round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners, and at this rate, it’s not unreasonable to see Morissette climbing just as high.

“If you look at the freshman of the year in our conference, we probably have three of the top five guys." Head Coach Mike Gambino

After Pelio and Morissette played well in the first game of the ACC Tournament, Gambino was asked about his freshmen. He chuckled, and had a simple response.

“Yeah, they’re so cute at that age, aren’t they.”

This trio—plus the likes of catcher Peter Burns, pitcher Joe Mancini, and utility man Lucas Stalman—forms a strong core for BC to continue to build on. It’s rare to have one freshman star, like Galland or Chris Lambert back in 2002 (he won both Big East Freshman and Pitcher of the Year), but to have three is simply unprecedented for the Eagles. Even more difficult is to pull that off when you’re recruiting largely in the Northeast and up against behomeths like Louisville and Duke, but Gambino and BC have seen all the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

“If you look at the freshman of the year in our conference, we probably have three of the top five guys,” Gambino said before the awards came out. “We have three guys in the mix for that.”

How much better these three can get in the coming years remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: You’d be hard pressed to find a better group of freshmen in the country, much less the ACC, and that’s a surefire sign that this run in the conference postseason is something that fans of BC should get used to.

Images by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor, Jess Rivlis / Heights Staff, and BC Athletics

print
mm

About Bradley Smart

Bradley is the associate sports editor for The Heights. He believes that America does truly run on Dunkin, March is the best month, baseball teams should always wear stirrups, and being down 3-1, in anything, is never cause for concern. You can follow him on Twitter @bradleysmart15.