Boston College baseball entered 2019 after a tough 17-win season, having lost two-thirds of its weekend rotation and the anchor of its lineup to graduation. With plenty of returning talent in the field and high hopes for a recruiting class that entered pegged as 55th in the nation, per Perfect Game, the Eagles exceeded expectations.
While finishing 12th in the ACC, BC still notched its ninth 30-win season in program history, advanced to the conference tournament semifinals, and won nine of its last 12 games to close out the season on a high note. Dan Metzdorf earned All-ACC First Team honors, three freshman—Sal Frelick, Mason Pelio, and Cody Morissette—were tabbed All-Americans, and the Eagles ended up just on the bubble for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
Best Moment: BC Upsets Top-Seeded Louisville to Advance to ACC Semifinals
The aforementioned ACC Championship run was highlighted by a win that not many on the national stage could’ve seen coming. The day after beating Clemson to open group play, the 12th-seeded Eagles met No. 1 seed Louisville, which entered with plenty of rest. That didn’t seem to help the Cardinals, as Metzdorf held their bats in check in a complete game effort that resulted in a 5-1 win. The victory, as Managing Editor Andy Backstrom put it in his gamer, meant an awful lot: “[The Eagles] won pool A, booked their ticket to the conference championship semifinals, and won two ACC Tournament games in the same year for the first time since 2009.”
The highlights were aplenty. Metzdorf gave up just one unearned run on three hits across nine innings, striking out seven as he was in control throughout—he even retired 10 in a row at one point. BC took a 2-0 lead in the fourth via a two-out, two-run single from Jake Alu, then answered a Louisville run in the seventh with two of their own. Gian Martellini and Joe Suozzi both had RBI singles, then Alu tacked on another insurance run in the eighth with a double off the wall.
Worst Moment: Blowout Loss to North Carolina in ACC Semis That Ended BC’s NCAA Tournament Pursuit
After beating Louisville in an impressive fashion, the Eagles came into a Saturday matchup with UNC hoping to pull off one more upset. With a win, BC would have a chance to play for the ACC Championship and would also have likely done enough to slip into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last few teams in. Things didn’t exactly go as planned against the Tar Heels, though.
The Eagles largely erased a 7-1 lead on the strength of a four-run sixth inning, cutting the deficit to just two, but UNC’s potent lineup wasn’t done. The Tar Heels beat up on the BC bullpen, scoring three runs apiece in the sixth and the eighth, eventually rolling to a 13-5 win that ended the Eagles season.
Missing out on further postseason action can be traced to some struggles against lesser opponents earlier in the year. BC finished 55th in RPI, a respectable mark, but had a chance to post a much more appealing number for the committee to consider had it not underwhelmed against several non-conference foes. In Quadrant Four, which is defined as teams ranked 151st to 299th in RPI, the Eagles dropped four games—falling to Bethune-Cookman twice and losing at home to Hartford and Massachusetts. There’s plenty of “what if” questions to consider, but those games stung, as did two losses to Evansville and narrow one-run defeats to the likes of Florida State, North Carolina State, and twice to UNC.
MVP: RHP Dan Metzdorf
You could make a case for several players on the roster to earn this honor, but it’s Metzdorf—the team’s first All-ACC First Team honor since Chris Shaw and highest draft pick (5th round, 140th overall) in three years—who rises above the rest. The team’s leader in innings pitched (82), ERA (2.30), strikeouts (204), FIP (3.11), and strikeout to walk ratio (2.25), Metzdorf only got better as the year went on.
Metzdorf threw just one quality start (against Jackson State) in his first five games, with the fifth outing a tough one. He gave up seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings against Clemson, more than doubling his season ERA. After that, though, Metzdorf was nothing short of dominant. His final seven starts of the year all went at least six innings, and he went farther and farther into the game as the year went on. The senior struck out nine in 8 1/3 shutout innings against Duke on April 26, then followed that effort by striking out eight in 7 2/3 scoreless innings against Virginia Tech on May 4. Metzdorf helped clinch an ACC Tournament appearance by pitching the Eagles past Notre Dame, then starred in the postseason against the Cardinals.
All in all, Metzdorf bounced back from a junior season in which he went 1-8 with a 5.74 ERA by vaulting into the elite of the ACC’s starting pitchers. It was a dramatic turnaround, as Metzdorf has been starting games since his freshman year but had never seen his ERA dip below five. He was drafted in the 38th round in 2018, but skyrocketed into the fifth round on the strength of impeccable command (just 32 walks in 82 innings) and impressive stamina. Plus, in games he started, BC went 8-4, winning five of his last six starts.
Most Improved: 3B Jake Alu
It doesn’t matter how talented a baseball player is or how hard or how long they’ve worked at the sport: Everyone hits a slump. For Alu, that was his junior year, where he entered fresh off of a sophomore season in which he led the Eagles with a .331 batting average and tied for the team lead in stolen bases (12). In 2018, he managed a paltry .216 average while seeing his on base percentage dip below .300 and his strikeout rate climb to a hair under 19 percent.
Still, the starting third baseman job was his alone to start the 2019 campaign, but he started the year hitting out of the eighth spot in the BC lineup. By the 11th game, he was up to fifth, and by the 16th he was hitting cleanup. Gambino’s trust in the senior only grew, and he eventually became the team’s default leadoff hitter, finishing second only to Chris Galland with 25 starts out of the No. 1 spot. It was more than warranted, as Alu finished four hits shy of the Eagles’ single-season hits record, slashing .343/.479/.410 with a career-best 18 doubles, four home runs, and 40 RBIs. He also committed just eight errors in 58 games, swiped 11 bases, and lowered his strikeout rate while simultaneously drawing more walks.
It was a prolific year for the senior, and it springboarded him into the 24th round of the MLB Draft, where he was selected by the Washington Nationals. Alu has been assigned to the team’s Class-A Short Season affiliate, the Auburn Doubledays, where the 22-year-old made his professional debut on Monday.
Top Three Storylines:
That aforementioned 55th overall recruiting class ended up with three Freshman All-Americans, another classic example of a group of BC recruits punching above their weight. Frelick and Morissette—two New England products—were drastically underrated, while Pelio—hailing from Rancho Bernardo, Calif.—proved to be everything advertised and more. Frelick, before going down with an injury, was leading the team with a .367 batting average and 18 stolen bases, while Morissette hit .320 with a team-best 20 doubles and 41 RBIs. Pelio made 13 starts and registered a 3.20 ERA, holding opponents to a team-low .194 batting average against while striking out 72 in 62 innings of work.
The three weren’t the only to spark plenty of optimism for the future. Travis Lane, the younger brother of Thomas, made 20 appearances and had a 3.63 ERA despite battling with control issues. Emmet Sheehan walked 21 batters in 14 innings but also struck out 20, flashing raw stuff that could allow him to evolve into a lights out reliever. Joe Mancini made 10 starts and 22 total appearances, too, showing consistency as a midweek arm. In the lineup, Peter Burns grew into the starting catcher, displaying strong defensive prowess over 30 starts while hitting .211. Finally, Lucas Stalman and Ramon Jimenez both made double-digit starts, with the former hitting .246 with three stolen bases while the latter displayed some pop with five extra base hits.
2) Development … and Regression
Alu and Metzdorf weren’t the only players to take a positive step forward in 2019. Gambino had several players that displayed growth this season, which bodes well for the upcoming year. First baseman Jack Cunningham will go into his senior year with plenty of confidence after raising his batting average 30 points (to .272) while slugging eight home runs, 12 doubles, and driving in 34 runs—all career highs. Joe Suozzi is another piece of the lineup that took a step forward, posting new highs in batting average (.271), on-base percentage (.356), slugging percentage (.417), and extra-base hits (13).
Not everybody enjoyed similar growth, however. Dante Baldelli has impressed defensively but has yet to find his way at the plate, slumping to a .220 average with 10 fewer stolen bases. Baldelli has largely struggled in his three years on campus, currently hitting just six points above the Mendoza Line. The bullpen was filled with players who took steps backwards, whether it was Will Hesslink (10 earned runs in seven innings), or departing relievers in Sean Hughes and Jack Nelson.
If anything defined the 2019 season for the Eagles, it’s their impressive resilience. The ACC sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, and BC played all but one of them. With that being said, the Eagles were swept just once, managing to claim at least one win against nearly ever conference opponent.
The only team that managed to avoid dropping one game to BC was UNC, but that’s not to say the series wasn’t without drama. In a Saturday doubleheader, the Tar Heels slipped past the Eagles in back-to-back extra-inning games, winning in the 11th both times. Otherwise, BC took a game from then-No. 1 North Carolina State, No. 8 Louisville, No. 17 Georgia Tech, No. 20 Clemson, and No. 25 Duke. It also stole two of three from Florida State, who is currently playing in the College World Series.
The Eagles might’ve lost some winnable games against lesser opponents, but they never folded against some of the conference’s elite and that showed when they went on their eventual ACC Tournament run.
Top Three Plays:
1) Frelick goes into the bullpen for an amazing catch
In the bottom of the fourth inning of a game in late April against North Carolina, BC reliever Matt Gill found himself in a 3-2 count with two outs and two runners on, protecting a two-run lead nonetheless. He got Tar Heels’ catcher Brandon Martorano to loft a flyball down the right field line that seemed like it was going to drift out of play into the Eagles’ bullpen.
Instead, once again, Frelick—hustling from way out in left field—closed the distance, leapt up, and pulled it out of the sky before flipping over the fence in front of a raucous bunch of BC relievers. It was a phenomenal play from the former shortstop, and to no surprise landed at No. 4 in the SportsCenter Top 10 segment.
2) Frelick makes a leaping grab to rob a home run in Connecticut
Frelick was known for making highlight-reel plays on the football field and on the diamond at Lexington High School, and that has more than carried over to his collegiate career. Playing in Storrs, Conn., against the Huskies, Frelick went racing back to the fence in deep left-center and leapt up to pull a home run back. The timing was perfect to rob John Toppa, and while the Eagles would go on to lose 3-1, Frelick did his part to keep it close.
3) Metzdorf strikes out Louisville’s Alex Binelas to complete a dominant game
The aforementioned win over the Cardinals, one of the biggest in program history, couldn’t of been done without Metzdorf. The senior was practically unhittable throughout, hurling a three-hitter with seven strikeouts. He saved his best for last, though. With nobody on and two outs in the ninth, Metzdorf got Binelas to flail at a pitch low and away to strike out and end the game.
The big names departing hurt—Metzdorf, Martellini, Alu, and Thomas Lane—but the Eagles have more than enough to overcome that, at least in the lineup. Seven members of BC’s ACC Tournament starting lineup are coming back, and that doesn’t include Frelick, who will return from injury. That means the runs will be there once again, as Gambino’s team took a big step forward offensively in 2019. Question marks linger in the rotation, though.
Pelio will be the undisputed ace and Mancini figures to be in the weekend rotation as well, but who will the third guy be? The Eagles have dependable bullpen arms in Travis Lane, Joey Walsh, and Gill, but there’s not a clear-cut third starter. Time will tell if that third pitcher will come from the incoming recruiting class or in the form of a player making a jump this offseason. Regardless, there’s plenty for Birdball to look forward to in 2020.
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff
Images by Jonathan Ye and Celine Lim / Heights Editors