LEOMINSTER — The fist pumps and the show of emotions said it all.
There had been wins before this one and will very likely be more to follow, but the truth of the matter was simple: There’s a distinct excitement that comes from beating strong competition and coming together to do so.
Ignore the fact that the Leominster High baseball team is 17-1 and the latest victory propelled it into the Central Mass. Athletic Directors Association Class A final.
Day in and day out, the Blue Devils care about what they do on the diamond and not letting one another down. And following a come-from-behind, 6-5 victory over St. Paul that saw the hosts strike for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and close the door in the top of the seventh, the emotions poured out.
“It’s really like a family here. We’ve been through the COVID year and reaching the state semifinals and having that heartbreak and we just want it. Everyone here wants it so bad,” said pitcher Ryan Garner, who tossed 5.2 innings of relief to earn the win, striking out eight. “When somebody’s down, we pick them up. That’s what happened tonight in this game and it’s because we want to win.”
Garner got the call from the bullpen in the second inning as starter Tyler Godin struggled early on.
No worries for the Blue Devils. In the rare instance that someone isn’t on on any particular day, the team has embraced a next-man-up mentality.
“It’s a full team, every night. Tonight, our starting pitcher didn’t have his normal stuff, but we were 100% confident going to the bullpen,” Leominster head coach Richard Barnaby said. “If Ryan got tired or reached his pitch count, we Nick Massa or Reece Lora, guys ready to come in. In any part of the game, whoever we put in any position, we’re confident they’re going to step up.
“It was a good one tonight and I got a little emotional. I usually try to keep my poker face, but when you beat a good team like that in a big moment. … Now we have a chance on Wednesday night to get another banner.”
The Blue Devils advance to Wednesday’s Class A final at Tivnan Field in Worcester, where they will take on Tantasqua — 1-0 winners over Wachusett Regional on Friday — at 6:30 p.m.
“This tournament is important to us because the power rankings came out and Milton is still ahead of us,” said senior first baseman Jake Richard, who went 3-for-3 with two doubles and four RBI. “If we win this tournament against good teams, it gives us a chance to push ahead. These games are just as important as any other.”
The Blue Devils are second in the latest MIAA Division 2 power rankings, trailing only Milton. Tantasqua is the fifth-ranked program in Division 3.
None of that would have mattered had Leominster not pulled off the comeback Friday night.
Down 5-4 in the sixth, the Blue Devils rallied. Richard plated Mark Garner with a one-out single to right to pull the hosts even before a squeeze play at the plate was botched, resulting in the second out of the frame.
Thomas Gosson came through next, chopping a ball to third and then beating the throw to first to reach base safely, allowing Richard to come in from third with the go-ahead run.
“Everyone here is a leader in their own way,” Richard said. “We have key bullpen pieces like Ryan, we have big starters like (Angel Baez and Tyler Godin, (Tony Salvatelli and Nick Massa) will hit bombs, me and (Alexander Oquendo) do our little things, getting base hits and stealing bases. … When it all comes together, we can compete with everyone.”
Leominster trailed 2-1 early in the game, but came back to grab the lead in the third on a two-run single by Richard. The game remained close throughout, with St. Paul plating a pair in the top of the sixth before Leominster’s final rally.
“Credit to St. Paul, but every time they threw a punch, we threw a counterpunch. Every time they put up runs, we’d come back and put up runs. We’ve got a team that has confidence and has won games in the fifth, sixth, seventh innings all year,” Barnaby said. “We can’t wait to get to practice and work on some things we need to. It’s good to win and work on some of those mistakes.”