One Final Hurdle

Mike Gambino

Mike Gambino still isn’t so sure how it happened.


Chris Shaw, arguably the best Boston College baseball player the program has ever seen, had been complaining for a couple of days about the fleshy part of his right hand, around the wrist. He hadn’t gotten hit by a pitch. No one had banged into him in the outfield. And he certainly had behaved himself enough off the field to avoid any foolish actions.


In the opener of a three-game series against Clemson last year, whatever pain Shaw had been feeling finally came to its breaking point. The right fielder, known more for his clout at the plate than his deftness roaming the plains of Shea Field, crashed into the wall while snagging a fly ball off the bat of a Tiger. Not long after, in the eighth inning of another blowout by a superior Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, Gambino pulled Shaw out of precaution.


X-rays that evening came back negative, but a hand specialist the following Monday wouldn’t give Shaw news he was hoping for:


Broken hamate, could be 3-6 weeks, if Shaw was lucky.


It was the toughest blow that an Eagles team looking to make a run at its first playoff berth since 2010 could have faced. And yet, somehow, it was also BC’s biggest blessing.


Of course, Gambino won’t ever admit that. Who can blame him? Shaw was the 31st overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft by the San Francisco Giants. Despite missing 14 games because of that broken hamate, Shaw led the Eagles in home runs (11) and RBIs (43) while batting .319 with a slugging percentage of .611. This summer, as a 21-year-old playing for San Francisco’s Single-A Affiliate, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Shaw hit .287/.360/.551, with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs in a mere 46 games. And when asked if it was better for the program not to have Shaw clogging the middle of his order, Gambino broke out in laughter.


“No, given the choice, I’d rather have Chris Shaw in the lineup,” Gambino said in his office last week.


But with Shaw forced to the pine, Gambino’s recruiting prowess and coaching capabilities came alive. And a plan in the works since he took over five seasons ago finally began to unfold.


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It’s hard to add up the countless reasons why Birdball struggles to keep up in the ACC. Given BC’s stringent academic requirements, the program rarely accepts junior college (JUCO) transfers. It’s one of the only programs in the country in which athletes must be interviewed by the admissions office on their official visits, regardless of sport. Those rules don’t apply to even the more academically notable colleges in the conference, like defending champion Virginia.

Gambino can only grant 11.7 scholarships to fill up his 35-man roster. Unlike football and men’s basketball, these scholarships can be spread out across players, and Gambino can give 25 percent of a full scholarship or more to any player. But, given how balanced a baseball roster must be for a team to remain competitive in the ACC, it wouldn’t be a good use of resources to give anything more than a half scholarship. 


Oh yeah, and then there’s the snow.


Balancing a proper schedule to give every team ample space and time underneath the bubble over Alumni Stadium is hard enough. But when the snow piles on, like it did three seasons ago, it can collapse. In 2013, a lack of practice space left the Eagles unprepared heading into a daunting ACC schedule, which resulted in a 12-40 record. And it’ll still be a couple of years before the new indoor practice facility is ready.


Even when practice time is over, Shea Field’s natural grass is often unplayable. Gambino and the ACC know this, frontloading BC’s schedule with road games. The Eagles won’t take to the Pellagrini Diamond until Mar. 15 against Holy Cross—they won’t even open their ACC slate at home until Friday Apr. 1 vs. Florida State.


But that’s assuming full cooperation from the weather. Last year, BC was scheduled to begin at home on Mar. 20. Because of last year’s record snowfall over Boston, the Eagles were forced to move a series against North Carolina State to nearby Northborough, Mass., and another against Duke to Newark, Del. Birdball couldn’t even play at home until Apr. 8.


And still, BC was only a couple of wins away from returning to the ACC Tournament and hosting a regional on the path to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.


How can that be?


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”We were in kindergarten. Now, when most of our team is past kindergarten, you can take the freshmen, and develop them, and work on that stuff, and take the older guys who are going to be on the field more and do higher-level stuff.” cite=”Mike Gambino” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]


Corner infielder Joe Cronin recalls coming to BC four years ago as a shortstop. As a freshman and sophomore, that’s where he primarily played. But if you watched a practice, you’d probably never guess that. As soon as Cronin would settle in the 5.5 hole, Gambino would force him over to third base. When he was done looking at him at third, Gambino slid Cronin over to second. After he got his reps over at second, he’d grab a new glove and go to first. Cronin didn’t like being shuffled around, at first.


“I remember I’d say, ‘Well, Coach, I’m not a third baseman, I’m not a second baseman, I’m a shortstop,” Cronin said last week. “And he’d say, ‘Yeah, but, you might be.’”


Cronin couldn’t be more grateful that Gambino told him that.


It’s not a common practice to move infielders around the diamond like that. Not only do high school players learn to specialize in one sport, they often do at a particular position. Barring injury, they’ll enter college and stay there. The idea is that, the more reps you get at one spot, the better you develop. Even the most advanced play becomes muscle memory.


Gambino doesn’t see it that way.


He started his baseball career in 1997 at BC as a third baseman, but arm problems moved him over to second. When Gambino signed with a farm team in the Red Sox system following his senior season in 2000, he became a utility man. “Mostly because I wasn’t good enough to beat out anyone else at any position,” Gambino remembered, with a laugh.

Mike Gambino


He quickly realized, by moving around the infield, that the four positions weren’t all that different from one another. In fact, Gambino discovered that learning the intricacies of one spot made him better at the other three. Figuring out where to place your feet on the bag as a second baseman while turning a double play helps you know as a shortstop where to feed the ball. Learning how to make that 120-foot throw on a drag bunt from third base will show you where to properly place your feet at second or first to get the out. By learning those other positions, Gambino believes that an infielder’s defensive talent increases tenfold.


So, every day during fall practices, Gambino’s infielders will spend time at other positions. They’ll continually cycle around the diamond before slowly cutting down their time as it gets closer to spring. The results have made BC one of the nation’s better defensive teams. Even Johnny Adams, one of the best fielding shortstops in the country and the man bestowed with Gambino’s cherished No. 8 this season, believes he has improved by playing elsewhere on the dirt.


No current player exhibits this more than Jake Palomaki. The 5-foot-10 sophomore is built like a second baseman, with quick feet but a below-average arm. He was blocked at the position last year by four-year starter Blake Butera. Instead of benching him for lacking a position, Gambino taught Palomaki the art of the hot corner. At third base, Palomaki developed solidly while becoming an on-base machine at the top of the order.


With Butera gone, Palomaki can return to second base, taking everything he has learned from third to help him at his natural position. According to Adams, he has readjusted with ease. The two have created excellent chemistry in the middle of the infield, and Gambino is excited for his new double-play duo. After all, it doesn’t take much to rotate around the diamond.  


“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Gambino said.


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”I could have my worst season and we’ll still have a great season.” cite=”Joe Cronin” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

His players certainly need that help when they arrive at BC. It’s not through any fault of their own. Little League and high school ball is wildly different from the college level, and many players haven’t seen some of the plays that come up in the heat of the ACC. The talent has always been there, it’s just a matter of the execution.


Sometimes, that talent is even good enough to beat a professional team. Almost, at least.


Gambino recalled BC’s exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox. The Eagles gave the Sox as hard of a fight as a college team could. In a dangerous situation with runners on, his infielders couldn’t connect on a tailor-made double play, choosing a safe out at first instead. This put runners at second and third with one out, instead of a runner at third with two out. The next batter knocked in a run on an RBI groundout, before the following one drove in two more with a single. Even though that annual game may not count in the record books, Gambino never lets his players forget it.


“I showed that to the boys, and they all blinked and said ‘Oh my god, there it is,’” Gambino said. “And since then, there’s been multiple times when that’s happened and they always throw to the right base.”


Cronin’s personal development as a fielder is a testament to Gambino’s mission. The Eagles played VCU on Opening Day and Cronin, a freshman, started his first career game at third. The Rams led BC 2-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, when they had a runner at second and one man out. Landon Prentiss rolled a slow ball up to Cronin at third, the type that a more experienced fielder would’ve eaten to allow the runner to get on with a single while preventing the run and keeping the double play intact.


Try telling a kid to hold the ball in his first real play at third.

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He couldn’t set his feet and airmailed the throw to first, allowing a runner to score. VCU would add another to put the game farther out of reach in what became a 4-1 final.


Weeks later, during the summer season, Cronin texted Gambino saying he got a similar play. This one, he patiently waited, set his feet, and nailed the man at first.


Those weren’t the types of plays that Gambino could always practice with his guys. When Cronin came to Chestnut Hill three years ago, Gambino needed to rely on his freshmen to fill key roles in the starting lineup. Keep in mind, jumping from high school to the college game isn’t a smooth transition—even Shaw hit a measly .165 in his freshman season. Because of that, Gambino has had to spend his precious little practice time hammering down the fundamentals. It’s a rut that he has been desperate to get out of since he arrived in 2010.


So Gambino and his staff would have to sit down his players after they screwed up in the field. Instead of telling them how to fix it, they’d have to learn through their own mistakes.


But those days are over for the Eagles. The roster has turned over enough to a healthy amount of players in each grade—six seniors, seven juniors, nine sophomores, and 11 freshmen—all of whom have been recruited all the way through by Gambino’s staff. The numbers are still swayed toward the underclassmen, but with only three position players in the freshman class—catcher Gian Martellini, infielder Jake Alu, and outfielder Connor Bacon—and prepared starters at each position, Gambino doesn’t feel any pressure to throw any man out there before he’s ready. Even last year, Gambino had to start freshmen in the field, like Palomaki and outfielder Donovan Casey.


Now, Gambino has the time to work with his freshmen so that they can learn by messing up in practice rather than in a game, when it actually matters. That way, his team won’t just be old. It’ll stay old. Older guys will be prepared from what they’ve been taught on the sidelines. Newcomers will get the time to evolve. And the cycle will keep rolling on.


“We were in kindergarten,” Gambino said, referring to the previous several years. “Now, when most of our team is past kindergarten, you can take the freshmen, and develop them, and work on that stuff, and take the older guys who are going to be on the field more and do higher-level stuff.”


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Learning those other positions also helps guys get into the lineup without being restricted to a particular position. That helps a batting order that had trouble when centered around Shaw last season. Pitchers could move around Shaw, the lumbering man with the big bat in the heart of the order. That put a strain on the men behind him, especially Cronin, to be “the guy” in big spots. When Shaw went down, Cronin felt even more pressure to become a player he didn’t want to be. Instead of the 5-foot-9 doubles man with a compact swing, Cronin spent too much time watching Shaw hit 500-foot bombs in batting practice. He knew he had that type of home-run power—hell, he showed it when he launched a ball over the Green Monster to win the Beanpot over UMass last season. But it made his swing too advanced, causing him to spiral into a prolonged slump. By the time Gambino and Cronin worked on it, it was too late—the Eagles were out of playoff contention and Cronin went down with a separated shoulder.


This time around, Cronin knows it’s not his responsibility to be “the guy,” even though, by all accounts, a senior captain probably should be. But playing in his last season only helps him relax and realize he will do better if he’s just along for the ride.


“I could have my worst season and we’ll still have a great season,” Cronin said.


Why? Because there is no guy. The Eagles can keep the line moving more than they ever could with Shaw. When his hitters aren’t confined defensively, Gambino can help them find their way into the lineup. If his plan works out the way it should, the Eagles’ order should look dangerous from top to bottom. And it’ll keep the pressure evenly on every player: No one will be pitched around, but no one will be safe.


A quick look at the Opening Day box score shows that. The top three—Palomaki, Adams, and Strem—couldn’t manage a hit. But the bottom six went 7-for-22 with all five runs driven in for a 5-1 win over Northern Illinois. The big bat? Martellini, the freshman who has found an early home at the designated hitter slot.    


BC’s Saturday starter, left-hander Jesse Adams, channelled Moneyball when thinking about how excited he is about the lineup behind him. He believes the Eagles have the same exact production as Shaw in their order, just not with any one individual. All they have to do is recreate him in the aggregate.


It’s not hard to see why he feels that way. The Eagles return four starting hitters—Strem, Palomaki, Casey, and Logan Hoggarth—all of whom hit at least .289 last season. Cronin, Adams, and catcher Nick Sciortino all have had their own highlights at the plate, too—after all, Adams was an All-Star in the Cape Cod League.


And, of course, Cronin won’t let anyone forget that bomb at Fenway Park, which, as he remembers, was a perfect representation of everything Gambino tries to do when helping a hitter. In the weeks leading up to the championship game, Gambino worked extensively to simplify that swing. He kept telling Cronin to just get the barrel down, don’t think, and let it fly. Cronin got that opportunity on a 1-0 pitch, a straight fastball, middle-in, right in his wheelhouse. Just a quick stroke to give the Eagles a lead they’d never relinquish.


“Yeah, there might’ve been a little jetstream up top there, too,” Cronin said.

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What’s forgotten, though, is that that was the pivotal game in a 9-5 run the Eagles had without Shaw. During that time, BC stayed hot because of the strength of a pitching staff that is now receiving national praise by Baseball America. That talent was magnified in a three-game series with a traditional powerhouse, Georgia Tech. Staff ace Mike King tossed a 1-0 complete game shutout in the Friday game, followed quickly by former Eagle John Gorman’s dominant performance in a 6-1 victory on ALS Awareness Day in honor of former team captain, Pete Frates.


But none were more impressive than Jesse Adams, this year’s Saturday starter. The crafty left-hander consistently frustrated the Yellow Jackets in his first ACC start of the year, using his great high-arm slot to trick batters while blowing past hitters early in the count with a late hop on his fastball. When he got them in a hole, Jesse would use a late-breaking circle change. In a flash, Adams had rolled through 6 2/3 perfect innings. His only flaw would be a double by Matt Gonzalez, a friend of Adams since he was 15 years old. But it wouldn’t stop the Eagles in a 4-0 win that appeared to place them squarely in the hunt for a return trip to the ACC Tournament in Durham, N.C.

The good times didn’t last long.


BC entered North Carolina the weekend after Georgia Tech and the Beanpot with every intention of taking a stronghold of a postseason berth. But the team, instead of keeping its composure, panicked.


With Palomaki on third, Butera on second, and Strem on first, the Eagles were down 1-0 in the top of the ninth with two outs and Casey at the plate. The freshman rolled a ball down the left side of the infield, racing to first. But a bang-bang play at first didn’t turn the Eagles’ way. A chance to ride that momentum and take two-of-three from a tough divisional opponent turned into a sweep. The following weekend, BC was swept by Virginia Tech. All of the highs of those great pitching performances were gone before Shaw could even return to the lineup. There was a lot to blame, from injuries to key players to pressing and trying to be perfect.

But what it taught the Eagles was invaluable. It put the older guys in a position they had never been before: competing for that playoff berth. Although it didn’t turn out the way they planned, the experience helped propel the younger guys into a new culture in Chestnut Hill.


It’s one built on Gambino’s three core principles: Character. Toughness. Class.


Character: It’s what wins. You recruit the high-character guys, and have them buy into what BC sells, both on and off the field. You know, “cura personalis,” the whole Jesuit thing. Gambino only wants guys who love that idea that they’re going to contribute to the community, not just to the team.


Toughness: Take the adversity head-on. There are a lot of reasons why BC can’t succeed. Cold, travel, lack of facilities. But, in Gambino’s mind, that’s exactly how his team can succeed.


Class: Take the character and represent it. A father called Gambino to tell him that two of his players spent 15 minutes talking to his 11-year-old son, even signing autographs. What doesn’t matter is which two players it was. Because, as Gambino believes, if he has run his program properly, it could’ve been any one of them.


The players he has recruited exemplify those personality traits. He has the talent on the field that completes his vision: a strong pitching staff, sound defensive skills, and a lineup balanced from top to bottom. It’s the near-completion of a recruiting cycle that should set the Eagles up to contend for years to come.


But until his team returns to postseason play, Gambino feels he has accomplished nothing.


“Are we better than we were and are we getting better every year? Yes,” Gambino said, looking stern. “Are we where we want to be? No.”


And there’s only one result that can make Gambino satisfied.


“We want to be in Omaha.”

Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor

Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan was the 2017 editor-in-chief of The Heights and a two-time sports editor. He brought this paper to once a week and reminisces about the Wednesdays he could've had at BC. You can still follow his journalistic adventures @MichaelJSully.

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