n darts, Danishes, and baseball diamonds, everything starts in the middle. Well, technically, each play begins on the mound with the pitcher. For all intents and purposes, though, the middle infield duo is the heart of the defense. To a casual fan, the shortstop and second baseman may not seem much different from other position players. But with coaches confined to the dugout, the men in the middle are the unofficial coaches on the field.
Middle infielders are responsible for pickoffs, stolen-base coverage, backing up the catcher’s toss to the pitcher when runners are on base, turning double plays, facilitating cutoff throws, and more. On every pitch, the shortstop and second baseman peek at the catcher’s signal, evaluate where they should position themselves depending on the speed and location of the pitch, and move to that spot, subtly, without tipping off the batter. It’s a job that requires a high baseball IQ and veteran leadership qualities, one that is absolutely essential for any team hoping to compete for a championship.
Luckily for Boston College baseball, everything starts with Johnny Adams and Jake Palomaki.
Adams, a senior shortstop, and Palomaki, a junior second baseman, epitomize Birdball’s philosophy: work harder than everyone else and carry yourself with class. They’re the first ones at practice, the last to leave, and one of the best middle infield duos in the ACC as a result.
Offensively, it quite literally begins with Palomaki, the everyday leadoff hitter for the Eagles. Palomaki, known by his teammates simply as “Mak” (pronounced “Mawk”), has the eye of an Air Force pilot and the discipline of a Marine. Not only does he reach base at absurd rates, but he also sees plenty of pitches in the process, exhausting the opposing pitcher and making life easier for the bats behind him in the order.
Adams, meanwhile, often ends things at the plate for BC. Last year, he scored the game-winning run a team-high six times and drove in the game-winning run on three more occasions. Off the field, this team captain is a coach’s dream. From Walpole to Chestnut Hill to Cape Cod, sportsmanship awards seem to follow Adams wherever he goes.
Even the number on his back tells a story about his character. Last year, Adams became the first junior to ever wear No. 8 in memory of the late, great Peter ‘Sonny’ Nictakis—an honor unofficially reserved for senior leaders.
His teammates only had one question this year: Can we vote for Johnny again?
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, why not?’” head coach Mike Gambino said. “Sonny was the model of who we want our boys to be. Johnny’s an amazing representative of that number and of those values—so much so that the boys voted for him twice.”
Together, Adams and Mak are Gambino’s most reliable pair, starting all 57 games at the same position last year—the only two players to accomplish the feat. And together, they are the middlemen between Birdball and a return to the NCAA Tournament.
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There was something so predictable about the second-half explosion of Adams last year. To those who know him well, it certainly wasn’t a surprise. He has always seemed to click come crunch time—it’s quite literally in his DNA.
Adams’ dad, Jay, played four years of baseball at BC, serving as captain of the 1987 team under legendary head coach Eddie Pellagrini. Jay and Johnny are the only father-son captain duo in the history of the program. With baseball in his blood and a name like Johnny Adams, he was practically destined for greatness on the diamond.
“His dad taught him from a young age how to play the game the right way,” said Chris Costello, who coached Adams at Walpole High. “The way Johnny approaches baseball and life in general has everything to do with how he was raised.”
He started playing baseball at 3 years old, and by age 12, he was already on the national stage in Williamsport, Penn. for the Little League World Series. Adams started at shortstop for his hometown of Walpole in the team’s first matchup with Ohio. Clinging to a 3-2 lead in the final inning, Walpole called upon Adams to close out the game with two outs and the tying run on third base.
The baby-faced Adams mustered up his meanest stare and delivered an 0-2 fastball at 70 m.p.h. (equivalent to a 92 m.p.h. pitch from an MLB mound) that was intended to blow by the Ohio hitter. But the batter barreled up the high heat and sent a deep fly ball sailing over center fielder Mike Rando’s head. Turning his head in dismay, Adams watched as Rando ranged back, leaped over the outfield fence, and robbed Ohio of the potential walk-off home run, sealing the win for Walpole and prompting a frenzied celebration on the outfield grass.
Soon after the memorable LLWS victory, Adams emerged as a standout two-sport athlete at Walpole High School, taking shape as the well-rounded, mature leader that Birdball knows today. A four-year Honor Roll student and varsity letterwinner, Adams captained both the baseball and basketball teams at Walpole. By his junior year, he already had a league title under his belt and was the only Massachusetts player on USA Baseball’s North Atlantic roster. But his senior season was even better: Adams secured Walpole’s Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year Award after bringing the school another Bay State League title and earning first-team all-state honors.
For Adams, the decision to play ACC baseball in his backyard was a no-brainer. But the learning curve for the most competitive collegiate conference in the country was steep and unforgiving for a freshman immediately thrust into starting roles. Adams, nicknamed “The Pup” because he “probably looked lost,” struggled at the plate in his first year for the Eagles, hitting just .223. As a sophomore, he raised his average to .240. Still, offensively, he seemed like a far cry from the man who was built for the big stage.
But all the indicators of second-half success were there, albeit concealed within the statsheet. See, there’s something about late April and May—or the fact that Birdball can finally play at home—that causes Adams’ bat to heat up. Even in his freshman season, Adams caught fire toward the end, stringing together a then-career-best 10-game hitting streak from April 25 to May 15.
The next year, Adams again switched into gear late in the season—this time on April 24—as he found his stroke and managed a seven-game hit streak through May 2. On April 24 of the following year, the junior’s internal clock sounded an alarm: It was time for another hitting streak. During Adams’ team- and career-best 14-game streak, he tallied 20 hits, nine runs, 13 RBIs, and five doubles, ultimately reaching base in 19 consecutive contests.
The Eagles’ coaching staff knew that Adams was a certified Baseball Guy, tried and true, and that his hard work would eventually pay off. What they didn’t know was that the Pup would be even better in June.
It took Adams 144 games in a BC uniform before he played a game in the season’s final month. But when he finally got his chance, boy did he make the most of it. During the three-game series in the Oxford Regional, the Eagles’ first NCAA Tournament berth in seven years, Adams exploded for seven hits, four doubles, three RBIs, and three runs. He did most of his damage in the regional championship against No. 15 Tulane, going 4-for-4 with three doubles, three RBIs, and two runs as BC advanced to the first Super Regional in program history. Adams was honored with the Most Outstanding Player award for his performance.
Like his affinity for late-April streaks, it turns out that the Pup also has a history of success in June. In 2015, Adams transformed a 10-day contract in the Cape Cod League into a full summer with the Harwich Mariners, stealing the starting shortstop role and catching the eyes of MLB scouts. By August, he was Harwich’s Team MVP, an East Division All-Star, and the winner of the Manny Robello 10th Man Award for dedication and sportsmanship.
Those who have played with and coached Adams know that the stress of a temporary contract is nothing to him. No, it’s not that he’s desensitized to the pressure—he feeds off of it.
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As often as coaches preach about having an approach at the plate, the importance of entering the batter’s box with a calculated strategy cannot be overstated.
A power hitter like Donovan Casey might look for a first-pitch fastball to drive into the gap. A doubles machine like Michael Strem might sit on an inside pitch that he can turn on down the left field line. Each guy has a different approach based on his strengths and the situation at hand.
Mak always has a simple objective: get on base by any means possible. Patience is his secret weapon, and he wields it with his pinpoint eye for the zone. Last year, Mak drew 42 walks, the second-most in program history behind the record 46 walks he set as a freshman in 2015. With nine hit-by-pitches last season, he also has a knack for getting in the way of pitches. Mak isn’t just a hard out—he’s a pitcher’s worst nightmare.
For opposing teams, keeping Mak off the bases is a numbers game that they’re unlikely to win. Whether it’s a righty or lefty on the rubber, Mak owns an advantage before the at-bat has even begun because he can hit from both sides of the plate. As a freshman, he batted .289—a good average, but not one that immediately jumps off the page—yet he got on base at a whopping .447 rate. Mak’s .421 on-base percentage over his first two years ranks sixth in BC history.
“We thought he’d walk, we thought he’d hit, we thought he’d steal bags—just always be in the middle of stuff,” Gambino said. “And that’s kind of who he is right now. A lot of times when we have good-sized rallies going, he’s part of it. He’s a pain to pitch to.”
Once Mak reaches the basepaths, he’s even more of a pest for pitchers. The speedster stole 19 bases last year, ranking him third on the Eagles’ all-time single-season list. Perhaps even more telling, he scored a team-high 46 runs. That means when Mak is on base, he scores over half of the time (54 percent) and steals successfully almost a quarter of the time (22 percent).
His performance in the leadoff slot seems to defy all logic. Hitting first in the order is generally considered more challenging than most roles—after all, every other position in the lineup has the luxury of observing how the pitches move in previous at-bats. Plus, the leadoff hitter often has a responsibility not to swing at the first couple pitches for the benefit of the dugout to gauge the opposing pitcher’s arsenal.
But Mak cherishes the No. 1 spot in the lineup. He actually performs better in the leadoff slot than anywhere else in the order, batting .404 at the top of the order last year and a ridiculous .533 in 2015. He toes the line between regimented and scrappy, matching his early patience with gritty hacks when he falls behind in two-strike holes.
Mak’s biggest assets is his ability to work the count, make the pitcher work, and avoid striking out. No BC position player struck out less than Mak during his freshman year, as he posted a ridiculous 2.00 BB/K ratio. For reference, Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs led the MLB with a 1.17 BB/K ratio last season.
His pitch selection and propensity for putting the ball in play are also what make him Gambino’s steadiest situational hitter. Like Adams, Mak is an expert bunter and a serious threat with runners on base. Most notably, Mak went 10-for-15 with a runner on third and less than two outs in 2015.
To trace the roots of Mak’s fundamentally-sound style, you have to travel over 1,000 miles to Kennesaw, Ga. That’s where the Palomaki family moved to when Jake was a child, ditching Michigan’s harsh winters for a warm environment in which he could play year-round baseball. They didn’t choose Kennesaw solely for the weather, though—the city is also home to the East Cobb Baseball Club, a massive travel ball program that effectively functions as a farm system for young Georgia talent. East Cobb alumni include Buster Posey, Javier Baez, Brandon Phillips, Jason Heyward, and Brian McCann, to name a few.
Despite his training and accomplished high school career, Mak was never a highly-touted recruit, likely due to his size. At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, his measurables didn’t “wow” scouts. But his intangibles caught the eyes of the Birdball coaching staff. In fact, the Eagles were the only non-military academy to offer Mak a spot on their roster.
And, just like that, the man who escaped the cold to pursue a baseball career decided to return for the same purpose.
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For the three months leading up to BC’s home opener on March 24, the Birds nest in the Bubble over Alumni Stadium for offseason training. In case you aren’t familiar, the Bubble is an indoor practice facility of sorts, erected annually on the Alumni Stadium field after football season.
At first, it doesn’t seem like a bad deal. The Eagles take batting practice and field ground balls on the Bubble’s turf while Shea Field is coated with snow. But adapting to the harsh conditions of the Northeast isn’t nearly as nice as having year-round sunny weather that other ACC competitors enjoy.
Swinging inside the comfort of the Bubble and fielding easy hops off of the pitch-perfect turf just isn’t the same as practicing outside on a dirt baseball diamond. The slow, smooth bounces of the Alumni Stadium turf tend to cause infielders’ footwork to suffer.
“If you had watched us take ground balls at Bethune-Cookman this weekend—it was hard and fast and on dirt—you’d have thought we had never taken ground balls in our life,” Gambino said.
That’s part of what makes Adams and Mak so impressive: they boast two of the best gloves in the country at a school where the cards are essentially stacked against them.
Despite the lack of practice on dirt infields—which are fast-paced and unpredictable compared to turf—Adams made just eight errors in 271 chances as a sophomore, posting a remarkable .970 fielding percentage. That same year, he ranked No. 3 on BC’s all-time single-season list with 168 assists and No. 4 with 39 double plays. Last season, Adams barely missed his mark from the previous year with 163 assists, still good enough for the fourth-most in program history.
Mak was close behind, committing 10 errors in 248 chances for a .960 fielding percentage last year. He also has one of the best arms in the conference at his position—Gambino says he throws 92 m.p.h. off the mound—and he puts his cannon to good use on backhand plays up the middle and double-play turns. His speed and athleticism allow him to make plays like this one, where he dives for a full-extension catch that ended up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that night.
Don’t worry, the Pup can flash the leather, too.
Adams reads ground-ball hops like he has been doing it since diapers—and he damn near has been. His textbook footwork and solid arm make up for what scouts might consider underwhelming athleticism for a Big League prospect at shortstop.
At the beginning of February, Adams and Mak were loosening up in the Bubble with some long toss—well, not quite long toss because of the dimensions indoors, but close enough. With each throw, Mak wound up and fired a bullet that cracked upon impact into his partner’s glove. The noise was loud enough to attract bullpen catcher Billy O’Malley, who strolled over to Mak to witness his display of arm strength.
“That’s 100 [m.p.h],” Mak said to O’Malley.
“You think?” O’Malley asked. The catcher didn’t seem totally convinced. “That’s 100 miles per hour,” Mak repeated.
On his next throw, Mak took a giant crow hop and unleashed a laser across the field. He turned to O’Malley for his reaction.
“You know what, that is 100,” O’Malley conceded.
That confident mentality permeates throughout the Birdball clubhouse.
“This is why Mak is so good,” Gambino said. “Not only does he believe it’s 100, but he believes that’s 100 so much that now you believe it’s 100. He just knows he’s tougher than you, he knows he plays harder than you, and knows he can out-compete you.”
“I try to play bigger than I am and I always think I’m better than I am,” Mak said. “That’s what gives me the edge over guys who have more athletic ability than I do.”
Adams shares the same attitude. Both know they can go toe-to-toe with the best infielders in the country. But are they actually the best middle infield duo in the ACC?
“These guys have to be in the conversation,” Gambino said. “And if you were going to talk about the all-time best combination at Boston College, you have to talk about those two.”
Adams and Mak also know that they’ll have to play like the all-time best combination if the Eagles are to repeat the deep postseason run of last season. The first few steps have already been completed. They’ve convinced themselves that they can do it. Their conviction has persuaded their teammates that they can do it. And in their last year together, Adams and Mak have convinced their coach of just how far they can take this team.
Now they just have to convince everyone else.
Featured Images by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics