---- — It’s not often that a high school baseball team performs the way that it projects to on paper in the preseason.
Apparently stacked teams often sputter, while it’s not out of the ordinary for a seemingly middling squad to catch fire and make a run.
That lack of predictability makes what we’ve seen through the first few weeks of the baseball season across Cape Ann even more impressive. The season’s old enough that we have a good feel for the three local teams, and, simply put, Gloucester, Rockport and Manchester Essex all appear to be who we thought they were.
Let’s start with Gloucester. After Monday’s 5-1 loss to Peabody Gloucester stands at 6-3. The Fishermen are just one game removed from their most impressive performance of the season, a 17-0 shellacking of Marblehead over the weekend and look like one of the top teams in a strong NEC this season.
Just like it seemed they would.
The Fishermen are stacked with veteran experience and leadership, and the meat of their batting order has opposing coaches struggling to find a way past them.
As Gloucester rattled off extra-base hit after extra-base hit against Marblehead on Saturday, one NEC coach scouting the game at Nate Ross Field was more than impressed, saying “There’s no real holes in this lineup, huh?”
It all starts with senior Jason Vizena, a dangerous gap hitter at the top of the lineup who gets himself on base and sets the table for a slew of big bats in the middle of the Gloucester lineup.
The 3-4-5 of Alex Webb, Jordan Pallazola and Mike Muniz is enough to make any opposing pitcher think twice, and the upward trajectory of the three over the last week makes it clear that the ceiling is very high for that group.
Throw in the likes of shortstop Santo Parisi, who was out of town for the team’s first four games but is rounding into form (he homered Saturday), Peter Clark in the two-hole and speedy Mark Horgan toward the bottom of the lineup, and it’s becoming pretty obvious that the Fishermen aren’t going to have much trouble scoring runs.
The even better news is that they’re not giving up many, either. Vizena and Lenny Taormina form a nasty 1-2 lefthanded punch at the top of the rotation, and with Webb returning to the bump after finishing his recovery from a knee injury, the Fishermen look to have more than enough pitching depth to do some damage.
One thing to keep in mind with Gloucester is that the Fishermen still have a bear of a schedule ahead of them, with the likes of St. John’s Prep, Danvers, Beverly (X2) and Lynn English awaiting them down the stretch.
But as we approach the midpoint of the season, it looks like Gloucester is just as dangerous as it looked on paper.
The same goes for Rockport. The Vikings came into this season looking to step past a disappointing tournament loss to Mystic Valley last spring, and with a ton of veterans on the squad, it looked like they were in good shape to accomplish that.
That goal took a hit in the early parts of the season when ace pitcher and middle-of-the-order bat Tucker Meredith missed the first three games of the season as he battled a nasty bout of mononucleosis.
With Meredith back on the bump, expect the Vikings to round into shape. They’re sitting at 3-3 entering last night’s game with Hamilton-Wenham despite the fact that many of their best bats have struggled out of the gates, and history has shown that good bats generally don’t stay cold for long.
Circle May 14 on your calendars, a day the Vikings travel to play powerhouse Georgetown. A win for Rockport could get it
Manchester Essex handed Georgetown its first loss of the season last weekend, while Rockport already suffered a lopsided loss against the Royals. With just three teams -- Rockport, Manchester Essex and Georgetown -- competing in Division 4 out of the CAL, those games take on huge meaning.
Rockport’s currently 1-1 against those teams, and a win over Georgetown would go a long way in getting it into the tournament based on the MIAA’s Sullivan Rule -- .500 or better against opponents in your division. Rockport plays Manchester Essex twice down the stretch as well and two wins in their final three games against divisional opponents will get the Vikings into the postseason.
If not, they could still get in with a .500 record, a top-2 finish in the CAL Small or a Memorial Day weekend win over the Hornets.
A win over the defending state champions and a rival, though, could do a lot more for this team than just guarantee them a playoff spot.
Finally, we have Manchester Essex, a team that looked to be the area’s third-best but also a far-cry from the cellar-dwelling Hornets we’d seen in years past.
The Hornets made their way to the tournament last season, and while they’ve struggled a bit this season at 2-6, their win over Georgetown made it clear they’re not a team to overlook, and the fact that two of their losses came in extra frames tells you that they haven’t been far off. Manchester Essex could also sneak into the tournament by way of the Sullivan Rule with a win over Rockport on May 18 and May 24.
It all comes down to pitching for the Hornets. Freshman Brandon Bartlett appears to be rounding into form and was credited with the win over Georgetown on Saturday. Senior ace Max Nesbit might be the key. A shoulder injury has rendered his return to the mound questionable during his senior season, but it hasn’t been ruled out.
If Nesbit does return to the mound, look for the Hornets to make a run. Either way, they’ll never be an easy out.