LOWELL — Heating up at just the right moment is the key to all playoff runs, and the Newburyport baseball team is red hot right now.
The second-seeded Clippers (21-5) spent Saturday afternoon burying another private school's season at LeLacheur Park, beating fifth-seed St. Mary's (16-8) by a score of 3-1 to take the EMass. Division 3 North championship trophy back to the NHS Wall of Fame behind a brilliant performance both on the mound and at the plate from Brett Fontaine.
Newburyport clinched its first sectional title since 1996. The Clippers will play the South champion in the state semifinal tomorrow (4 p.m.) at LeLacheur Park.
"It's a great win for us," said Fontaine. "For me, for the program, for everyone on the team. It feels great. I know everyone's psyched. We earned it."
Forty-year coach Bill Pettingell, who has announced he'll retire after this season, is two wins away from his first state title.
"To win 21 games is a complete team effort," Pettingell said as he was swarmed by media. "(The Spartans) were everything we expected of them and, I assume, we were everything they expected. We were very similar teams. We're both good teams, I think. We both deserved to be here."
Facing fellow right-hander Matt Turmenne, Fontaine showed nothing flashy or fancy. He simply got players to pop up or hit into the infield.
Turmenne was good, if a little more flashy. Both pitchers held their opponents scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning when Clipper Colby Morris drew a walk. Then Ryan O'Connor hit a single past second base. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch.
With runners on second and third, Fontaine got it done from the other side of the plate as well, sending a liner into center field, plating both Morris and O'Connor.
Fontaine wasn't done there, stealing second as Jimmy Conway waited for his pitch, which he saw and hit directly back to the second baseman, who overthrew to first, allowing Conway to reach and Fontaine to score.
"The coach is telling me, 0-2 (count). Choke up, get your hands through, hit the ball," Conway said of his moment at the plate. "And that's what I did. I kind of got lucky on the throw, but Brett was hustling all the way around. It felt good to come through in the clutch, you know what I mean?"
The Spartans found the only chink in Fontaine's armor in top of the sixth when Nick Day had an RBI single. But that was all they would be able to muster as Fontaine took them down 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh and the Clippers were Division 3 champs.
After 40 years and more than 600 wins, is there some secret Pettingell has been keeping from everyone?
"This won a lot of games, this hat," Pettingell said, looking at his Clippers baseball cap that he estimates is over 20 years old.
"It's 'The Hat.' A dirty hat. When we go on a streak, or we lose a game, I go dig this out of the cellar. I mean, who are the most superstitious athletes in the world? Baseball players, right? And I'm one."
Returning to the events of the day, Pettingell couldn't say enough about Fontaine.
"He happens to be my shortstop, but he happens to be 10-1 pitching," Pettingell said. "He's a pitcher, not a thrower. He doesn't strike out guys, he keeps the ball in the infield and he is one hell of a competitor. That's why he's such a good athlete and such a good pitcher.
"Brett pitched three games last year as a sophomore," said Pettingell, who tries to avoid moving shortstops into the rotation. "I said, 'Well, let me try it. If he can pitch every third game, let me see what he can do.' And he took care of his arm in practice every day. We wouldn't let him throw hard. It turned out that he could pitch."
Pettingell said his practice routine will remain the same during today's final tune-up before the state semifinal.
"We'll spend an hour and a half doing defensive drills in the infield," Pettingell said. "And then my other two coaches will take the outfielders for an hour after. We do batting practice for another hour and we'll try to get better hitting."