All eyes were on the Peabody Tanners last year. It was a baseball machine that had been years in the making; loaded with talent, seniors who had played together for years, and what may have been the best team on paper that coach Bettencourt had ever fielded. It took so long to build and seemed to crumble in order like dominos falling.
The story is difficult to look back on for anyone involved, a 10-0 start that included convincing wins over powerhouse St. John’s Prep and Xaverian paved way into an array of losses mostly attributed to the loss of pitching stability suffered when staff ace Matt Correale and backing arm Mike Raymond went down with arm injuries. “Ratty” had taken down the Prep with a complete game of fiery intensity that seemed to radiate outwards towards his teammates. Other pitchers stepped up and the Tanners fought back in the final weeks of the season, but it wasn’t enough as the team was controversially kept out of the Super 8 and lost in the second round of the D1 State Tournament.
That was the story on the surface of the 2015 Tanners, but look past that and you’ll find an enormous takeaway from the season that wasn’t fixated on back then as the team played such high stakes games: the rise of Jake Gustin (top left) and Nick Palma (below).
It is so rare that a graduation loss like the Tanners suffered this last summer leaves a team with such clear-cut leaders and even rarer when one is an underclassman but that’s exactly the situation Peabody finds itself in going into a season of lower expectations than a year ago. But don’t tell that to them.
Gustin was an anomaly a year ago, something you never see, while his fellow ninth graders were playing freshman ball he was taking on the varsity level with an unprecedented level of confidence and production. He hit a home run, carved out a regular role at third base on a team full of seniors with state title aspirations, and carried himself with a level of professionalism where you couldn’t tell the difference otherwise if you were an outsider.
“It was just, grind...they had a little bit of trouble starting in the beginning of the season you know with pitching...they needed to look deeper in the charts see who they had. They had Bobby Tramondozzi so when he was pitching they needed someone to play third. As the season was going on Betts called me up...and he had Jon (Lawrence) at third initially and me at short. Once Bobby started to pitch he sort of flip-flopped us and I hated it at first. But once I actually started playing in the games it was awesome...I actually started to like third” he reminisced.
He wasn’t the only young player making waves on a squad defined by its veterans either, Palma soared in out of nowhere as well. While Gustin shined in the field and showed a natural stroke at the plate, he performed on the gritty side making tough plays in the outfield while fighting for long at bats with a plate discipline that many upperclassman would pale in comparison to. His confidence shined throughout too:
“Once Rat went down we really didn’t have a lot in the outfield, no one was really producing out there besides (Matt) Gonick and he thought I was hitting really well on JV so he like ‘why not? Let’s see what we can do here’ and I’m lucky that he did. I just kept producing.”
Produce he and Gustin did. They would not stop and their presence gave an added boost from day one that Bettencourt could not get away from, with their youthful energy blending with the experience of the team to get the team back on track but it was too late to completely erase the mid-season struggles.
“They brought us in right away.” Palma said. “It was like we were always a part of it...it was just a good time. We could’ve probably gone further but it wasn’t a bad ride.” The ups and downs they experienced were crucial, as Gustin remembered, “I picked up ‘never take things for granted,’ cause that was their last year...you could tell that all the seniors were getting frustrated so I sort of just took in ‘always go hard’ and ‘never take any days off’ cause you never know when it’s going to be over...it was a big confidence builder.”
The unwillingness to be complacent was an important lesson that Gustin and Palma took from last year, but it was already within them and was a vital factor in them even being such large presences in an older locker-room to begin with. These are two players who live to play the game, had come up together, and have fought against harder competition for years to perfect their craft.
Palma pointed to their mentors for preparing them for the spotlight, “Me and Jake play for the same travel team, we don’t ever stop playing baseball. Matt Antonelli, Jack Antonelli they get us prepared. We’ve been working with them for two or three years now and they know what they’re doing.”
With that fundamental basis all they needed to take in was how to carry themselves around a high school atmosphere in an organization with expectations like Peabody. On their way to the program’s 10th straight 15-win season, they looked towards none other than Correale for guidance and as a figure to emulate.
“I took after Rat a lot.” Gustin remarked. “He gave me pep-talks before the game, he got us zoned in, I acted like Rat out there. I liked how he plays, he always wants to win, he works hard, and that’s who I like to take after.”
“Rat always had the fire, he always wanted it” Palma added.
The Correale role could be one that Gustin and Palma tackle together as the team takes on new challenges past the Class of 2015 era. A new wave of upper and under classman will now follow those two to starting roles here in 2016 while Bettencourt will be pressed with crafting a brand new pitching rotation with two injuries already a concern as Connor Corrigan will miss the season and Jake Zeuli deals with arm issues.
With all those questions, the two are ready to take the right approach as they saw a year ago that how the team handles the ups and downs of a long baseball season is everything.
“We need everybody on the team to get after it.” Gustin said. “Everybody has to want to win. We can’t have one person slacking, cause that brings everybody else down”
“We need to stay close.” Palma added. “We played with each other my freshman year. The only kid we didn’t have was Jake...we played very good baseball...making sure the team doesn’t get down too easily...like last year against Billerica, they scored three runs in the first inning and we didn’t show up until the last inning...I feel like we have a lot of leaders and everybody is going to step up and understand their roles.”
The team will be taking on an intriguing complexion. Lawrence and Aaron Dollin, who played quite a bit at the varsity level last year will now have firmly established spots as seniors. Ben Irvine looks to become a fixture in the infield, Jake Doherty takes over for Mike Petrosino at first while the outfield spots around Palma are still up in the air, Gustin looks to return to his natural shortstop position. Talent is everywhere, Bettencourt has even hinted at this possibly being one of his better hitting teams ever, but it all needs to fall into place positionally.
Just as Palma and Gustin were a year ago, they realize that everybody needs to be ready to play and versatility will be an emphasis especially with questions over who will be pitching.
“Always. Anything to try and make the team better, get us some wins is what we’re going to try and do” Palma said. For him that may even include some time on the mound which he has prepared for:
“Betts is getting me to throw a little more because as of now I’d be the only lefty in the rotation, we don’t have much from the left side. He’s trying to get Alex D’Angelo ready, maybe have him come out of the bullpen but you never know.”
As for Gustin, it has been another offseason around basketball and looking to bring his sensational natural talent as a fielder and hitter to the next level. It’s amazing to even consider that last year was just a baseline for him, and he has three years ahead of him, the ceiling for him may be as high as any player in recent memory:
“Personally from my standpoint I have to work on my fielding a little bit more. I’ve been working on it all offseason, putting in a lot of work so I hope that we’ll see some improvements.”
Both his and Palma’s games speak volumes and their mindset as the season closes in should have people excited about this team. They get it. For two young players, they seem to complement each other almost perfectly. Gustin comes off as the consummate professional while Palma overflows with confidence, two very important makings of a great team. Their games are even complementary with Gustin playing a finesse, skilled style whereas Palma is the symbol of grit both at the plate and in the field.
Even for their differences, they are both bonded by their immense love of the game and their rare experience from the 2015 season. They were both right in the middle of a dream of a state championship that fell apart far before it could take shape. They made the most of an opportunity that came their way and ran with it, now that’ll give them the keys to the program as two young leaders of a team with mixed personalities and skillsets that will need to develop an identity.
So as Gustin and Palma prepare to move on from the disappointment of last season, they now can write the next chapter in their own journey towards the future Peabody Tanners state championship contender. They got to be a part of one that fell apart and now know what it takes to get there and maintain it.
“I love being the underdog.” Palma chimed in. “Makes everything better.”
That’s how the Tanners come in for 2016, a new team with very unique leaders who already know they can succeed at the highest level. It will be a fresh start for two studs who already got a head start.