Touching all the Bases: Central's Espinola played it the right way

·8 min read

Jun. 23—There was a sense of urgency to Central Catholic's Kyle Espinola this spring, like it was his final season of baseball ... ever.

Of course, you probably wouldn't have noticed. The fire, the energy, the desire and, yes that sense of urgency, have been constant every step he's taken in the Raider baseball program.

"He gave us all he could, every day," said Central coach John Sexton. "He's always done things the right way. and he's always been willing to do whatever it takes."

As we re-kindle the traditional "Touching all the Bases" awards here in the spring of 2022, we are awarding Espinola the treasured Matt Johnston Award. Johnston was a former Central Catholic middle infielder, and ex-Eagle-Tribune staffer, who shared a passion for baseball like no other. He lived the game, poured his heart into and cherished it before passing away in his 20s.

Espinola fits the profile to perfection, albeit with a little twist.

"He's a different kind of kid, mature beyond his years," said Sexton. "Very mature, very responsible."

A two-year starter at second base for the Raiders, Espinola impacted Central baseball early.

As a freshman, Espinola got tossed right into the fire.

"He actually had a big save on the mound, with a couple of strikeouts against Beverly for us to get into the tournament," said Sexton.

After that freshman season, Espinola suffered a major setback, undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. As devastating as that was, it sent Espinola into a direction that he might never have found without the injury.

"When I wasn't able to play baseball, I started working in carpentry," Espinola said. "And I really liked it."

After graduating from Central last month — and once the Raiders' season ended in the state tournament — Espinola embarked on a new journey.

He will join the carpenters' union and start his career.

"It's something that I really enjoy. I love working with my hands," said Espinola, who graduated with a GPA hovering right around a 4.0.

TATB AWARD WINNERS

It's a tad awkward, since his son Cole has caught the past two seasons for Pinkerton Academy, but we will continue to present a Jay Yennaco Award for the dominant right-handed pitcher in the region.

Yennaco, of course, was a third-round draft pick of the Red Sox whose area season high of 132 strikeouts his senior year at Pinkerton Academy remains the unofficial standard.

Cole's battery-mate Tom Rioux is an easy choice this spring, his 9-0 senior campaign, helping lead the Astros to their first state baseball title since 1986.

The third major TATB Award of the spring goes to the sweetest swing in the region, our Carlos Pena Award.

We'll split that honor this spring, one from the right side and the other from the left.

From the left, we have to go with Central first baseman Nathan Kearney, the junior who hit .432 for the spring. The Stonehill commit came out hacking and never looked back, posting an on-base percentage of .531 and an OPS of 1.012.

And from the right, it has to be Pinkerton Academy sophomore Jackson Marshall, the area's leader in RBIs. The big fella hit two of the longest, most majestic homers these eyes have seen this year against Nashua South (way out of Holman Stadium) and Exeter — both huge games.

Finally, we'll go with the Foxhole Award, as in the local player we'd like most to go to battle with.

Again, there were plenty of great candidates, but we have to go with a champion on this one. Haverhill's Tommy McAndrews, a Phillips Academy grad, personifies the word gamer. The Fordham-bound catcher works on every pitch. He scraps on every at-bat and never gives an inch, my kind of battler.

JAGS LOSE A GOOD ONE

After six years (five seasons) at the helm at Windham High, Leo Gravell is stepping down as the head coach.

One of the true good guys and a heck of a baseball man, Gravell provided stability and leadership to the Jags' program over the years.

Windham made the playoffs all five seasons under Gravell, who finished with a 56-37 mark including a trip to the state semis in 2017.

BIG BLUE MOUND MASTERY

The national attention being garnered by Phillips Academy lefty Thomas White is certainly warranted. Spend an hour or so watching him work on the hill, and you totally understand that.

Top-rated pro prospect in the junior class, Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year, first-team All-American from Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the awards continue to pile up for the kid from Rowley.

But a dive deeper into the numbers will show you that the Phillips Academy run — as a pitching staff — over the last decade or so has been flat-out amazing.

Each of the last four seasons, Phillips has posted a team ERA of under 1.00, and opponents have not hit over .200 against PA since 2016.

Coach Kevin Graber's crew won its 12th Central New England Prep title this spring, finishing at 18-3, the consensus No. 1 pick in the New England Baseball Journal's prep rankings from beginning to end.

Now, with that all said, let's hope that Graber and Austin Prep skipper Jonathan Pollard have enough sense to set up a spring 2023 matchup between the clubs with the potential for one of the great matchups in NE prep history between White and Cougars' University of Virginia commit Evan Blanco.

Austin, the 25-0 Division 3 state champ, moves from MIAA competition to the ISL next spring, of course.

SPRING SHOCKER

Up until the point where Timberlane Regional came to town, Portsmouth looked like the true beast of Division I baseball in New Hampshire.

The Clippers were 16-0 and rolling through the state, looking invincible.

And in came the 2-14 Owls with nothing lose. Junior John O'Leary and freshman Liam Kelley slapped RBI hits as Timberlane rallied for three in the top of the seventh to knock Portsmouth from the unbeaten ranks and show the state that the Clippers were indeed beatable.

Did Timberlane open the door for eventual champ Pinkerton Academy with the upset? We may never know. But the theory is out there.

Timberlane coach Alex Horgan will have plenty to build upon from this spring. The Owls return their ace, junior Jaden Mwangi, who no-hit Alvirne late in the year. Mwangi logged 42.2 innings on the year, striking out 65 with a rock-solid 2.13 ERA.

Improving on the .248 team batting average this spring will be priority No. 1 for the Owls. Leading batter Camden Zambrowicz will be back after hitting a team-high .380 this spring. O'Leary had a fine year, hitting .294. Both will again be counted on to lead the way.

One key loss is senior leader Konrad Parker, who was second on the team in batting and had a team-best 13-game hit streak.

LEADING THE ARMS RACE

We've all seen what Dave Blank, for one, has done for a long period of time at North Andover High as the pitching coach. There are several good ones out there in the region, and one of the rising stars just might be Methuen High's Cal Carroll.

Ranger ace Matt Pappalardo had plenty of good things to say about Carroll's individualized program, and the proof can be found in the performance.

Pappalardo (1.25) and Sam Kalivas (1.26) each flashed sparkling ERAs. Along with No. 3 man Wesly Martinez (2.81), they kept a Ranger team that didn't have a hitter over .300 and averaged just over three runs a game alive in a ton of games in the rugged MVC.

Helping hold them together was catcher Jason Silverio, who earned the Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year Award at MHS for his work as a captain on the diamond and the football field.

INTERESTING DYNAMIC IN ANDOVER

For years, more like decades, there have been discussions about baseball and competing with other sports. Can you keep athletes in the game?

Then there is the age-old battle about public schools keeping the athletes home.

Looking for a random sample, I went back in to the records from Andover's District 14 Little League championship team, most of whom are cycling through high school now, for a little bit of a "Where are they now?"

Baseball came out a giant winner.

Chase Lembo, Dylan Brenner, Evan Brenner, Tyler Walles, Jackson Brown and Brian Gibson all played for Andover High this spring.

Tommy Savino (Phillips), Nick Saunders (Austin Prep), Matt Shea (Winchendon School), Owen Christopher (Brooks) and Kyle Wolff (Middlesex School) all continued on in the game, playing for quality varsity programs.

That's 11 of 14 ... a pretty solid number.