Birdball Resurgence: All-American Trio Has Boston College Dreaming Of Omaha
For Boston College, the goal is simple: Get to Omaha.
That’s easier said than done, though, for a program that’s only made the NCAA Tournament eight times since 1949. It takes a special culture over an extended period of time for a team with that kind of track record to break the stigma and separate itself from its history. Ahead of coach Mike Gambino’s 11th season at the helm, the Eagles’ process of finding and developing uber-competitive players with those intangibles is paying dividends in outfielder Sal Frelick, infielder Cody Morissette and righthander Mason Pelio.
BC’s three standout third-year sophomores were all voted Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors—Frelick and Morissette on the second team and Pelio on the third. They all project to be selected in the first two rounds of the draft in July, but that isn’t distracting them from the opportunity ahead in the 2021 season.
“Looking at this year, even our fall scrimmages were extremely competitive,” Morissette said. “It’s been the inner competition that’s really helped us develop. This year, especially with us being the leaders and the freshmen and sophomores looking up to us, I feel like that’s why we’re able to develop.”
BC reached the College World Series three times from 1960 to ’67, but then didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament again until 2009. Gambino returned to his alma mater a year later as head coach and guided the Eagles back to regionals in 2016. They won the Oxford Regional as a No. 3 seed, beating Utah and Tulane to advance to super regionals for the first time in program history.
The Eagles haven’t been back to that level since but in 2019 fought their way to the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. They were expected to make a jump in 2020 and return to regionals, but the abrupt cancellation of the season following the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those hopes. BC was just 6-9 in the early going, but had played only one home game and faced a challenging schedule.
Overall, the program has built momentum in recent years. After long inhabiting one of the worst stadiums of any power-conference program, BC has opened new facilities—Eddie Pellagrini Diamond in 2018 and the Pete Frates Center in November. Since 2015, no ACC program has produced more big leaguers than BC.
The program’s on-field success is attributable in part to the type of players Gambino has sought out.
Frelick and Morissette were driven, multi-sport stars in high school. Pelio was always set on baseball, but Gambino dubbed the way the young pitcher developed his game and trained off the mound as “maniacal.”
“For us, the three-sport kid is a kid who spends a lot of time learning how to be part of a team, learning what it means to be part of a team, learning what it means to compete, learning what it means to help a team win,” Gambino said. “Those are all things we value here.”
For Frelick, that stream of year-round athletics between football in the fall, hockey in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer is a large part of what shaped him into the top-of-the-order lefthanded hitter he is today.
His focus was directed toward becoming the best athlete and competitor he could in high school to maximize his potential down the line. The advanced techniques and nuances of baseball would always be there for him to learn under capable coaching staffs in college.
“Coming into college, I remember seeing these big-name guys on other teams, and we’d go play them my freshman year and the lights turn on and they kind of fold just because they’re not competitors,” Frelick said.
That approach to his baseball career appears to be working for the Lexington, Mass., product. In 54 games with the Eagles, he has hit .332/.428/.486 with six home runs. He’s a plus-plus runner who Gambino said has drastically improved his ability to track fly balls in the outfield from his days as a high school shortstop.
“I think he’s as good of a defender in the outfield as you’re going to see anywhere,” Gambino said.
One of Frelick’s strongest aspects as a hitter is his plate discipline. Gambino said Frelick has worked on his pitch selection to the point where the junior had 33 walks and 22 strikeouts over his BC career.
“I’ve always kind of stuck with that ‘be an athlete’ (mentality), make the hustle plays and be a tough out at the plate,” Frelick said. “When I got to college, I didn’t really want to change that at all. That was my approach: Put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense.”
Growing up in the Northeast, Frelick got the chance to play a little summer ball with Morissette, who attended Exeter (N.H.) High, and even lost to him once in high school. And like Frelick, Morissette’s athleticism and immediate impact for BC have made him one of the most appealing players in the draft.
His fast swing and noticeable bat-to-ball skills make him a complete hitter who can go for average and hit the ball gap to gap. He’s been working on building strength throughout his collegiate career and could still add more power to his frame. He was hitting .448 in 15 games before the pandemic abruptly ended the 2020 season, and Gambino thinks he’s become one of the best pure hitters in the country.
Defensively, Morissette prides himself on his versatility. He played shortstop in high school before moving to second base for his freshman year with the Eagles. Last year, he started all 15 games at third base.
“We don’t take ground balls at a specific position,” Morissette said. “We’ll round the infield. Coach Gambino’s very avid about us being good at all three so we can play any three of the (non-first base infield) positions any time.”
And if his on-field talents weren’t enough, Morissette even spent some time helping convince Pelio to return to his Northeastern roots and commit to the Eagles. Pelio was born in New Hampshire before moving to San Diego in fourth grade.
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Pelio has grown into his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, and his stature on the field has grown as well.
“He doesn’t eat anything that doesn’t help him become the best person he can be,” Gambino said. “He’s always getting his extra work in. It’s unbelievable.”
Pelio mirrors that dedication to his fitness, nutrition and weightlifting away from the field with his work ethic on the mound.
As soon as the 2020 season was interrupted, he looked for the first flight back to California to put himself in the best head space to focus on fine-tuning his mechanics. His fastball consistently hits 96-98 mph and topped out at 100 last spring. He has his eyes set on reaching 101 or 102 during the 2021 campaign. Gambino said Pelio also has an above-average changeup, while his breaking ball is improving.
“That maniacal diet and work ethic is what kind of helped me build my confidence, and it’s honestly all I’ve ever known,” Pelio said. “I’d like to spread the same ideas to other guys on the team, and I know Sal and Cody have had a big effect on that, because they’re always pushing me to get better. I see their talent and their work ethic, and I know I’ve got to be even better than that.”
Pelio’s talents were on full display in 2019 when he posted a 3.63 ERA in 13 starts and struck out 62 batters through 72 innings, holding opponents to a .194 average. As a member of the all-ACC freshman team, he garnered enough attention for an invitation to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team that summer. The time spent around so many other potential pro players helped him master the “suffocating” approach to opposing batters that Gambino said he has seen from Pelio.
“You’ve got a lot of these guys with big arms going on the mound, and they’re just (mean) on the mound, but it’s awesome,” Pelio said. “Then, they come back in the dugout and they’re like big teddy bears. I think being able to be a monster but also control it is something I learned from that experience.”
Even with the draft looming for all three of these BC standouts, they aren’t letting the bright lights of the pros take away from the job at hand.
“It’s just been cool getting to know these guys and becoming some of my best friends through this whole process together,” Morissette said. “Now, we’ve got a couple months to go make some noise this year.”