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Athol stuns Palmer, 7-2

PALMER — The Athol High School baseball team may have picked up the 12th seed in the WMass Division III Baseball Tournament a week ago, but since that time, the Red Raiders have looked like anything but a low seed.

The Red Raiders continued their magical postseason run Monday night by riding a strong pitching performance by Bryce Melanson and getting timely hits to post a 7-2 quarterfinal victory over fourth-seeded Palmer High School at Legion Field.

The win comes a game after Athol knocked off fifth-seeded South Hadley High School, 3-2, in a nine-inning first-round game.

“Maybe the Walker (seeding) System is not as accurate as they think it is,” Athol coach Josh Talbot joked. “We pride ourselves on just coming out here and battling, and we really don’t care what our seed is. If anything, it probably riles these guys up a little bit.”

The Red Raiders will have their hands full again in the WMass semifinals Thursday afternoon at 4 at Westfield State University, where they try to continue their run to the top of the Division III field against top-seeded Monument Mountain Regional High School. Two years ago, Monument eliminated Athol from the postseason, so Thursday would give the Red Raiders a chance for revenge for the second straight game. Palmer KOed Athol from the tourney last spring.

The Red Raiders (13-9) started slowly against Palmer pitcher Tyler Wilson, a hard-throwing lefty who signed a national letter of intent to play for the University of Rhode Island. Wilson fanned seven of the first nine batters he faced, and after Palmer scored once in the third inning on a Connor Roche sacrifice fly, Wilson had a 1-0 lead to work with.

Athol appeared undeterred at the plate, and rather than try to hit Wilson, began taking pitches out of the zone and it paid dividends in the fourth inning. Brad Bousquet and Jake LaPointe led off the inning with back-to-back walks, bringing Kevin Hume to the plate. Hume struggled in his first at-bat against Wilson, striking out on four second-inning pitches, and he again fell behind 1-2 to the lefty. This time Hume found an offering to his liking, and shot a fastball to deep left that the Palmer left fielder misplayed into a game-tying double. That was Athol’s first hit of the game and easily the hardest hit ball to that point, sparking the team.

“I was a little nervous in my first at-bat,” Hume admitted. “But I kind of calmed myself during my second one and I locked in. He kept throwing me fastballs, so I kind of expected one, and he threw one right down the middle and I got a hold of it.”

Andrew Poor put Athol in front for good with a one-out single up the middle. After the second out of the inning, more wildness caught up to Wilson, who walked No. 9 hitter Shawn Smart to load the bases, then walked Jerry Parker to force in a run. On the fourth ball to Parker, the pitch got away from Palmer catcher Matt Blanchette, and Poor got on his horse and beat Wilson to the plate in a close play.

That gave Athol a 4-1 lead and was plenty for sophomore Melanson, who came out in the bottom of the fourth and responded by striking out the side.

“I felt good and it got the guys pumped out,” he beamed. “Getting that lead was huge.”

Melanson wound up scattering seven hits in seven innings, striking out nine and walking two. Athol gave the pitcher three more runs in the sixth inning, when a two-out error seemed to rattle the Panthers, especially Wilson, who uncorked four wild pitches and wound up walking one and giving up an RBI single to Parker, the final batter of the game for Wilson, who finished with 13 strikeouts and six walks. Athol No. 2 hitter Alex Page, who had struck out in all three of his at-bats against Wilson, greeted Palmer reliever Roche with an RBI triple to deep right that put Athol up 7-1. Palmer got one run in the home half of the sixth, but Melanson and the Red Raiders finished things off to advance to the semifinals.

“It feels great,” Hume concluded. “We have everybody saying that we can’t do this. We have that underdog factor going for us. We have that fight.”

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