PEABODY — Some might say there’s a lot of pressure facing the Peabody baseball team this season after first-round exits in the MIAA state tournament for the past three years.
The Tanners know they have a monkey on their backs as they fight to get over the hump this spring in hopes of a tournament run. And with an experienced star player like senior shortstop Jake Gustin leading the charge, Peabody has nothing but confidence in 2018.
“Every year this conversation comes up about the first round knockouts we’ve had the past few years,” Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt said. “The 2018 season is just another season for me and our coaching staff. For Jake, it’s his senior year. This is the year the seniors will remember for the rest of their lives. My job is to make sure they don’t let the opportunity pass them by. It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to do it.”
Through the early stretch of the season, it’s clear that Gustin’s focused on letting his play do the talking. All Gustin has done thus far is bat .515 for the season, hit two home runs and drive in seven RBI. He leads the team in hits with 17, runs scored with 14 and is tied for first in stolen bases with six swipes. Gustin has only struck out once this spring.
“We go as Jake goes,” Bettencourt said. “There’s no secret to that. Everybody knows that. You do things a little differently when you have a blue chip player like him who’s capable of hitting the ball 400 feet. Jake’s soft spoken. You don’t see the cockiness in him that you see in other blue chip athletes. He walks the walk, he doesn’t talk the talk.
Bettencourt added, “I call kids like Jake ‘throwback players.’ They’re not generational, they don’t show up all the time. He puts in the work during the offseason. He doesn’t talk about himself but he plays with confidence. “
Although Gustin earned the Northeastern Conference MVP award in 2017, that didn’t stop him from striving toward improving his craft during the offseason. He wasn’t happy with his swing last season and made it a priority to improve it during the winter.
“I worked a lot on my speed and agility,” Gustin, who also played on the school’s basketball team, said. “Hitting was a big thing for me. My swing didn’t look to great last season. I worked a lot with instructors during the offseason. As far as individual goals, I didn’t set anything specific. I just want to do what I can to help the team.”
Gustin also solidified his future plans during the offseason when he signed his National Letter of Intent to continue his baseball career at Division I Bryant in November. Gustin looked for a small school with a top-notch baseball program and found both at Bryant, making it the perfect fit.
“It’s a great atmosphere down there,” Gustin said. “It’s close to home. Bryant’s a small school. The team has been on the uproar the past few years. They’ve become a powerhouse in New England. I feel can contribute there.”
While the results have been there for Gustin this spring, they’ve also been there for the team. The Tanners are 7-3 out of the gate and playing solid baseball to start 2018.
Offensively, the Tanners have seen contributions from multiple bats up and down the order. Pitchers like Alex D’Angelo, Joe Gilmartin and Joe Zito, who tossed a no-hitter last week, have stepped up to lead the team’s rotation.
“I think we look awesome offensively,” Gustin said. “We’re touching things up defensively and working on making plays. The pitching has really stepped up. If we can keep working hard and continue to improve our defense, we’ll be set for the season.”
As a senior, Gustin has one final shot to get over the first round hump with the Tanners. Fully confident in his teammates, Gustin believes Peabody has the right pieces in place as the Tanners aim to right the ship and erase the sour memories they’ve created in the state tournament the past three years.
“I’m just looking to play quality baseball,” Gustin said. “It’s my last hoorah with the guys so we have to go out strong. The last three years have been tough in the state tournament but we’re hoping to go deep in the tournament and make a run.
“A lot of guys are hungry,” Gustin added. “Everyone on the team’s hungry. It’s tough losing in the first round. It’s tough on the seniors and we’ve seen it for three straight years. Everyone’s looking to get over that and we’re taking it personal. We have a great group of guys and I think we’ll do great things.”
With a true leader in Gustin taking charge, Bettencourt feels optimistic about what lies ahead for the 2018 Tanners.
“It’s teams like this that you hope break the mold,” Bettencourt said. “This is the team you hope turns the page, gets that monkey off our back and makes a deep run in the state tournament. Somebody has do it. Why not the 2018 team?”