LOWELL, Mass. – Every championship team has a strong pitching staff with at least one ace, a handful of dangerous hitters, and a couple of defensive wizards in the field that will grab all of the headlines.
But every championship team needs a player like Evan Melo.
The Taunton senior captain wasn’t one of the team’s leaders offensively during the regular season and he doesn’t make any appearances on the mound, but the intangibles and leadership he brings to the table are irreplaceable.
Those traits were on full display as Melo played a major role in Taunton winning six postseason games, the final one a 5-3 win over Shrewsbury at LeLacheur Park to win the MIAA D1 State Championship.
“We never give up, we went three and a half innings without a hit and then all of a sudden we just explode because we keep grinding,” Melo said. “We never give up one any pitch, any at-bat, any inning. This just brings to fruition everything we worked for. It’s unbelievable.
“I really can’t put it into words, it still hasn’t hit me that we’re state champions. I can’t believe it, especially after last year losing in the first round. That’s really where it started. We’ve been grinding since that day to make sure it didn’t happen.”
There were times when Taunton coach Blair Bourque toyed with the idea of replacing Melo in the lineup as the senior’s offensive numbers dipped throughout the year. But as a reliable center fielder and a true leader, Bourque couldn’t replace Melo.
“Evan is a great leader and he does whatever it takes for the team to win,” said fellow captain Jack Moynihan. “When it comes to sacrificing to move a guy over or get a guy in, everyone on the team can do it but Evan is 100% the type of guy you want there, he’s really important for us.”
Melo, who also captained the Tigers’ boys soccer team in the fall, rewarded his coach’s faith with a remarkable postseason. Not only did he provide the leadership as a captain, he delivered in the biggest moments on the field. He looked like a different player at the plate, hitting a team-best .429 in the postseason.
“Evan Melo, who struggled for most of the season offensively, has been phenomenal this postseason,” Bourque said. “The kid has been on fire, has been huge with bunting, base hits, stealing bases, great catches in the outfield. He almost lost his spot in the season but he worked his way back into the lineup and we’re really fortunate he did because he was big for us.
“He seemed to come up when guys are on and he knows what to do, he came up clutch,” Bourque said. “He battles, he fouls off a lot of tough pitches so he’s a tough out even though his batting average isn’t great. The little things, the intangibles that he brings to the table is off the charts. He plays a great center field, he’s usually the first one here and last one to leave, I’m extremely proud of here. This postseason he’s been nothing but phenomenal.”
He hit safely in five of the six playoff games and knocked in a run in five of the six tournament games as well. He scored five runs and walked three times, putting up a .529 on-base percentage.
When it mattered the most, under the bright lights on the biggest stage, Melo knocked in the game-winning run in the state final.
An inning after Shrewsbury scored three straight runs to tie the game, Melo came up and brought home the go-ahead score for the Tigers. Junior Jared Roderick reached on a fielder’s choice, moved to second on a wild pitch, and advanced to third on an error that allowed Andrew Gomes to reach.
With a runner at third and Melo at the plate, Bourque didn’t need to give any instructions to Melo. In fact, he didn’t even need to send a sign. Even as the team’s leading hitter in the tournament, Melo was ready to sacrifice his at-bat for a run.
Melo laid down a squeeze bunt up the first base line that ended up going for a single that brought in Roderick to put the Tigers ahead 4-3.
“I just want to get that run in,” Melo said. “A lot of times [Bourque] doesn’t call it, I just give him a nod and we both know. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a single, as long as we get the win, that’s what matters.
“Our main goal this year was to keep everyone connected. We really do love each other like brothers. We just had to make sure that we took everything one step at a time…win a pitch, win an at-bat, win an inning. If you take it one step at a time, great things are going to happen like this.”
It was the second straight game that Melo brought in a run from third with a bunt. In the state semifinals with the Tigers trailing 5-4, Melo stepped up to the plate with runners on the corners with no outs.
While most players would want a chance to hit the ball and drive in the run, Melo said all that matters is that the team gets the run. Fellow senior captain Josh Lajoie said there’s no one better for that spot.
“We have all the faith in the world in him,” Lajoie said. “He’s the definition of a team player and he’s helped us out throughout the entire season, it was great to see him succeed in a big game.”
Of course, Evan Melo delivered in the semifinals as well, dropping down the sac bunt that also scored Roderick to tie the game. Taunton went on to win in nine innings to advance to the state final.
“That’s something we practice a lot on,” Bourque said of the bunting. Taunton scored another run on a squeeze earlier in the state final when Roderick brought in Nolan Melo. “We work on first and thirds, we work on our bunt defensively. We’re working on it offensively and defensively. We knew going into the postseason, if we had a chance to generate some offense, we would take advantage of it.”
Melo was also responsible for another run earlier in the game. He led off the top of the fifth with a double and scored on the next at-bat on a single from Ty Cali that put Taunton up 3-0 at the time.
“Evan’s hard work and leadership that he’s exuded all year long has kept him in the lineup,” Bourque said. “He bought himself four or five extra starts, and he struggled at times, but he was a guy we looked to for leadership.”
And that’s why every championship team needs an Evan Melo.