THEY WERE THE kinds of curves that can buckle knees, despite their status as the figurative version.
The St. Joseph's Prep baseball team faced one in April and another just yesterday, and managed to lash them into the alley for extra bases.
First was the Steve Bruno situation.
A year ago, as a sophomore, Bruno earned first-team Daily News All-City honors - he played shortstop; we put him at DH - while helping the Hawks capture the Catholic League championship. But rather than face an 18-day shutdown due to an academic hiccup earlier this spring, the Audubon, N.J., resident transferred to Gloucester Catholic.
Second was the absent-assistant situation.
Bob Blake is the Prep's highly respected pitching coach, but he was missing yesterday for the CL title game against Monsignor Bonner, at steamy Widener University, because the demands of his regular job, in industry, sent him on the road in a supervisory capacity.
What's a battery to do? Thrive anyway.
The final score was 5-1. Doing the pitching for the Prep was Kyle Mullen, a 6-foot, 165-pound junior righthander. Calling the pitches, in addition to catching them, was senior Dennis Murphy.
"I was anxious going out there," Mullen said. "Not because of the game itself, but because coach Blake wasn't going to be here. As pitchers, we really depend on him to give us mental stability.
"It's kind of a shock to have that happen. Coach Blake did tell me 2 days ago, and I'm glad he did because [a surprise] would have been really rough. I did shake off Dennis more than usual, but that was only three, four times. He did great. And once I got past the early nervousness, I was hitting my spots and everything went fine."
Mullen allowed four hits. He owned a one-hitter through 5 1/3 innings, but Bonner finally broke through on consecutive hits by Pat Warrington (double down the rightfield line) and Rob Benedict (hard groundball to single for an RBI).
Mullen struck out Lou Tomasetti, and then, with cleanup hitter Bill Hollingsworth at bat, Murphy gunned down Benedict on a would-be steal with shortstop Tim Edger executing the catch and tag.
Bonner managed first and third with two away in the seventh. Matt DeBarberie fanned to end it and the Hawks rushed the mound area to form the ever-popular pile of humanity.
Dennis Hart, another aide to coach Chris Rupertus, had filled in slightly for Blake.
"We really schooled Murph on how to work each batter," Hart said. "Bob gave me the option of calling a pitch if I thought it was necessary. I only called two. One was the last pitch. Kyle hadn't thrown a curve in a while. Just wanted to give the hitter a different look. Never imagined it would end the game."
In youth ball, Mullen was quite the K-meister. Though he still throws reasonably hard, he's not one of those dominant guys.
Final line: 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 run (earned), 3 walks, 3 strikeouts. Oh, and let's not forget this: The Hawks were perfect behind him.
Among the fielders was Edger, a senior who had to move in from centerfield when Bruno bolted. Aside from his crafty tag on Benedict, Edger contributed by handling six grounders. And though not every throw was perfect, he received the appropriate assistance from first baseman Aaron Haas.
"I don't try for strikeouts," Mullen said.
Pause. Smile. "Well, I do, but they don't happen too much and I have to rely on location and changing speed. That means you need defense. These guys were great. This was the best fielding we had all season."
Edger, a wideout/kicker/punter, and Haas, the quarterback, were prominent for the Prep's football squad, which suffered a crushing defeat against Roman Catholic in the CL Red title game. In the waning moments, Edger missed a PAT that would have forced OT.
"This makes things a lot easier," he said. "It's like a heavy load's off my shoulders."
Against senior lefty Conor Kerins, the Red MVP, the Hawks broke through for three in the third (all unearned) and two in the sixth.
In the third, Haas followed a pair of errors by rifling an RBI grounder through the hole to left. After Edger grounded out, junior Jeff Lynch smacked a two-run single to center.
"I fouled off the first pitch, and I thought I put a pretty good swing on it," Lynch said. "I wanted to hit it hard somewhere. To make them make a play. I think the hit came on a changeup. I got a little out in front, but kept my hands back."
Lynch then credited Kerins with a strong effort and added, "After what he did to us the first time [13 strikeouts in a regular-season game], well, we didn't want that to happen again."
Rupertus to the rescue. The Prep's staff is lefty-less, so the coach did yeoman BP-pitching duty over the last 3 days.
"He moved up the screen pretty far and tried to throw as hard as he could," Lynch said. "He was trying to simulate Conor's pitches as best as possible. It helped."
The Prep's final runs came courtesy of second baseman Brett Tiagwad, who is bound for Saint Joseph's and finished his career with 100-plus hits. After Pat Malloy's single and walks to Dan Turner and Gio Morales loaded the bases with two away, Kerins yielded to John Condo (amid appreciative applause) and Tiagwad delivered a two-run single to left.
When the Prep succeeded last year, it was suspected the title was its first in baseball. However, information then surfaced that the CL had offered baseball back in the 1920s before the sport was shut down for nearly 2 decades.
So, the Hawks (Hawklets to old-schoolers) now own four titles in back-to-back bursts - 1924 and '25, 2007 and '08.
"This one's just as good as last year's," Mullen said. "Maybe even better because we've gone through a lot of ups and downs."
Said Rupertus: "Because we've been there, you might think it's not as special. But it's a different year, different team, and in the end I'm thrilled to death. We battled through early-season adversity [Bruno's departure and the ripple effects] and how we got through it is a tribute to my seniors and assistant coaches.
"In April, we were still clawing, scrapping, overcoming. We began to get better in the beginning of May and . . . really, it's a shame the season's over because now we're playing our best." *