By CHRIS McMANES — The DeMatha baseball team found itself behind most of its playoff series against Bishop McNamara. At the end, however, the Stags were celebrating and moving on to Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship series.

“We were tested, and our kids showed their character,” DeMatha Coach Sean O’Connor said. “It’s easy when everything goes well, and your swinging the bat well and throwing strikes. It’s hard when it’s not.

“We overcame a lot of obstacles in the series. That’s what I’m really proud of.”

The Stags (18-11) will play St. John’s, a 2-1 series winner over Bishop O’Connell, for the WCAC championship. Action got underway tonight at Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast Washington at 6.

Game two of the three-game series is 4 p.m. Saturday. The deciding contest, if necessary, is noon Sunday.

After scoring three runs in the top of the fifth inning to tie the game against McNamara, the visiting Stags took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the seventh. O’Connor rolled the dice by inserting Jack Bulger in to pitch. It was the junior Vanderbilt recruit’s first time on the mound all season.

Bulger delivered with his teammates making some of their finest defensive plays of the season. The leadoff hitter, WCAC Player of the Year Ian Cawthorne, smashed a line drive on the ground to third baseman Khalil Brown, who had replaced Bulger at third.

Brown dove to his right, knocked the ball down and hit his head on third base. From his knees, he collected the ball and threw to first baseman Clark Burroughs to beat the speedy Cawthorne.

“It was huge,” Bulger said, “because I was struggling to find the [strike] zone. Especially since I was coming back after a long break on the mound. It was an insanely good play. One of the best plays I’ve ever seen. A huge pick-me-up.”

Brown, who also made a big play in the first inning playing right field, set the tone for the entire inning with his diving effort.

“It was his first groundball of the year at third base,” O’Connor said. “It was right at him. He hits his head on the bag. Still makes a great throw. Just an unbelievable play.”

Burroughs, a senior who’s heading to College of Charleston (S.C.) next year, corralled Brown’s throw out of the dirt to get Cawthorne.

“A great play,” said O’Connor, from “a kid who’s a converted catcher.”

Bulger struck out the next hitter before allowing a single past the outstretched arm of junior shortstop Brendan Munnelly. With one on and two outs, cleanup hitter Jared Mammano came to the plate.

“I knew with one swing of the bat,” DeMatha catcher Blake Badman said, “the game could be over.”

Mammano lofted a high popup just past the infield that junior center fielder Jake Maske raced in to catch just before tripping over second baseman Sean O’Connor (no relation to the coach.)

“I called a curveball, and Jack executed after not pitching the whole season,” Badman said. “The [batter] got under it, popped it up and Jake gave 100 percent effort on that play. Sean, playing at second, had a really weird angle with the ball.

“Jake, being able to be there and make that play, that was big-time for the team.”

“The ball probably should have been Sean’s ball,” Coach O’Connor said. “[Jake] saw Sean was in trouble and went through him to make a great play. Yeah, you’d like them to call each other off and not have a collision but pretty incredible that Jake willed himself to catch that ball.”

Sean O’Connor uncorked the Stags’ comeback with a leadoff double in the fifth. It was DeMatha’s only hit of the inning. Trey Taylor loaded the bases on a well-executed fielders-choice bunt. Brown pushed a run across on a walk. Maske followed with a groundout to score another run. Badman walked to plate Taylor and knot the game at 3.

O’Connor has overcome significant injuries over the past four seasons. His hit sparked the Stags’ rally as they faced tournament elimination.

“It’s not like he was swinging the bat great,” Coach O’Connor said. “To come up there and hit the ball off the fence over a very good center fielder’s head in what could have been his last game [at DeMatha] was huge.”

The Stags took the lead in the seventh when, with two outs, Bulger reached on a two-base error by the left fielder. On the next pitch, Badman drove a fastball up the middle for the winning RBI.

“It was right down the middle,” said Badman, a junior who has committed to Virginia. “I’m pretty sure [Cawthorne] missed a spot. I just took advantage of it and tried to put my team back on top.”

Bulger, one of the top players in the nation who is expected to be drafted next season, has played at third base, in the outfield and caught this season. He pitched a significant amount last year but didn’t this season until Wednesday despite the loss of two high-quality pitchers: Thomas Keehn, who’s heading to Duke, and Alex Greene (Virginia).

O’Connor had no problem handing the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Bulger the ball in what was at the point the most pivotal point of the year.

“He comes in and throws strikes. He competes,” O’Connor said. “He’s our player of the year, simple as that.”

Badman was also confident in Bulger’s ability: “After getting back into his pitching rhythm, I knew he could do it.”

Stags also rally in game two

After dropping game one of the series, 11-3, DeMatha returned to Riverdale Park and fell behind, 2-0. In the bottom of the fifth, trailing 2-1, Taylor lined a one-out single to right and stole second. He scored when Brown singled to center.

Coach O’Connor was pleased see Taylor play so well. Particularly since the senior missed most of his sophomore season and his entire junior year with injuries.

“What a great story,” he said. “He has surgery [as a junior] and comes back. And for the most part, he was an infielder for us. This season, he’s done a great job in the outfield.”

Following an error and a walk to Bulger, Badman and Burroughs each drove in a run with singles.

McNamara narrowed the Stags’ lead to 5-4 with a pair of runs off John Hilliard in the sixth. Hilliard rebounded to set the Mustangs down one, two, three in the seventh and earn the save. Senior Preston Moltz collected the victory by scattering five hits across five innings, walking one and striking out seven.

McNamara (23-7) coming off its best regular season ever, won a 4-3 home walk off over the Stags on April 23. Bulger said the team remained confident it could win the series despite the many deficits it faced.

“We’ve been through a lot, and there’s nothing that we haven’t handled,” he said. “We thought if we played well, we would get the job done. Everything just kind of came together once a little pressure was put on us.”

St. John’s has won five straight WCAC championships, the last two over DeMatha. The Cadets are 25-3 and ranked No. 1 in the DMV. They shut out the Stags twice this season.

Badman thinks the key to beating St. John’s is to play loose and play with confidence: “Just fight as hard as [we] can the whole game, and things should go well.”

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a DeMatha freshman baseball coach.