BRISTOL – The unimaginable happened to Cumberland American’s best on Saturday morning.
In their opening tilt of the R.I. Little League Major Division (10-11) Tournament at King Philip’s Roger W. Pigeon Field, three of manager Dave Belisle’s hurlers – including usually-stellar Nick Croteau, Addison Kopack and Sean Meers – had serious problems finding the plate, and Johnston took complete advantage.
That trio surrendered six straight walks, in the process digging themselves a 5-0 hole after the top of the first frame.
The All-Stars’ bats, however, didn’t fail them, and CALL eventually escaped the fray with a wild but satisfying 15-10 victory over the District I champions.
“I don’t know where that came from; maybe it was nerves,” Belisle stated after the win, one that propelled the District IV titlists into the winners’ bracket final against the victor of Wickford and host Bristol tonight at 5 at this same site.
“I think that was an aberration as to what and who we are; we haven’t had those problems all year,” he added. “With Croteau, he’s our ace, and I don’t think he’s given up more than four walks in a game, never mind an inning.
“As the kids kept walking, I was shaking my head in disbelief. Nick’s always solid, and has no problems getting his pitches over.”
The good news: Cumberland American rallied for seven runs in the back half of the first and never trailed again. Most of that had to do with the premier offense provided by Jayden Struble, who finished 2-for-2 with a pair of dingers, four RBI and four runs scored.
He nevertheless had plenty of help:Croteau (who faced eight batters in that initial inning and issued five free bases) made up for it with his club, going 2-for-3 with a double, triple, walk, two RBI and four runs.
C.J. Davock went 3-for-4 with two RBI and a pair of runs; Sean Meers 0-for-3 and scored twice after being hit by a pitch and reaching on an error and a fielder’s choice; and Johnny Belisle 0-for-0 with a sacrifice fly and walk.
For those two plate appearances, he registered two RBI.
“The top of our lineup came up big for us,” the elder Belisle stated. “Struble is an amazing hitter. He’s got so much strength and pop and torque in his swing, the ball just explodes off his bat. He hits it like he’s 13 or 14.
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“We were able to respond to their five-spot with seven in the bottom of the first,” he continued. “I told the kids once they got off the field, ‘Hey, now’s our time. We haven’t even had a chance yet.’ I just asked them to do what they do best. I said, ‘Let’s hit,’ and they did just that.”
Meers grabbed the win after hurling 2 1/3 frames of relief; in that time, he didn’t allow a hit, yielded on unearned run but walked seven. He also fanned two.
Southpaw Brendan Wright did give up two hits and three runs (one earned) in his final three frames, but walked just two and struck out a quartet.
Johnston’s first inning began harmlessly enough after Andrew Clesas beat out an infield miscue, but he was thrown out at second on Bobby Civetti’s fielder’s choice. Croteau then sandwiched two walks around David Iannuccilli’s groundout, and – with the bases jammed – he walked Nathan Maigret, Ryan DiLorenzo and Jayme DeCesare (all of whom drew RBI) before Belisle replaced him with Kopack.
He walked Ryan Benum, and Belisle returned to the hill to bring in Meers. The latter walked Clesas before forcing Civetti to ground out to first.
That’s when CALL went to work on starter Anthony Scivola. Croteau beat out an infield error, hustled to third on Trey Bourque’s single to right and raced home on Davock’s hit to center. Scivola walked Struble to load the bases, and Meers was hit by an offering to plate pinch-runner Mason Matos.
Davock came in on a wild pitch, and Tyler Provost was hit to refill the bags. Struble scored on the younger Belisle’s sacrifice fly to center, and – with two outs – Kopak reached on another miscue before Croteau whacked a two-run double to deep left.
Kopack notched the final run of the frame on a passed ball.
Johnston sliced the gap to 7-6 in the second when leadoff batter Iannuccilli took first on a base-on-balls, strolled to second when Luke Vincent did the same, and both moved up on a wild delivery. Iannuccilli later scored on DiLorenzo’s groundout, but Meers whiffed two of the next four to halt the flurry.
American regained the two-run advantage when Struble stroked a 2-1 fastball over the 202-foot sign in center, but Johnston countered again with a pair in the fourth to knot it at 8-8.
Meers walked both Iannuccilli and Vincent, and moved into scoring position on a wild offering. DiLorenzo’s one-out grounder plated Iannuccilli, while Vincent came in after Dean Simeone hustled out a bobble at third.
CALL, though, broke it open, plating five in the bottom half, with Croteau leading off with a drilled, opposite-field triple to left. He immediately came in when Bourque reached on an error, and Davock’s infield hit pushed him to second.
That’s when Struble crushed his second homer of the day, this time a three-run bash, well over the left-field fence. Meers took second on another miscue, snagged third on Trey Thibeault’s groundout and scored on Tyler Shaw’s pretty safety-squeeze bunt.
Johnston got one back in the fifth when Civelli ripped his squad’s first hit of the contest, that a two-bagger off the wall in center, then ran to third on Scivola’s sacrifice bunt. Civelli scored on Iannuccilli’s hit to deep center, but Kopack gathered the ball and threw a dart to shortstop Davock, who immediately tagged an astonished Iannuccilli, still at least five years from the bag.
Belisle’s bunch tallied two insurance runs in the back half, Croteau sprinting home on Davock’s hit, and Struble (who was intentionally walked by Vincent) scored when Belisle drew a bases-jammed walk.
Johnston reached double digits after Vincent came in on the third CALL miscue, but Wright whiffed Simeone and Kaylin Zalewski to end it.
“I give Meers a lot of credit,” skipper Belisle said later. “He was able to hold them to six runs. Now Brendan Wright, he showed what we usually do on the mound. I thought he pitched with a lot of guts.
“You know what’s crazy? He hasn’t pitched an inning for us yet, and he looked like our ace out there,” he added. “I was running out of pitchers, but he did the job. He really stepped it up. He saved us.”