PAWTUCKET – As Lincoln All-Stars' manager Matt Netto drove the 125-plus miles home to Central Falls from Bristol, Conn. late Saturday night, dozens upon dozens of “What ifs?” flooded his mind – how an extra-base hit with Braedon Carney on first with no one out in the third could've changed matters; how Patrick Gribbin could've scored after beating out a perfect bunt with two down in the fifth; how similar this defeat was to the one Lincoln suffered in this same scenario four years before.
Back in 2009, then-skipper Dale O'Dell brought a different group of All-Stars to within two strikes of the Little League New England Regional Tournament title, but later sustained an emotion-crushing defeat to Peabody, Mass.
That elated squad snared the regional bid to Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series.
“I called Dale on the way back, and he told me how he was so sleepless after that loss, how hard it was to get over,” Netto stated after Lincoln dropped a 1-0 decision to Westport, Conn. in what already has become a timeless classic. “He later texted me as to how he felt so down after that loss, and this one.
“That's when I noticed the difference. I didn't feel awful. Of course, I was disappointed. I drove home in complete silence. I didn't turn on the radio. I just sat there thinking, but I thought about how proud I was of every one of our kids, and what they had accomplished.
“First of all, they were playing for Cory Burke, and they wanted to help him (Burke's a 13-year-old who previously had been a stellar All-Star representing King Philip Little League of Bristol, R.I., He's also a youngster who discovered months ago he had been diagnosed with bone cancer).
“He had been in the stands cheering us on, obviously because he had wanted to see a Rhode Island team go to the World Series, just like he had hoped while playing for King Philip.
“That's when I also realized there are eight regional finals nationwide, and only 16 who qualify to play in those championship games, so we were one of the top 16 in the country,” he added. “I also
thought about how there are only eight international regional finals. You look at it that way, and Lincoln, R.I. is now one of the top 32 teams in the entire world.
“That puts it more in perspective. Think about that: We're one of the top 32 around the globe. It's been an incredible journey, one I'll never forget. I'll remember this experience for as long as I live.”
Once he returned, he decided to stop by the Overtime Sports Bay & Grill in Lincoln to see some friends.
“I watched 'Sports Center' on ESPN,” he noted. “I saw us playing on national TV. I heard that 6,300 (fans) showed up to watch us against Westport. That's amazing! … I'm still a bit down, but then a friend of mine, Chris Bodwell, called me (Sunday) morning and asked me if I wanted to grab some lunch, so I said, 'Sure.'
“We ended up at the Madeira Club for the feast,” he continued. “I was so proud to be back in Rhode Island. So many people came up to me and told me about how many people had supported us, were pulling for our kids.
“While we were sitting there outside eating, who shows up but Dominic Cunha, the kid who had pitched a masterpiece (against the Connecticut state champs), and his dad. Instantly, a bunch of little kids jumped up and ran toward Dominic to congratulate him, ask him about his experiences at the regionals.
“I was sitting 10 feet away, and it was incredible! It made me feel like a million dollars, how he had poured his heart out on the mound, and now he was being recognized for such a superb performance, just like he deserved. I know a lot of those kids love the game of baseball, and always hope they'll get such a chance. Dominic is a perfect example.
“He went 4 1/3 innings, allowed just two hits and a run and whiffed 10. How much better than that can you get? It was a masterful performance on the biggest stage for guys this age; he was dominant, and now he was being recognized. I felt fantastic. That's when I felt most proud of our boys.”
After the defeat to Westport on Saturday evening, Netto stepped into the recreation center not far from Breen Field and the dormitories inside the massive A. Bartlett Giammati Complex for the post-game press conference. It was obvious he had shed some tears.
When asked what he had told his guys after the loss, he smiled, “That it was the greatest baseball game I had ever seen. Dominic was incredible. He just lost to a (more) dominant pitcher. (Chad) Knight was amazing.”
And then some. The tall righthander allowed only one hit and a walk while striking out 14 Lincoln batters. He also yielded just two balls to escape the infield, the last Aaron DeSousa's long flyout to right with Carney on first and one down in the third.
With his 74 mph heater and astonishing breaker, Knight faced only three over the minimum.
“Knight's an amazing athlete,” Netto stated then. “His curveball looks just like his fastball; it breaks just as it approaches the plate. The kid is a force.”
To explain what a pitchers' duel the contest was, through the first four frames, both Cunha and Knight had mustered no-hit outings. The former had allowed four to reach base, one on a whiff of Knight and immediate wild pitch/error; a walk to Tatin Llamas and a hit-by-pitch to Ricky Offenberg in the second; and another free bag to Knight (he went to second on a passed ball in the third).
Through all of that, he had struck out nine.
As for Westport's ace, he issued a walk to Connor Benbenek in the second. After that, Carney reached first on left fielder Charlie Roof' dropped a fly in the third; and, finally, Gribbin laid down a stellar bunt hit in the fifth.
Knight too had recorded nine whiffs.
“We call him 'Big Game Dom,'” Netto smiled sadly at the press conference. “He's taken the ball for virtually ever big game we've played since he was eight years old, and he's always been there for us. He's an amazing young man and a great pitcher; it's just sad that we lost.”
In the end, Netto had to pull Cunha with one down in the fifth, as he had reached the 85-pitch limit.
He brought in Steve “Big Country” Andrews (so nicknamed due to his 6-foot, nearly 200-pound frame)
after Cunha had surrendered Offenberg's leadoff double off the left-field fence; and an infield single to No. 9 hitter Drew Rogers, one in which Offenberg scampered to third.
(On the grounder, shortstop David Bordieri made a sensational diving stop, but couldn't make a play).
Rogers took second on defensive indifference, and Andrews walked Max Popken to juice the bases.
That's when Knight chopped a grounder that Zarek Larisa scooped up at third; as he prepared to fire to the plate, he dropped the ball, so tagged the bag to force Rogers. Still, Offenberg scored on the RBI fielder's choice.
Andrews then struck out clean-up batter Harry Azadian for the final out.
In the top of the sixth, Knight calmly fanned Larisa, forced Bordieri to ground to short and – stunningly – whiffed Andrews to end this legendary contest.
All told, Knight and Cunha allowed just three hits and three walks while striking out 24 between them; Knight finished with a complete game.
A Connecticut-based reporter asked Netto, 'If your third baseman doesn't drop it, are you still playing?”
The response: “Without a doubt. There's no doubt in my mind (that) we'd be playing long into the night. The thing is though, we wouldn't be here without 'Z.' He faced the fourth, fifth and sixth hitters in the (sixth inning of the) game against Vermont and gained the save.
“I don't blame 'Z,' and the kids don't, either. They know, and so do I, we're not without him,” he added. “This was the greatest game I've ever seen, on any level, and I'm proud to be a part of it. We hit (Knight) hard a bunch of times, but they were right at somebody. They're a great team, and I'll be rooting them on in Williamsport.”
Westport manager Tim Rogers was just as complimentary of Lincoln.
“It was a little stressful,” he smiled at his own understatement. “It's hard to imagine exactly how well this game was played. Both kids pitched their hearts out. I mean, they both had no-hitters through four. It was an incredible game, and there were great defensive plays as well.
“(With Knight's command), I've seen it before, so I'm not surprised,” he continued. “He loves the pressure, and he really delivered, but so did their kid. He was amazing! I had people telling me beforehand, 'Their ace (southpaw Kyle Marrapese) can't pitch, so you're going to be fine.' I knew better. I knew they had a few good pitchers, so I wasn't believing it.
“Dominic really brought the heat; his curve was alright, but his fastball was overpowering. Our kids are rarely overpowered, but that kid did it to us. It's a shame someone had to lose that game. I had seen Rhode Island play before, and to think we would've shut them out? I never would've believed it.”
Netto mentioned, as the tilt progressed, he believed it may come down to a miscue or a pitch gone awry, yet there wasn't any. Neither error posted resulted in a run.
“I've been coaching this team for four years, and I've never met a group like this,” he said. “After practices,m they'd come up to me and say, 'Thank you, Coach.' They're so respectful. I don't have kids, so all I can say is, when I do, I hope we have kids just like these.”