It was do-or-die for the Johnston baseball team on Monday at Pierce Field in East Providence, as it was tied at one game apiece with Westerly in its best-of-three Division II semifinal series.
And the defending Division II champion Panthers found a way to stay alive, beating Westerly handily in a decisive third game by a score of 10-1.
Westerly had won the first game 1-0, while Johnston came back and won game two by a 10-4 margin.
On Monday, it didn’t take long to see a huge shift in momentum. In the top on the first, Westerly quickly loaded the bases with no outs. Johnston pitcher Joe Bongiovanni was then able to strike out the next batter, before inducing a double-play ball that ended the Westerly threat.
Although it was early, Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo thought that play was crucial to the outcome of the game.
“That was big,” DeMeo said. “You knew they were kind of dejected yesterday after losing game (one). These kids have been resilient all year. Nothing bothers them and they’re a young team. They truly play the game the right way.”
Johnston was led by Bongiovanni, who pitched a complete game, recording nine strikeouts. He also went 2-for-3 at the plate with four RBI.
“Joe pitched this same game last year as a freshman when we needed him and he won the game,” DeMeo said. “Joe’s been doing this all year. He’s 8-0 and he keeps them off-balance. Our defense was also great behind him. Other than that first inning, we played flawless in the field.”
Johnston’s offense was clicking on all cylinders right from the get-go, tacking on all 10 of its runs in the first three innings of the game.
The Panthers got on the board first when Bongiovanni laced a single to center field, scoring Chris Pistacchio and Gian Bianchi and giving Johnston a 2-0 lead. Bongiovanni then came around to score on a single off the bat of Steve Pennacchia, making it a 3-0 game after the first inning.
The Johnston offense showed no signs of slowing down in the bottom of the second, adding four more runs. The Panthers increased their lead to 4-0 when James Picchi scored on a passed ball. They tacked on the final three runs of the inning on RBI hits by Bongiovanni, Mike Pennacchia, and Steve Pennacchia, making it 7-0.
After surrendering a run in the top of the third, Johnston made it 9-1 in the bottom of the inning when Ryan McKeon and Alex Tenerella scored on a single by Bianchi. The Panthers then added their final run on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Bongiovanni, scoring Pistacchio, and giving the Panthers a 10-1 cushion.
They cruised from there to a spot in the title series.
Johnston will be taking on Prout, which beat Woonsocket two games to one in its semifinal series. Prout was the team a season ago that the Panthers beat in the finals to claim their first title since 1995.
The Crusaders will be making their fifth consecutive trip to the finals. They have lost all the previous four.
DeMeo knows what his team needs to do in order to repeat as Division II champions.
“Our kids are ready,” DeMeo said. “This was our goal going into the year. We need to play like this. We’ve been playing this way all year. You could see it in their faces in the first inning. Nobody panicked. Nothing bothers these kids.”
The first game of the best-of-three series was scheduled for Wednesday, with the results unavailable at press time. Game two is today at 3:30 p.m., while a game three – if necessary – will be held on Friday at 6 p.m. All the games will be played at McCoy Stadium.