The Johnston baseball team had at least one runner in scoring position in every inning of Monday’s game with Ponaganset, but more often that not, those runners stayed right there.
And after the Chieftains exploded for four runs in the first inning off Johnston starter Gian Bianchi, the Panthers chipped away, but ultimately couldn’t get the big hit to put them over the top.
Johnston turned a 4-1 game into a 4-4 game in the fifth inning, but Ponaganset scored the eventual game-winning run in the sixth and hung on for a 5-4 victory.
The loss was the Panthers’ first of the season, and it dropped them to 2-1 in Division II. Ponaganset improved to 2-1 with the win.
“We had to play defensively the rest of the way,” Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said about falling behind in the first inning. “I thought we played well from that moment, we just couldn’t get that two-out hit.”
The Panthers stranded 11 runners in all, leaving the bases loaded in the fourth, two runners on in the fifth and two more in the seventh.
The game ended with Ponaganset reliever Logan Duffy striking out Joe Pecchia with the tying run on second and the winning run on first.
“Logan does a nice job controlling the strike zone,” Ponaganset head coach Anthony Parrillo said. “He threw strikes when we needed them and got us out at the end there.”
It was the first inning, though, that really set Johnston back.
Bianchi surrendered hits to Connor Mathieu and Sam Fasano, the first two hitters of the game, then hit Duffy to load the bases with nobody out. Pat Crino followed that with a bases-clearing double down the left-field line, staking the Chieftains to a 3-0 lead.
After a groundout went for the first out of the inning, Chris Johnson laced a single into right field to score Crino and give Ponaganset a 4-0 advantage after half an inning.
“The first inning, Gian wasn’t loose or whatever,” DeMeo said. “The wind, the blowing of the sand, he was uncomfortable. Everybody was uncomfortable. To Ponaganset’s credit, they scored the four runs right off the bat.”
The Panthers got one back in the home half of the frame without the benefit of a hit, as leadoff hitter Chris Pistacchio walked, advanced to second on a groundout, stole third and scored on an RBI groundout from Alex Tenerella.
But from there on out, the Panthers struggled to score.
Joe Bongiovanni was hit by a pitch from starter Aaron Bowen in the second, and he advanced to second on a wild pitch, but he was stranded there.
In the third, Tenerella reached on an error, and advanced to second on a wild pitch, but he too was stranded.
Then in the fourth, Steve Perfetto walked to open the frame, and Stephen Pennacchia followed that with a walk. On the first pitch to Bongiovanni, however, Perfetto was gunned down trying to steal third.
Bongiovanni then singled and James Picchi walked to load the bases, but Ryan McKeon popped to second and Pistacchio grounded out to end the threat.
“Being down four runs, you try to do too much,” DeMeo said. “You’ve just got to get a hit here, a hit there and keep putting the ball in play. You can’t hit a five-run homer. It just doesn’t exist.”
Luckily for Johnston, Bianchi settled in on the other side. Starting with the last two batters of the first, Bianchi retired 13 of the next 16 batters he faced, allowing just two singles and a walk over that span.
At one point, he retired eight in a row, keeping the Panthers within three runs.
“He pitched great after the first,” DeMeo said of Bianchi.
In the fifth inning, the Johnston bats finally came alive.
Bowen walked Bianchi to open the inning, and Bianchi then stole second. After Tenerella grounded out, Michael Pennacchia singled to center and Perfetto brought Bianchi and Pennacchia to the plate with a long double to right field.
The next hitter, Stephen Pennacchia, walked, and that marked the end of the day for Bowen, who was replaced by Duffy.
Duffy induced a lineout, but Picchi ripped a double into the right-center field gap to plate Perfetto with the tying run.
But with runners at second and third, Duffy buckled down and struck out McKeon to keep the game knotted at four.
Bowen ended up going 4.1 innings, surrendering four runs and three hits with six walks.
“Aaron toughed it out,” Parrillo said. “He had a few more walks than I would have liked, but in terms of them getting hits, he kept them in check.”
Ponaganset immediately took the lead back in the sixth. Tyler Shemick reached on an error and stole second. Bianchi came back to strike out the next two hitters, but a single into right field by Ricky Petrella put the Chieftains back in front 5-4.
From there, Johnston stranded a runner at second in the sixth, then tried to come back in the seventh.
Bongiovanni doubled with two outs, and Picchi was hit by a pitch. But Pecchia’s strikeout ended the game.
“I’m happy the way we played, but it came down to the execution and two-out hits,” DeMeo said.
Bianchi ended up pitching six innings, while allowing five runs – four earned – on seven hits, with seven strikeouts and one walk.
Stephen Pennacchia pitched a scoreless seventh, stranding two runners, to keep it a one run game.
“They’re definitely one of the top teams in the division,” Parrillo said of Johnston. “We have a pretty experienced group, and they’re pretty confident so far this year. I’m happy they came out and played a good game.”
The Panthers were scheduled to be back in action on Wednesday against North Smithfield, with the results unavailable at press time.
Johnston’s next game is today at Burrillville at 3:30 p.m.