After suffering its first loss of the season last week, the Johnston baseball team felt like it had something to prove when it took on undefeated Woonsocket on Tuesday morning.
And even with the reigning Pitcher of the Year in Division II-North, Kory Lawrence, on the hill for the Villa Novans, the Panthers had no trouble making their point.
After four scoreless innings, Johnston got to Lawrence for three runs in the fifth and then scored five more in the sixth. Panthers’ starter Gian Bianchi made that lead hold up, throwing six innings and allowing just one run, as Johnston walked away with an 8-2 victory in its biggest test of the season thus far.
The Panthers improved to 5-1 overall in D-II North, and are now tied with the Villa Novans atop the division. Johnston’s lone loss was a 5-4 defeat to Scituate on April 9.
“They were undefeated, we had a loss, now we’re tied for first,” Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said. “We have the tiebreaker. It’s ours to lose now, and that’s what the guys are going for. We have a great tradition with Johnston, and we want to keep it going.”
That tradition includes a Division II state title from last season, during which the Panthers had to go through Woonsocket in the semifinals. That series went down to a deciding third game, where Johnston beat Lawrence 7-4 to advance to the state championship series.
While this year’s Johnston team looks significantly different then last year, there are some holdovers, and handling Lawrence on the big stage last year had the Panthers confident heading in to Tuesday.
“We faced him game three last year to go to McCoy and we beat him,” Bianchi said. “That gave us such a confidence boost, because we’ve seen him before. Even though we have a new team, we teed off on him.”
Early on, though, neither team could get much going offensively.
Bianchi gave up three hits over the first four innings, but no runs, as he kept Woonsocket off balance with a steady diet of curveballs.
Lawrence matched, allowing just one hit over the same span while striking out six Johnston hitters.
But in the fifth, the Panthers broke out.
Stephen Pennacchia led off with a single to center field, and he advanced to second on a passed ball and then third on a sacrifice bunt from James Picchi.
Lawrence then hit Joe Bongiovanni with a 1-2 fastball, before Ryan McKeon popped out to the catcher trying to bunt.
One out away from getting out of the jam, Lawrence walked leadoff man Chris Pistacchio to load the bases, then walked Bianchi to force in the game’s first run.
Alex Tenerella followed that with a single to right field, plating Bongiovanni and Pistacchio for a 3-0 lead.
“We didn’t do anything special that inning,” DeMeo said. “He walked a couple batters, we found a couple holes. I think we only hit the ball hard a couple times that inning. It’s baseball. If you can find the holes, you succeed.”
Woonsocket managed a run off Bianchi in the bottom half of the inning, as Cody L’Heureux singled home Alex Denoylle, but Bianchi induced consecutive groundouts to Steve Perfetto at third base to get out of the jam.
That was a common theme, as Perfetto had five putouts on the day, and the defense made just one error overall.
“We played very, very well in the field,” DeMeo said.
In the sixth inning, leading only 3-1, the Panthers gave themselves some breathing room.
Stephen Pennacchia again lead off, and he drew a walk to get things started. He advanced to second on an errant pickoff throw from Lawrence, and he scored on a double from Picchi soon after.
That hit drove Lawrence from the game, trailing 4-1, and Woonsocket brought in Scott Tucker to try to limit the damage.
Instead, Johnston turned it up a notch. Bongiovanni greeted Tucker with a single, and McKeon brought home a run with an RBI groundout.
After a walk to Pistacchio, Bianchi singled up the middle to drive in Johnston’s sixth run of the game. Tenerella put the finishing touches on the inning with his second two-run single, putting the Panthers up 8-1.
“It’s like a common cold,” Bianchi said. “Once we get a hit, it just spreads. Everybody feels it. That’s how it was. We got hit after hit after hit. It started off with small game. We were bunting, and then we got the hits.”
That sixth inning turned it from a two-run game into a seven-run game, and effectively ended Woonsocket’s hopes of a comeback.
“That was the key, to go from 3-1 to 8-1,” DeMeo said. “That gives us the opportunity to run, and it takes the running away from them. We could take some chances, and we started to hit and run. It was very successful.”
The Villa Novans added a run in the seventh inning off Picchi – who relieved Bianchi – on a double from Josh Mousseau.
Bianchi finished the day with six innings pitched, five strikeouts and one walk while allowing just one run and five hits.
Lawrence, on the other hand, pitched five-plus innings, giving up five runs on four hits while striking out six and walking six and hitting a batter.
Tenerella was Johnston’s leading hitter, as he went 2-for-4 with four RBI. Bongiovanni also had two hits.
The Panthers were scheduled to play on the road on Wednesday against winless Davies, before taking on 3-3 Central on Friday at 11 a.m.
“They’re very, very confident,” DeMeo said. “There’s a difference between being cocky and confident, and our guys are confident.”