Last Thursday, the Johnston High School baseball team avenged its only loss of the season with a 13-5 victory over Ponaganset, and on Monday, the Panthers beat up on Burrillville for a 9-0 victory.
Sandwiched between those two was an extra-inning game against North Smithfield in which the Panthers weren’t at their best.
But they found a way to win that one, too.
Johnston beat the Northmen 8-4 in nine innings. Coupled with the wins over Ponaganset and Burrillville, the Panthers have now won 12 in a row and are sitting in first place in Division II-North with a 14-1 record.
Though Friday’s game left something to be desired, there isn’t much to complain about when looking at the big picture.
“I’m proud of them. Maybe not that proud today,” joked head coach Steve DeMeo after Friday’s game. “But these guys are resilient. They’ve been playing so well. We cut them some slack because they’ve earned it. Eleven in a row, it’s kind of phenomenal.”
Johnston has just three games left in the regular season, with the biggest one scheduled for today at 4 p.m. The Panthers will welcome second-place Woonsocket to Memorial Park. The Novans are 12-2. A win by Johnston would clinch at least a share of the division title.
While that game has been circled on the team’s calendar for some time now, the Panthers have been taking care of business every step of the way.
Facing Ponaganset last Thursday, Johnston exploded for six first-inning runs and never looked back. The Panthers finished with 10 hits and capitalized on eight walks. James Picchi and Steve Perfetto combined on a solid pitching performance.
Friday’s game wasn’t quite as smooth. Johnston made five errors and struggled with the bats in the early going. Eventually, after North Smithfield tied the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers broke out for four runs in the top of the ninth and cruised to the victory.
“When push came to shove, we did make the plays,” DeMeo said. “Every time it got tied up, we bounced back.”
Johnston led 3-1 in the fourth inning, but the cushion didn’t last long. A walk and an error put two men on for the Northmen, and a single by Ryan Masnyk brought both of them home, tying the game at 3-3.
The Panthers went back in front in the sixth when Picchi reached on an error. Ryan McKeon followed with a base hit, and pinch-runner Randy D’Aquila then took third and home on wild pitches by Masnyk, making it a 4-3 game.
But the Panthers couldn’t protect that lead either. Down to its last three outs, North Smithfield rallied against Johnston starter Gian Bianchi. Erik Pelletier drew a one-out walk and Aaron Catarina followed with a single. He took second on the throw to third, putting two runners in scoring position with one out.
DeMeo felt Bianchi was out of gas, so he brought in Joe Pecchia. Carlos Guzman greeted him with a deep fly ball to center. Chris Pistacchio made the catch, but it was deep enough for Pelletier to tag up and score the tying run.
Thankfully for Johnston, Pecchia made sure the Northmen didn’t get anything else as he stranded the winning run on third with a popup back to the mound.
Masnyk stayed on the hill for North Smithfield in the eighth and worked around a pair of hits for a scoreless frame. Pecchia matched him, though, working a quick one-two-three eighth.
For the ninth, North Smithfield went to its bullpen, and Johnston took advantage against sophomore Chris Forbes. Alex Tenerella drew a leadoff walk, stole second and took third on a base hit by Mike Pennacchia. Tenerella then scored the go-ahead run on an errant pickoff throw by catcher Brendan Chartier.
And the Panthers weren’t done.
Steve Perfetto legged out a bunt single and Stephen Pennacchia worked a walk to load the bases. Picchi was then hit by a pitch to force in another run. Joe Bongiovanni and McKeon followed with sacrifice flies to make it 8-4.
“We kept saying [Masnyk] couldn’t go anymore than what he did,” DeMeo said. “He had thrown a lot of pitches. We put the ball in play when we needed to.”
Pecchia did the rest. In the bottom of the ninth, he struck out Sean Simmons looking then induced a popup back to the mound for the second out. Pelletier then grounded out to shortstop to end the game.
“Gian and Joe Pecchia did a great job,” DeMeo said. “They really picked us up.”
Bianchi was charged with four runs in 6.1 innings, but only two were earned. Pecchia retired every batter he faced in 2.2 innings of relief.
At the plate, Johnston was led by Mike Pennacchia and Pistacchio, who both went 2-for-5 with a run scored. Stephen Pennacchia was 1-for-3, but was on base three times and scored all three times. Bongiovanni, McKeon and Bianchi each had an RBI, while Tenerella, Perfetto and Picchi all scored runs.
While the Panthers were happy to get out of North Smithfield with another victory, DeMeo hopes they remember what went wrong.
“There were some plays we have to make,” DeMeo said. “In the next couple of weeks, when we’re in the playoffs, if we don’t make those plays, we’re coming home. That’s what they’ve got to understand.”
But in general, the Panthers seem to be on the right track, and Monday’s win over Burrillville was the kind of performance the Panthers expect. They didn’t make an error and they pounded nine hits. Bongiovanni struck out 10 in six shutout innings, with Perfetto working a scoreless seventh.
Johnston will now try to keep its streak alive against the toughest competition it’s faced in a while. The Novans have won seven of their last eight.
After Thursday’s game, the Panthers will visit Scituate on Saturday at 12 p.m. before closing out the season with Senior Night on Monday at 6 p.m. against Davies.