WEST WARWICK â€“ As if on cue, droplets began falling from the purple-, orange- and dark gray clouds surrounding McCarthy Field just as Navigant Post 85 of Woonsocketâ€™s leaders accepted their second straight Anthony J. Lombardi Jr. Trophy as Rhode Islandâ€™s premier American Legion team.
Still, nothing was going to rain on this parade.
Courtesy of a stellar, come-from-behind 11-4 triumph over Gershkoff/Auburn Post 20 of Cranston in the R.I. American Legion Senior Division championship game on Saturday night, Navigant again clinched a berth in the U.S. Northeast Regional event, slated to begin this Thursday in Middletown, Conn.
The heroes on this day â€“ it was a long, tense tilt, one driving parents, family members and friends crazy â€“ included pitcher/second baseman E.J. Torres, who finished 3-for-5 with two doubles, four RBI and a run scored; and Andreas Brackett, who closed at 3-for-4 with a two-bagger and RBI.
Among the others: Will Andino went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI, two runs scored and a couple of robbed bags; Brandon Rainville and Tyler Geffert 2-for-4 and a run; Victor Hunt 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run; and Aaron Catarina, who drew three walks and scored twice.
For Torresâ€™ outstanding tourney (in this game alone, the starting righthander scattered six hits, gave up three runs (all earned) and two walks while whiffing seven through 3 1/3 innings), he was awarded the David T. Kenney III Memorial MVP Trophy. Itâ€™s was given to him by former Rhode Island American Legion Department of Baseball Chair David T. Kenney Jr.
He cradled it one more time as the skies opened, doing so for the second consecutive year.
â€śIt was the same thing as last year,â€ť co-skipper Jim Gauthier grinned afterward (Buster Perreault was busy taking details on Navigantâ€™s next trip to the Northeast Regionals from elder Kenney heir-apparent John Parente).
â€śHe was really up for this game, but all of the guys wanted it. This team gave us a battle, Iâ€™ll tell you. It didnâ€™t come easy. Because we won the states last year, we told the kids before the season, and before every game, that everyone would be gunning for us, they wanted to shoot the bulls-eye on our backs.
â€śWeâ€™ve also been saying that, when you lose just two players from the year before, youâ€™re expected to make a return trip back here. We drilled it into the guysâ€™ heads, and they were hungry.
â€ś(On Friday night), we lost, 4-3, to this same team, but we didnâ€™t have to tell the kids anything,â€ť he continued. â€śThey knew what was at the end of the line.â€ť
As for Torresâ€™ capture of another MVP laurel, he seemed both pleased and humbled.
â€śI was a little upset; I wanted my second appearance in the championship to be more special,â€ť he explained. â€śI was hoping for a better game from myself. But Skip (lone reliever Kory Lawrence) came through for us.
â€śIn my head, I figured I couldnâ€™t help my team with my arm, so I had to do it with my bat,â€ť he added. â€śThis feels really good. Iâ€™m really excited. It means a lot to me.â€ť
Post 85 had held a scant 5-4 advantage entering the bottom of the seventh inning, though it manufactured three runs to essentially put the title on ice.
Catarina drew a base-on-balls off of righty reliever Ryan Long, who immediately fanned Rainville and got Andino on a ground shot to short. But he intentionally walked Geffert to set up the force, then issued a conventional walk to Matt Bare (0-or-2, two walks, RBI) to fill the bases.
Torres then crushed a two-run single up the middle, causing the Post 20 skipper to move to Kyle Tracy, but Huntâ€™s ground hit to left scored Bare. Brackett punched another single off of Rich Reo, but Lawrence lined to short to close the rally, one that gave Navigant an 8-4 lead.
In the eighth, it appeared Gershkoff would assemble a comeback bid when Lawrence hit No. 9 batter Anthony Crudale, walked Mike Castillo and allowed Peter Esposito a single to left to load the bases.
Third baseman Geffert, however, accepted a grounder from Tyler Donahay, stepped on third and fired to first for the inning-ending double play.
That just set up Post 85â€™s terrific, three-run back half. Highlights included Catarinaâ€™s lead walk, Rainvilleâ€™s sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch, Andinoâ€™s RBI hit, Bareâ€™s hit-by-pitch and Torresâ€™ two-run double.
â€śWe talked about it before the seventh,â€ť Gauthier noted. â€śWe wanted to get up another couple of runs just for insurance, and these guys responded. We told them if someone gets a hit, then it becomes contagious, and thatâ€™s just what happened.â€ť
Navigant had jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the bottom of the second â€“ and Torres led the surge. It came right after he escaped a jam in the top half, one in which Post 20 left runners at second and third with no one out.
Torres ripped a double to the right-center hole, then stole third. Hunt immediately walked and reached second on defensive indifference, and Brackettâ€™s infield hit to short plated Torres.
Hunt took third on the high-hopper, and raced in when Matt LaButti bounced into a 6-4-3 twin killing.
Gershkoff, however, retaliated in the fourth, and sent eight to the plate in the process. Torres issued leadoff hitter Rob DeCosta a walk, then yielded Kemi Idowu a ground, hit-and-run single to right. With one down, Crudale beat out an infield, â€śgood-hopâ€ť hit to plate DeCosta, and that forced co-skipper Perreault to replace Torres with Lawrence.
The righty walked Castillo to juice the bags, then gave another free base to Esposito to score Idowu before Joe Nicolace delivered a solid two-run single to left. That gave Gershkoff a 4-2 cushion.
Post 85, though, notched a trio in the fifth to regain the advantage at 5-4. After Nicolace had whiffed Catarina, Rainville hustled out an infield hit, then took second on the pitcherâ€™s errant pickoff toss to first and third on a wild delivery. Andinoâ€™s single to center plated him, and Geffertâ€™s hit to the same spot pushed Andino to second before the two moved up on a double-theft.
For the record, Lawrence did a superb job in relief. He went 5 2/3, allowing three hits, one run (earned) and four walks while whiffing a quintet.
Nicolace took the loss after yielding eight hits, five runs (all earned) and three bases-on-balls while striking out a threesome in his five-frame outing.
â€ś(Koryâ€™s) a starter, and we hoped it wouldnâ€™t, but it took him a while to get it going,â€ť Gauthier said. â€śHe got his form back and started throwing strikes. I thought he was phenomenal out there. I thought from the get-go we were the best team in the league, and we showed it.
â€śThe good news is we finished 2-2 in the regionals last summer (in Old Orchard Beach, Me.), and whatâ€™s nice about this is the guys know what to expect,â€ť he continued. â€śThey know what weâ€™re trying to do. Weâ€™re definitely not going on vacation, but to work.â€ť
Should Navigant snare that title, they would clinch a bid to the National American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C.