The high school baseball outfits hailing from Lincoln, Tolman and Woonsocket find themselves in an enviable position – at home, serving as the higher seed in the opening round of the double elimination, regional playoffs, which cuts four ways with four teams comprising each group.
The real key as baseball’s second season gets under way is not specifically tied to home-field advantage. In the case of a double-elimination format, it’s about starting out on the right foot. Win on Wednesday and wait until Friday before resuming the March to McCoy Stadium. That’s called the easy road.
A loss is not completely catastrophic, but in some cases, it might as well be. Teams would be forced to come back on Thursday, staring at a must-win game. Win Thursday and the gauntlet continues Friday against a well-rested club that can almost reach out and touch the following week’s regional finals, which is a best-of-three series.
Experience has taught area coaches therein lies one key to advancing – win the first one. Sinking into the losers’ bracket sets up a three-games-in-three-days death knell that can tax even the deepest of pitching staffs. That’s why Wednesday is being viewed in so many corners as a Game 7 everything’s-on-the-line pressure cooker.
“If you can stay in the winners’ bracket, you’re all right,” emphasized St. Raphael coach Tom “Saar” Sorrentine. “Once you get in the losers’ bracket, it becomes tough.”
Echoed Lincoln coach Ed Hunt, “You’re in survival mode if you lose that first game. You throw everything you can just to get to that next game in trying to salvage the bracket. That’s why you have to win that first game.”
Double elimination has been a staple in reducing the size of the field since 2007. Prior to that teams would have to navigate a single-elimination game and two best-of-three series just to reach the championship round. In the “old days” coaches quaked in fear, knowing there was a tremendous amount riding on that single game. They knew deep down that running into the opposition’s best pitcher could suffocate their team’s dream of a lengthy playoff march.
Tolman head coach Theo Murray is certainly glad those days are ancient history. He recalled in 2003 when Tolman, a second seed, fell in the preliminary round to 15th-seeded North Providence. Just like that, the Tigers were eliminated from the scene.
“That was brutal; no one ever wants to go back to that,” Murray said. “North Providence had a stud pitcher, so if (the opponent) has one good pitcher, you can lose that one game.
“With [double elimination] you know you’re going to play two games,” Murray continued. “There are no byes this year, meaning everyone has to play. I’m excited about it and anxious to see how everything goes down.”
What East Providence coach Mick Lefort is banking on is that senior Joe Carnevale, arguably one of the top five pitchers in the state, can bridge the gulf between his 16th seeded Townies and North Kingstown, the top overall seed. Carnevale is seen as a big-game pitcher, having defeated two high-powered clubs in Cranston West and Bishop Hendricken. He recorded six wins for an E.P. club that recorded a 7-11 mark.
Lefort doesn’t view the Townies as a typical we’re-just-happy-to-be-here 16th seed. Nor will he waste any time sending his ace pitcher to the bump. A pitcher of Carnevale’s ilk is the main reason why the E.P.-N.K. matchup figures to grab plenty of attention on Day 1 of the playoffs.
“The 1 vs. 16 should be intimidating, but we’ve got Carnevale, which should hopefully even the playing field,” said Lefort. “We need to win; otherwise, it becomes a tough road to hoe.”
The double-elimination arrangement is both a blessing and a curse. A win sets the tone while a loss pins a team squarely against the wall. Is it possible to recover and climb out of the losers’ bracket? Sure it is, but how many arms will a coach have left?
That’s why Wednesday is of the utmost importance – even as teams take comfort in knowing a shot at redemption awaits should they lose.
“I told the team that if they lose that first game, they’re in last place,” said Hunt. “Winning on that first day makes it a little bit easier to get out of the bracket.”
The general school-of-thought is that any number of teams can claim the title in either Division I or II. North Kingstown, Hendricken and Lincoln won the regular season division titles in Div. I with matching 14-4 records while Cranston West, Moses Brown and East Greenwich all finished 13-5.
“Anybody can win it, I think,” assessed Sorrentine, whose St. Raphael outfit visits East Greenwich.
The same argument holds true in Division II, where 11 teams finished with 11 or more league wins. Tolman, which earned the sixth seed based on going 12-6, faces 11th seeded Narragansett, which at 11-7, finished one game back.
“We’re pretty much all the same,” said Murray. “Anybody in Division II can catch fire and take this thing.”