EAST PROVIDENCE — For the Woonsocket baseball team, Rapture beckons once more.
Another do-or-die affair – the fifth such of these playoffs – awaits the Villa Novans Friday afternoon, at stake a berth in next week’s Division II championship series at McCoy Stadium. Such drama and suspense was created thanks to Johnston’s wild 14-8 win in Game 2 of the semifinals Thursday afternoon at Pierce Field.
Excellence in the face of elimination is nothing new for No. 4 Woonsocket, which rallied to win four straight in the opening round. There’s a “been there, done that” attitude that's infectious and will surely come in handy as the Novans gear up for their latest installment of keeping the season alive.
“You play these type of games to have the opportunity to show that you deserve to be considered one of the better teams,” said Woonsocket boss John Marsella moments before boarding the team bus. “The scoreboard said it was (Johnston). Now we decide what’s what.”
Trying to gauge which team has the upper hand heading into a decisive tilt is almost pointless, yet it seems Marsella and his Novans have one remaining trump card. More like an ace in the hole, as No. 1 pitcher Kory Lawrence is expected to get the nod Friday.
“I don’t think it’s a secret. We’ve been saving that bullet for the end, and now it’s the end,” Marsella said. “When we faced Ponaganset Sunday, it was the first time this season we were asking (Lawrence) to go on short rest. He didn’t have his best stuff then, but he’ll be going with good rest and we expect big things out of him.”
Lawrence will have to be on top of his game against a Johnston club that on Thursday scored at least one run in every inning. Some of 12 hits the top-seeded Panthers compiled were loud; others were bloop shots that were placed perfectly. What aided the club’s onslaught was an aggressive approach on the base paths, which in turn applied additional pressure on Woonsocket's defense.
The Panthers clearly got the better end of this game-within-the-game matchup, notching eight stolen bases. Woonsocket committed six errors, yet just as detrimental were the two wild pitches and one passed ball that resulted in runs.
“We have to make it happen,” stated Johnston boss Steve DeMeo. “That’s why it’s important for us to have a lead or be tied. If we’re behind, it takes away from our aggressiveness.”
Said Marsella, “They did run rampant, which is something we’re going to have to address.”
The game started out with Johnston scoring and Woonsocket wasting no time in answering right back. The Novans were ahead after each of the first inning, taking a slim 5-4 lead into the top of the fourth. By that point freshman Victor Hunt was already staking his claim as Woonsocket’s top hitter on the day, one that would see the newly anointed leadoff hitter finish 4-for-4 with two doubles, three RBI and three runs scored.
“What else can you say?” said Marsella, adding, “If you (the media) have got a lexicon of more superlatives, give it to me. The kid is outstanding, simply outstanding.”
Johnston started to distance itself in the fourth inning, a frame that yielded four runs on two doubles and a single by Nicholas Loffredo that broke a 5-all game. Hunt’s second double of the game made it an 8-6 game in favor of Johnston heading into the fifth.
Both coaches were waiting to see which starting pitcher would settle down after enduring a choppy start. Johnston’s Gian Bianchi answered the call first, holding the Novans at bay while his offensive teammates continued to assault Woonsocket’s Brandon Rainville, who gutted his way through 5 2/3 innings. Rainville struck out eight while allowing 10 hits and 11 runs, seven of which were earned.
“I think our pitcher deserved better than [his final line would indicate],” said Marsella. “They really didn’t hit him hard, not like the scoreboard showed, but that’s how this game is. It’s merciless.”
Bianchi pitched a scoreless fifth while allowing one run in the sixth. Signs of fatigue were apparent in the seventh, as the righthander walked two of the first four batters he faced, the only free passes he would issue. By lasting 6 1/3 innings, Bianchi had done his job.
Hunt wasn’t the only Novan to enjoy a big day at the plate. Kory Lawrence finished with three hits while Andreas Brackett lined a two-run single in the first as part of a two-hit outing. Marsella will be the first to tell you that offense wasn’t the issue. The mistakes also extended to the base paths, as the Novans had two runners picked off first in consecutive innings.