CUMBERLAND — The stakes were clear for both teams entering Wednesday’s matchup at Garvin Field.
For Cumberland National, a win would punch its ticket to the semifinal round of the District IV tournament. For Bernon, a win would allow it to stave off elimination.
In a vintage pitchers’ duel that featured more than four times as many strikeouts (26) as hits (6), Cumberland National rode ace right-hander Brandon Croteau to a 2-1 victory, clinching the second-best record in Pool B.
Manager Ray Creamer’s club, which closed pool play with a 3-1 mark, will meet the Pool A champion next Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Lincoln’s Randy Hien Field. Though Bernon wraps up pool play on Friday against Burrillville, Wednesday’s loss prevented the Woonsocket team from advancing out of Pool B, which has been claimed by Cumberland American (3-0).
Wednesday’s tilt was simply a case of two star pitchers – Croteau and Bernon’s Kyle Beaulieu – engaging in a proverbial staring contest.
“Both guys threw their hearts out,” said Bernon manager Ron Masse, whose squad fell to 1-2. “That’s what it’s all about. 2-1? It doesn’t get much better than that. Not much hitting, great pitching. It’s one of the best games I’ve seen in a long time.
”Because of some faulty control in the top of the second inning, Beaulieu blinked first.
With two out, National loaded the bases on a hit batsman, a walk and an infield single, bringing leadoff hitter Justice Belmont to the plate. In a span of three pitches, Beaulieu uncorked two wild pitches that allowed Brandon McMillen and Tony Billeri to score from third base.
“We wanted to work for runs, nothing crazy,” Creamer said. “A guy throwing that hard, if the catcher can’t stop it, it’s going to go to the backstop. We had speed on the bases at that point in time and we squeezed those guys in.”
Croteau made the 2-0 margin stand up over his 5 1/3 innings of masterful work, during which he yielded two hits – both singles – and one walk while striking out 12 batters. Bernon had one baserunner in each frame except the fourth, but until the sixth, when Beaulieu’s home run off reliever James Haupt sliced the deficit to 2-1, it could not crack the scoreboard.
That Bernon began the bottom of the sixth with a chance to win was a credit to Beaulieu, the hard-throwing righty who racked up 10 strikeouts across 4 2/3 frames of two-run ball before reaching the Little League-mandated pitch count limit. He surrendered three hits, three walks and hit a batter during his 86-pitch outing.
Beaulieu’s counterpart also exited because of the pitch count rule, as Croteau was forced to depart after fanning Matt Letourneau to start the bottom of the sixth. He finished with 88 pitches.
“He had good control all game and we were trying to bring him up to his pitch count,” Masse said. “Brandon’s a good pitcher. He’s smart, kept his pitch count low. We had three guys coming up who could hit home runs in the bottom of the sixth. We gave it our best shot.”
Haupt did not provide immediate relief. The first batter he faced, Beaulieu, whacked a low 2-1 fastball well beyond the left-field fence for a solo shot.
“We knew that [Beaulieu] was their big guy,” Creamer said. “I wanted [Haupt] to go after him. I didn’t want to pitch around him. Give [Beaulieu] credit. That ball was low in the strike zone and he kind of golfed it out of there.”
Manny Ceballos’ bid for back-to-back jacks fell short, despite a well-struck fly ball to center for the second out. Naturally, the game concluded on a strikeout, as Haupt got Tyheem Gray to end it.
With seven 11-year-olds on its 12-player roster, the future is bright for Bernon. For National, the focus is on the here and now.
Asked if he plans to start Croteau next Tuesday, Creamer said, “It’s kind of early to think that far ahead. If he’s eligible, he’s most likely [to pitch]. You’ve got to win to move on, so most likely he’ll see some mound action.”
Given that Croteau will receive the necessary four days’ rest before Tuesday’s game, that could spell trouble for Pool A contenders Lincoln and Smithfield.
“He’s been a good pitcher for a couple years,” Creamer said. “He does a great job mixing it up. His curveball stops people in their tracks, and then he comes back with a fastball that really surprises some people. He’s a good pitcher. I’m not going to make him the next coming of Roger Clemens or something, but he does a great job.”