BRISTOL, Conn. — It was only fitting.
The shutdown pitching. The relentless hitting. The comeback.
They were all on display in Saturday’s New England regional final. And that is why the Cumberland American players circled Breen Field in jubilation, their championship banner in tow, with Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blaring over the sound system.
Next stop: South Williamsport, Pa.
Down three runs before taking a swing, Cumberland erupted in an eight-run bottom of the first inning that set the tone for its 13-7 victory against Andover (Mass.) National.
Ryan McCormick clubbed two of Cumberland’s five home runs and amassed six RBIs for manager Dave Belisle’s squad, which becomes the fifth Rhode Island team to qualify for the Little League World Series, following in the footsteps of Darlington American (1980), Cranston Western (1996) and Lincoln (2001, ’04).
The newly-crowned New England champions (13-2) open play in the double-elimination World Series on Friday at 3 p.m., when they will oppose the West region representative.
Saturday’s game didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start. With one out in the top of the first, Belisle paid a mound visit to starter Connor Mastin after Andover loaded the bases on a double and two singles. Belisle visited him again following Sam Conte’s RBI single to center field, this time relieving Mastin with Jake Glod.
Glod walked the first batter he faced, Dan Gemmell, to force in a run, before Cedric Gillette delivered an RBI infield single to put Andover up, 3-0.
But Glod retired the next two batters to avert further damage.
“I thought that was the key to this ballgame,” Belisle said of Glod’s escape act. “That team was smacking the ball, and it’s nothing Connor did, they’re just a great fastball team and they were timing Connor’s fastballs. Jacob mixes it up beautifully and he got them to hit the ball on the ground and he gave us a chance to field the ball.
“Believe it or not, [a] 3-0 [deficit], if that was a confidence builder, it was, knowing the situation. That could have been 6-0, easily.”
McCormick quickly swung the momentum back in Cumberland’s favor, leading off the bottom of the first by blasting a fastball from Andover starter Michael Reilly over the center-field fence.
“Ryan McCormick’s leadoff homer, after that I knew, ‘OK, we’re coming,’” Belisle said. “Ryan is the key to our offense.”
Said McCormick, “I just wanted to get on base.”
After Mastin singled and Max Hanuschak walked, Chris Wright clocked a Reilly offering beyond the outstretched glove of Andover center fielder Conte for a three-run shot.
Reilly’s outing came to an end after Tom Faltus reached on an error to pack the sacks with two outs for McCormick, who whacked Conte’s second-pitch curveball to left-center for a grand slam – his second homer of the inning, this one giving Cumberland an 8-3 lead.
“He’s a heck of a hitter. We knew that going in,” said Andover manager Paul Finn, whose team concluded the summer with an 18-4 record. “We made the move to the lefty [Conte] to try to get him out. We threw him two curveballs, [and] the second curveball he drilled. I tip my cap to him.”
The eight-run outburst conjured up memories of Cumberland’s District IV final against Lincoln, a game in which Belisle’s squad trailed 5-1 early on before launching five home runs en route to a 12-6 win.
“We’ve gotten behind in the past, and I knew that the key was what [Glod] did to stop them from scoring more than three runs,” Belisle said. “Once he did that, I was very excited, because I knew that three was reasonable.”
Cumberland entered Saturday having scored 10 or more runs in eight of its 14 tournament games. It did not reach double digits in last Saturday’s 5-3 win over Andover, the teams’ pool-play opener. That game included four errors by Andover, leading to three unearned runs for Cumberland.
Both clubs went 2-2 in pool play, with Cumberland drawing the third seed and Andover the fourth in the semifinal round because of their head-to-head result. On Thursday, Cumberland ousted second-seeded Connecticut titlist Fairfield American, the reigning New England champion, with an 8-7 victory, while Andover knocked off top-seeded New Hampshire squad Goffstown Junior Baseball, 9-4.
Heading into the rematch against Cumberland, Finn knew his pitchers would have their hands full containing the top of Belisle’s lineup. And he was right.
“They came out swinging,” Finn said. “You have to give Cumberland a tremendous amount of credit. They mashed the ball today. Even their subs were hitting shots all over the place. That’s a great hitting team.”
With one down in the bottom of the second, Hanuschak doubled to right, advanced to third base on a passed ball with Wright at the plate and scored on the ensuing throwing error by Andover catcher Andrew Selima.
Andover began its comeback charge in the top of the fourth. Daniel Walsh started it with a leadoff dinger to center, and Gemmell added a two-out, two-run homer to center that pulled the Massachusetts champs within a 9-6 deficit.
Hanuschak got a run back for Cumberland in the bottom of the fourth, when he demolished a high fastball from Selima to deep left-center for a solo shot.
But Andover refused to go quietly. Selima’s one-out sacrifice fly to left in the top of the fifth chased a tiring Glod, who scattered eight hits and five walks across 4 1/3 innings of four-run ball.
“He’s a battler,” Belisle said. “They’ll get runners on, but he’ll make pitches to get out of jams.”
The right-hander finished with 82 pitches, shaking his elbow in pain prior to being replaced by Conor Lavallee.
“It was sore at the end,” Glod said.
With a runner on third, Lavallee struck out Reilly to squelch the threat.
Cumberland handed Lavallee three more insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth. Following McCormick’s sac fly to left, Glod roped a Selima offering to right for a two-out, two-run homer.
“We were a few runs up, so I felt a little more confident,” Lavallee said. “I just needed to hit my spots and throw strikes.”
Andover put runners on second and third with one down, but Lavallee caught Timmy Kalantzakos looking at a called third strike to bring Cumberland within one out of the Little League World Series.
After running the count full against Nate Abbott, Lavallee stepped off the mound and smiled before returning to the hill. He peered in for the sign from catcher Wright, reared back and fired a fastball past Abbott’s swinging bat.
With that, Cumberland cemented its place in the annals of Rhode Island Little League history.
And the story’s not over yet.
“I think they really rose to the occasion today,” Finn said. “A truly impressive effort by Cumberland.”
Andover National 300 310 – 7-13-3
Cumberland American 810 13X – 13-11-1
Michael Reilly, Sam Conte (1), Andrew Selima (3) and Andrew Selima, Nate Abbott (3). Connor Mastin, Jake Glod (1), Conor Lavallee (5) and Ryan McCormick, Chris Wright (1).