Up by one run in the bottom of the seventh inning at rival Warwick Vets, the Pilgrim baseball team was on the verge of falling outside of the playoff picture.
Instead, the Pats came up with one of the best plays of their up-and-down season to hold off the ’Canes and keep their postseason hopes in tact.
With Pilgrim ahead 5-4, Vets had the bases loaded with one out, needing just one hit to end the game. Instead, Danny Greaves grounded a ball to third baseman Kyle Perry, who fired a low throw home to catcher Shawn Clayton.
Clayton – the team’s shortstop to begin the season – was able to dig the ball out while keeping his foot on home plate, then whirl and throw to first base for a dramatic, game-ending double play. Pilgrim won by the 5-4 margin.
“We made our own breaks,” Pilgrim head coach Ed Colvin said. “That play Clayton made in that situation with our season on the line, that’s one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. When most kids would just say let’s get the out, he went after that ball aggressively. I didn’t think he had any shot at the kid at first base, and then he threw a seed to first base.”
The win improved the Pats’ record to 6-9, while dropping Vets to 6-9 as well. Those totals put both teams in a five-way tie for 14th place in Division I, where the top 16 teams make the playoffs.
With just three games remaining, a loss for Pilgrim would have made it nearly impossible to still make a run. A win for Vets, on the other hand, would have put the ’Canes a step closer to locking up a berth.
Instead, both teams will be fighting for a spot as the season comes to a close.
“We need to pull out a couple wins here at the end of the season, because we’re at the bottom of the standings right now,” Clayton said. “I know we were ranked 20th coming in to this game and there was one game separating us from getting into the playoffs. These games are really important.”
On Monday, with a pretty clear knowledge of just how important the game was, both teams elected to throw their top pitchers.
Pilgrim started senior Branden Hoxsie, and he struggled early on. He gave up a leadoff triple to T.J. Boyajian, followed by an RBI groundout from Steven Denis. Shane Johnson reached on an error two batters later, and he came around on a triple by Kevin Hickey to give the ’Canes an early 2-0 lead.
But Hoxsie settled down, as he retired the final batter of the first to set off a string of 12 consecutive men retired.
On the other side, Johnson was on the mound for Vets. Johnson had been one of the top pitchers in the state as of late – he threw a complete game shutout, while allowing one hit and striking out 11 batters last week against East Providence – but he struggled on Monday.
He walked two batters in the first inning, but was able to work out of the jam with no damage. Then, after a one-two-three second, he ran into trouble in the third.
He walked the first two batters, Cole Furney and Clayton, before retiring Nick McGuirl. He then walked two more Pilgrim hitters – Colin Douglas and Hoxsie – to force in the Pats’ first run. An RBI groundout by Mike Mallozzi tied the game, and a single by Kyle Perry put Pilgrim in front 3-2. Johnson walked one more man in the inning before striking out Mark Lenz to leave the bases loaded.
He threw 78 pitches over those three innings, walking seven. While he allowed just one hit, he surrendered three runs and didn’t come back out for the fourth.
“We didn’t pitch well enough today,” Vets head coach Nolan Landy said. “That’s the bottom line. We didn’t pitch well enough today, and we just talked about that.”
Hickey took Johnson’s place on the mound and got through the fourth and fifth innings without giving up a run. Meanwhile, Vets tied the game in the home half of the fifth.
After Hoxsie retired the first two batters of the inning, Bryan O’Mara reached on an infield single. A walk to Boyajian put runners on first and second, and an infield error brought home O’Mara to tie the score at three.
Pilgrim regained the lead in the sixth when Clayton singled with two outs, advanced to second on a passed ball and came around on a single by McGuirl. After Hoxsie worked a quick sixth, the Pats tacked on an insurance run in the seventh on an RBI single by Brett Ferguson, scoring pinch runner Trent Perry, who ran for Hoxsie after he walked to open the frame.
“Some of the kids at the bottom of the order, the kid Brett Ferguson, he was a JV player at the beginning of the year,” Colvin said. “We’ve had some other issues with guys, and that kid just does the job.”
Kyle Perry was thrown out at home from center field by Johnson to end the inning, but the Pats still held a two-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh.
That’s when it got interesting.
Hoxsie induced a flyout from Pat DelSanto to open the frame, but a single by Tony Lonczak put one man on, and an infield error on a ball hit by O’Mara gave Vets two on with one out.
Next up was Boyajian, and Hoxsie walked him on four pitches. He then walked Denis, forcing in a run to make the score 5-4.
In the dugout, Colvin elected to keep Hoxsie in the game despite the consecutive walks.
“After he walked Boyajian, two walks in the inning, that’s not like him,” Colvin said. “My assistant coach and I said, ‘He may be done.’ But you know what? He’s a senior, he’s a three-year starter, it had to be him. He’s won so many games for us the last two years, both at the plate and pitching. It’s his game to win or lose.”
Greaves stepped in with a chance to be the hero, but his hard shot on the second pitch of the at-bat was scooped by Perry at third, starting the miracle double play to end the game.
“It’s all reaction,” Clayton said. “You’ve kind of got to judge the ball where it’s going. I’ve played a lot of first base before, so I’m pretty good at picking the ball out. I’m kind of glad that I had the right set of mind to remember that there was a guy running to first base and turn the double play to end the game.”
Pilgrim now has three games left, beginning today when it travels to 5-10 Toll Gate at 3:45 p.m. After that, it will travel to 6-9 Barrington on Sunday at 4 p.m. before hosting 5-10 East Providence next Tuesday to finish the season.
“You may have to win all the games,” Colvin said. “You might have to be 9-9 to get in. Maybe 8-10, but it looks like there’s going to be a lot of teams at 8-10. It might come down to tiebreakers.”
Vets, on the other hand, was scheduled to host 14-1 Hendricken on Wednesday, with the results unavailable at press time. It then will host Toll Gate on Monday at 3:45 p.m., before ending the year at home against 9-6 Cranston West on Tuesday.
The ’Canes will likely play those games without starting catcher Kyle Waters, who inured his hand in the first inning on Monday. Denis played in his place.
But, despite Monday’s tough loss and the injury to Waters, Landy is still happy with what he sees from his team, and he’s hoping they can finish strong and make the postseason.
“This team from where we were at he beginning of the year until now, we’ve improved by leaps and bounds,” Landy said. “Am I happy with the outcome today? No. But we fought, we battled, we were not out of the game even though we didn’t pitch well. That’s something we weren’t doing at the beginning of the year.”