One strike away from its first loss at McCoy Stadium since 2001, the Bishop Hendricken baseball team found a little magic on Tuesday night.
In a back-and-forth game one of the Division I championship series, the Hawks trailed La Salle 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning when they put together three consecutive hits. John Toppa’s single into left field plated the tying and winning runs as Hendricken walked off with a 7-6 victory and one of its most dramatic playoff wins ever.
“It was a great game, back-and-forth, both teams,” said Hendricken head coach Ed Holloway. “We didn’t stop fighting.”
The Hawks are on the hunt for their third consecutive state championship and their ninth in the last 12 years. In that span, they’ve failed to make it to McCoy Stadium a few times, but when they make it to Rhode Island high school baseball’s biggest stage, they win. Their last loss at McCoy was in 2001, when Toll Gate beat them for the state title.
Several times on Tuesday night, it looked like the Hawks were finally in for another loss. They managed one hit through the first three innings against La Salle’s Tyler Shemick. On the other side, the Rams pushed Hendricken ace Mike McCaffrey over the 100-pitch mark in the fifth inning and scored four runs in that frame to take a 5-2 lead. The Hawks answered to tie the game, but in extra innings, the Rams pushed a run across in the top of the eighth, after Hendricken had left the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.
And the Hawks were quickly in deep trouble.
Sam Boulanger led off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, but John Willette then popped up a bunt. La Salle reliever Doug Harrison – who hadn’t allowed a run in two-plus innings – squeezed the pop-up and fired to first to double up pinch-runner Brendan Conley.
That put La Salle one out away from a victory and a 1-0 series lead. Soon, the Rams were one strike away, when Harrison jumped ahead of Ryan Rotondo 1-2. But Rotondo, Hendricken’s senior second baseman, roped the next pitch into shallow right-center field for a base hit.
“He’s a good hitter,” Holloway said. “We needed him to get on and he did.”
Rotondo’s hit brought Gatorade Player of the Year Gian Martellini to the plate. He had flied out in his last at-bat and looked like he might do it again when he sent a sinking line drive into shallow center. But the ball popped out of the glove of La Salle center-fielder Brody Santilli as he made a sliding attempt. Rotondo raced for third and when the throw came home, Martellini took second.
“Gian put it in play and we got a break there,” Holloway said.
Still, the Rams were in control, and Harrison quickly fired two strikes to Toppa to go up 0-2. Toppa then took a ball, fouled off a pitch and watched another ball. On a 2-2 pitch, he ripped a line drive into left field. Rotondo scored the tying run and Martellini sprinted around third. When La Salle’s left-fielder bobbled the ball, it meant the Rams didn’t even have a play at home. Martellini touched the plate with the game-winning run.
“I’m so glad we got the win,” Toppa said. “La Salle played great, but we battled. It’s great to get that first win.”
Being the hero felt especially good for Toppa, who had been slumping badly in the playoffs.
“I had been in a huge slump, like the worst of my life,” Toppa said. “I was getting really frustrated. I tried to work through it and kept swinging. My dad is a huge part of it, spending his whole weekend with me hitting. Not to be cliché, but the first thing I thought of when the ball landed in the outfield was my dad.”
Even with the slump, Holloway wouldn’t have wanted anybody else at the plate.
“He feels it’s like a challenge,” Holloway said. “He wants to be in that position. We have a number of guys like that, but he’s one who loves being in that situation.”
Hendricken’s rally capped a wild game that started as a pitcher’s duel and ended much differently. Hendricken took a 1-0 lead in the third inning, with the help of two La Salle errors, a walk and a wild pitch. La Salle tied it on an RBI infield single by Santilli in the fourth. Hendricken got a triple by Kevin Sutyla and a sacrifice fly by Boulanger to go up 2-1 in the bottom of the fourth.
Things turned in the fifth. McCaffrey had been in trouble several times and was at 87 pitches entering the fifth. It caught up to him there as C.J. Dandeneau singled and Ryan Lynch walked to put two on with one out. Christian Travers relieved McCaffrey and the Rams greeted him rudely. Harrison singled to load the bases and Tyler Walsh smashed a bases-clearing double. Chris Perez followed with an RBI single to put the Rams up 5-2.
As Hendricken started the fifth, Shemick was only at 59 pitches and had allowed just two hits. But Rotondo lined a single to start the frame and Martellini doubled. Toppa delivered a sacrifice fly and Dante Baldelli was hit by a pitch. An errant throw on a stolen base attempt by Baldelli allowed Martellini to score. Brady Chant then knocked a double down the line to plate Baldelli with the tying run.
Both teams came up empty in the next two innings, stranding three runners each. Hendricken’s Boulanger, rarely used as a pitcher, got out of trouble in the sixth and pitched a scoreless seventh. The Rams took the lead in the eighth when Ryan Tracy walked, took second on a wild pitch, tagged up on a fly ball to get to third and raced home on a passed ball.
But from there, the Hawks found a way to win.