The Bishop Hendricken baseball team out-scored teams by an average of eight runs this season.
It wasn’t quite so easy in the opening rounds of the Division I playoffs last week, but when the dust settled, the Hawks were right where they wanted to be.
Top-seeded Hendricken edged Middletown 3-2 with a run in the seventh inning in its playoff opener last Wednesday then beat Lincoln 5-0 on Friday for a spot in the winners’ bracket final in Region 1.
“We were pounding it in for three days at practice – you can’t take any team lightly, you can’t take any team for granted in the playoffs,” said Hendricken head coach Ed Holloway. “Everybody’s 0-0. It’s like March Madness. You have to come out and play well.”
The two-time defending state champion Hawks were happy to do enough – especially considering what went tumbling down around them. The other No. 1 seed, North Kingstown, was upset by Cranston West in the winner’s bracket final of Region 2, while seventh-seeded Johnston knocked off South No. 2 Portsmouth and North No. 3 La Salle on its way to the Region 3 final. Outside of Hendricken, Cumberland was the only No. 1 or No. 2 seed to get through unscathed.
The Hawks had a fight on their hands, too, especially on Wednesday. The last time Hendricken and Middletown met in the playoffs was in 2011, when the Islanders stunned the Hawks in the second round of the regional, then beat them again to take a spot in the semifinals.
This time, Middletown pitcher Chris Paiva held the Hawks to one run through five innings and the game was tied into the sixth.
“We just didn’t get a key hit,” Holloway said. “Part of it was their pitcher. He was great. He did a good job shutting us down.”
But Hendricken found a way.
In the bottom of the sixth, they loaded the bases with one out and pushed the go-ahead run home. Sam Boulanger hit a fly ball to left that likely would have let Christian Aybar tag up from third. The ball was dropped anyway, allowing Aybar to scamper home for the 2-1 lead.
Hendricken pitcher Mike McCaffrey had matched Paiva every step of the way but he walked the leadoff man in the seventh and was removed for reliever Christian Travers. A sacrifice bunt by Connor Meehan moved the runner to second before Owen Sullivan legged out an infield single to put runners on first and third with one out. Gregory Eng then laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to score pinch-runner Jacob Francis with the tying run.
Travers struck out the next batter to end the inning but the damage was done, and the Hawks came to the plate in the seventh stuck back in a tied game.
Once again, they scratched a run across. John Toppa led off with a four-pitch walk. That prompted a pitching change, with Cameron Sullivan taking over for Paiva.
Sullivan got Gian Martellini to hit a ground ball to first base. Middletown tried for an out at second to start a double play, but the throw was high and everybody was safe.
Dante Baldelli stepped in next and put down a bunt. Sullivan fielded it, but with Baldelli hustling down the line, he threw wide of first. As the ball bounced away, Toppa raced home with the winning run.
“Their pitcher pitched great. We just got a break in the end,” Holloway said. “You put the ball in play and things are going to happen.”
The result was a crucial win. Since the RIIL went to the four-team regional format, every team that has made the semifinals won its first game in the regional.
“The first one is the key game,” Holloway said. “It’s not impossible if you lose it, but it’s hard to come all the way back if you lose that first one. This was a huge one.”
The Hawks didn’t have to sweat quite as much on Friday, thanks to the arm of Anthony Graziano. Facing a Lincoln team that won seven consecutive games to end the regular season and knocked off South Kingstown 16-3 in the first round of the playoffs, Graziano dominated. The senior tossed a one-hit shutout with eight strikeouts as the Hawks won 5-0.
Hendricken’s offense gave Graziano an early 1-0 lead with a run in the first inning and tacked on one more in the third and three in the fifth. Ryan Rotondo had two hits and two RBI, while Martellini had two hits and one RBI.
Hendricken is now one win away from a return trip to the semifinals. The Hawks will play Wednesday at 4 p.m. against the winner of Monday’s game between Lincoln and South Kingstown. That team would have to beat the Hawks twice to win the region.