Warwick National is a small league, with a small pool of players to choose from for the 12-year-old all-star team. As a result, all-star manager Kurt Blanchard wasn’t going to get carried away with talk of high expectations. The goal for the summer would be to play competitive baseball.
Three games into the District 3 tournament, the National stars have done that and more.
National beat Warwick American and Coventry National for a spot in Sunday’s winners’ bracket semifinal. There, they jumped out to an 8-0 lead and then held off a charge from Wickford to win 8-7 and earn a berth in the winners’ bracket final.
National will play Coventry American on the road next Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Wood Street Field, with a place in the district championship on the line. Those two teams are the only ones without a loss in the tournament.
For National, it’s been quite a ride.
“Our enrollment is down. We’ve got about 160 kids in the whole league,” Blanchard said. “I wouldn’t say we had high hopes – it’s more that I felt we would be competitive. I think we’re in a little bit of a spoiler role right now. It’s exciting to see these guys doing what they’re doing.”
And what they’re doing is winning every step of the way. National cruised past American with a mercy-rule victory last Thursday and then beat Coventry National 9-5 on Saturday.
After a thunderstorm delayed the start of Sunday’s game against Wickford, National scored four runs in each of the first two innings. Wickford came back with two in the fourth, three in the fifth and two more in the sixth, but National reliever Kyle Denis got out of the sixth without further damage and National survived.
“We’re very happy to be moving on,” Blanchard said. “The kids played great, absolutely great. They came out strong with the bats. Once we did that and got things going, it just came together.”
National’s early burst came on the strength of patience at the plate and some timely hitting.
Ronnie Minear led off the bottom of the first with a bunt single before David Palumbo and Sean Blanchard drew walks off Wickford starter Brady Richter. Denis followed with a hard ground ball that skipped off of Richter’s glove for an RBI infield single.
Another infield single, this one by Tyler Balutowski, plated pinch runner Nate Ferri. Blanchard then raced home on a wild pitch before Cameron Olson lined a single up the middle to score Denis for the 4-0 lead.
It was more of the same in the second inning.
Palumbo got hit by a pitch to start the frame, and Blanchard followed with a single. After a fly-out by Denis, Blanchard was forced out at second on a ground ball by Josh Morin, who reached first on the play. Jakob Gierhart then delivered an infield hit to score Palumbo, and Olson smacked a double to plate two more runs. Evan O’Connor also doubled, scoring Olson for the 8-0 cushion.
“The big thing was jumping out early with the bats,” Kurt Blanchard said.
On the other side, Sean Blanchard was in control on the mound. He allowed just two hits through the first three innings and also had some help from his defense. Shortstop Zach D’Andrea caught a blistering line drive and doubled a runner off first in the third inning.
Wickford finally got to Blanchard for two runs in the top of the fourth. Ryan Maloney knocked in a run with a deep fly ball to right and ended up coming all the way around when the throw to third was wild.
National threatened to add to its lead – or even win by mercy-rule – when it loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth, but Wickford reliever Joe Gilmartin got Blanchard to hit into a force-out at second.
From there, Wickford made its push.
An error and a walk put two men on in the fifth and chased Blanchard from the game. Denis came on for National, and Gilmartin greeted him with a two-run double off the right field fence. Gilmartin later scored on a wild pitch to make it 8-5.
But National, as it would do for the rest of the night, found a way out.
With runners on second and third and one out, Charlie Compton hit a pop-up to shallow right field. D’Andrea went back on it from second base, made a tough catch and then fired a strike to home plate to nail Maloney, who had tagged up on the play. Olson, National’s catcher, made the tag to end the inning.
“We played good defense,” Blanchard said. “Zach had two great double plays.”
Wickford made one last run in the sixth, but again, National was up to the task. Garrett Pilgrim led off with a line drive that hit Denis on his left wrist, just above his glove. Denis had the presence of mind to scoop up the ball and rifle a throw to first for the out.
Denis followed with a three-pitch strikeout of Richter, but Michael Moan kept Wickford alive with a single up the middle. Chris O’Donnell then crushed a towering home run over the trees in center field, drawing gasps from the crowd.
On the mound, though, Denis was undeterred. He got ahead of cleanup hitter Spencer Coleman 0-1 then induced a game-ending pop-up. Olson, who had moved to second base, made the catch in shallow right.
“Kyle finished the game,” Blanchard said. “He’s a great ball-player, a good strong 12-year-old. He kept his composure. Wickford is a very good program. Good kids, well-coached. They put the pressure back on us, but we held on. Our guys stayed focus and stayed disciplined.”
And that’s been a pretty good recipe for success.
In the first game of the tournament, National fell behind early, but had no trouble disposing of Warwick American 14-2.
After American took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first thanks to and RBI single by Noah Kane and an RBI double by Devin O'Rourke, National sent 11 men to the plate and stormed back with seven runs in the bottom half of the inning to take a commanding 7-2 advantage.
Sean Blanchard was pulled after hitting the 35-pitch mark early in the second inning, and reliever D’Andrea got through the second and third innings with no further damage. Meanwhile, National added to its lead against O'Rourke, American's starter and Mike Mester, who came on in the middle of the third. After those seven runs in the first, National grabbed one more in the second and then six in the third.
Denis delivered the biggest hit of the game for National, as he ripped a three-run home run to left-centerfield as part of the third inning rally. Minear added three RBI, while Blanchard and Gierhart each knocked in two runs.
National will now play Coventry American, which has won each of its games by mercy rule. Winning again won’t be easy, but for a team that’s already exceeded expectations, optimism is running high.
“The competition is only going to get better,” Blanchard said. “Every game it’s going to be tougher. But these guys have been stepping up to the competition every time.”