The first time Warwick National faced Coventry American – in the winner’s bracket final of the District 3 tournament – National took Coventry to the brink of defeat.
Coventry ended up pulling out a 7-5 victory, but National’s push was by far the closest anyone had come to knocking off Coventry.
When the two teams met again in the district finals on Sunday, Coventry got didn’t let it stay that close. It flexed its muscles early, getting three home runs and 10 runs in the first two innings before coasting the rest of the way to a 12-2, five-inning victory.
The loss ended National’s Cinderella-esque run to the finals. It wasn’t how they hoped it would end, but it didn’t even come close to putting a damper on what was a special tournament.
Fifteen teams began play in District 3, and National was one of the final two standing.
“We know Coventry American, we know they’re going to come out hot with the bats,” National manager Kurt Blanchard said. “They did the first time we faced them, they went up 5-0, and this game first inning they went up 3-0. Three home runs the first two innings, that’s tough to battle back.”
National finished the tournament with four total wins, which was an accomplishment in and of itself. As a small little league, National chose from a light pool of players.
But right from the get-go, the team banded together, winning its first three games. The first loss to Coventry set it back, but National didn’t get down and instead knocked off East Greenwich 7-3 to set up the re-match with Coventry.
“There’s nobody that battled [Coventry] like that,” Blanchard said. “I’m proud of these guys. It’s a great group of guys. The coaching staff, it’s a great coaching staff and it’s a great group of kids.”
It was those first two innings that made the difference on Sunday.
Ronnie Minear started the game on the mound, and in the top of the first he surrendered a two-run home run to Jarrad Grossguth and then he gave up a solo shot to Kyle Brown.
That made it 3-0, and Coventry pitcher Manny Bjorklund made it hold up, working out of a two-on, two-out jam in the bottom half.
In the second, Coventry kept the pressure on – and then some.
It got consecutive singles from Nick D’Ambra and Joey Barter to open the inning before Grossguth launched his second home run of the game. Ten more batters came to the plate in the frame, and Coventry got two RBI’s from D’Ambra and one apiece from Quentin Dearden and Devin Hall to go on top 10-0.
Coventry was helped in the inning by two National errors.
“In my opinion, the first time we played them we won five of the six innings,” Blanchard said. “This game here we probably won three of the five innings. But they came out hot with the bats. They pounded the ball. We had some key errors that effected us a little bit.”
The game was even from there on out, but the deficit was simply too much to overcome. National left the bases loaded in the second, then grabbed two runs off Bjorklund – one of the hardest throwers in the district – in the bottom of the third on an RBI bunt by Josh Morin and an RBI single by Cameron Olson. But that was all it could muster.
Coventry simply had too much.
“The kids did battle back,” Blanchard said. “They kept fighting, and they kept coming after them. Later in the game we started to make a few things happen, but we couldn’t put up enough runs.”
Kyle Denis relieved Minear in the third inning and he was strong, getting through the third and fourth innings unscathed before surrendering two runs in the fifth.
Dearden knocked in a run with a single and the second one came home when Jack Lacombe was hit with a pitch, making the score 12-2.
National tried to ward off the mercy rule in the bottom of the fifth, as Morin reached base against Grossguth – who came on with two outs in the inning – on a passed ball on strike three, but Olson grounded out to end the game.
Coventry celebrated, but National didn’t hang its heads.
“Right up until the last pitch they were still out there fighting hard,” Blanchard said.
That was epitomized not only in that game, but also in the game against East Greenwich in the loser’s bracket final on Friday.
Needing a win to square off against Coventry again National raced to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first. Minear and Sean Blanchard singled before Denis knocked in a run with a base hit. Blanchard and Denis both later scored on passed balls.
From there, East Greenwich steadily chipped away against Blanchard, National's starter, scoring two runs in the fourth and one in the fifth to tie the game. But Blanchard and reliever Zach D'Andrea teamed up to get National out of a jam in the fifth and set the stage for a rally.
Leading off the top of the sixth, Tyler Balutowski hit a line-drive home run over the center field fence to put the National stars back in front,
“Tyler Balutowski almost didn't play baseball this year and he comes out and hits a home run in the biggest game of his life,” Kurt Blanchard said.
And National didn't stop there. Olson reached on an error and D'Andrea brought him home with a base hit. Evan O'Connor also singled and David Palumbo brought a run home with a sacrifice fly. An error on the same play allowed O'Connor to score, as well, giving National the 7-3 lead.
D'Andrea then pitched a one-two-three bottom of the sixth, needing just eight pitches and striking out the last two batters he faced.
“The kids came off the field after the fifth, back in a 3-3 game, and we all took a deep breath,” Kurt Blanchard said. “We said, 'It's a new game right here. Look what you did in the first inning. Come out and do it again.' And they did.”
Overall it was a special run, and one that wasn’t all that expected.
But it turned out to be a summer that no one will soon forget.
“I think they’re proud,” Blanchard said. “We had a big talk this morning on that. I think they’re really proud. I’m proud.”