Warwick’s Junior American Legion baseball teams played each other four times this summer. The first two were regular-season meetings, and New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 won both of them.
Warwick PAL/Post 101 won the other two.
And those two were a little more important.
Squaring off in a best-of-three state semifinal series – with a berth in the Northeast Regional at stake – Warwick PAL won 3-0 and 6-1 to keep its summer alive.
Warwick PAL, the top seed from the Southern Division, began play in the championship series on Sunday against Northern Division No. 1 Riverside Post 10. Game one was suspended in the seventh inning due to darkness, with the score tied 3-3. It was set to be resumed on Monday, ahead of game two. Results were unavailable at press time.
Regardless of who wins the title, both Warwick and Riverside will head to Manchester, N.H., for the regional.
“We’re excited,” manager Mike Martin said after Warwick PAL’s sweep of NEFL. “It’s a good group of kids. They’re really a team group and they’re a pleasure to coach. They know the game of baseball, they know what they have to do. It’s enjoyable. It’s fun to kind of go along for the ride.”
Warwick PAL went 14-5 in the regular season and swept perennial powerhouse Auburn Post 20 of Cranston in the quarterfinals. NEFL, which was just one game back of PAL at 13-6, beat South Kingstown Post 39, another 13-6 team, in three games to win its quarterfinal series.
That set up the all-Warwick semifinal, and PAL wasted no time flipping the regular-season script. Jordan Huntoon pitched a shutout as PAL won game one 3-0 last Wednesday. On Thursday at Warwick Vets, Steven Foster also shined on the mound and his offense backed him with a five-run second inning in the 6-1 victory.
“We lost both regular-season games to them,” Martin said. “They’re a real good team. They’re formidable. I told the kids, ‘We need to do the small things, move guys along, play defense. If we do that, we’ve got a chance to beat them.’ Jordan shut them right down last night and Steven was great today.”
The result was a frustrating ending for NEFL, which made four costly errors in game two.
“It was a tough one,” said NEFL manager Mike Fratus. “We beat them twice in the regular season. We carried a lot of energy in the first series, and I think that’s what killed us today. We put up 26 runs against South Kingstown and we only put up one in this series. We got streaky.”
Foster and NEFL starter Chris Reid both worked scoreless first innings, but PAL broke the game open with five runs in the second. Bobby Garceau and Alec Bloomingburgh started the inning with singles. Anthony Cardarelli followed with a bunt, and Reid looked to third base after fielding it. No one was covering, though, and Reid had no other play. Then, on a ground ball by Steve Cabral, NEFL made an error at second base, allowing the first run to score. Huntoon made it 2-0 with an RBI groundout.
Anthony Russo followed with a key hit, a double down the left field line that plated two. Russo was caught stealing at third, but the rally continued as Foster singled and Sean Creamer knocked him in with a double to make it 5-0.
“We had a couple of key hits and took advantage of a couple of mistakes,” Martin said. “The bottom of the order has been producing, and I told the guys at the top, ‘We need you to step up.’ And they did. They came up big today.”
NEFL got a run back in the bottom of the second when Jeremy Batista tripled and scored on a Ryan Viti sacrifice fly. NEFL loaded the bases after that, but Foster wiggled out of trouble with a pair of strikeouts.
The difference in the two half-innings stung.
“One inning, five runs,” Fratus said. “You can’t expect to come back from that. You can’t spot a team five runs, especially a good team like that.”
From that point on, Foster and PAL’s strong defense carried the day. Foster went the distance, scattering seven hits. He only struck out three, but his defense made only one error behind him.
“Steve was just on,” Martin said. “When he’s on and hits his spots, he’s tough to hit. We’re a defense and pitching team. We can score some runs, but we don’t give up a lot of runs. We’re a good defensive team.”
Warwick added a run in the seventh on a squeeze bunt by Cardarelli, and Foster pitched around a two-out single for a scoreless bottom half, sealing the win for PAL.
“That’s what a first-place team is supposed to do,” Fratus said. “They took advantage of some mistakes, they got the lead and they put us away.”
NEFL reflected on a good summer, full of success and development.
“We had a great season,” Fratus said. “Our guys had a lot of fun. We’ll be back next year. Some of these guys will move on. Some of these guys will be back without us. Hopefully we go out and compete for a title next year.”
Warwick PAL is on to the next round – and beyond.
“It’ll be fun,” Martin said. “We’ll go there and give it a shot.”
If a game three is necessary in the state championship series, it would be played Tuesday. The regional begins August 9.