A year ago, Pilgrim finished the regular season with the fourth-best record in Division II softball. With some key players to replace, the Patriots knew they might be more toward the middle of the pack this year, and with that knowledge came an expectation. To be their best, they needed to beat similar teams.
They’re on a pretty good pace so far.
The Pats have lost to unbeaten East Greenwich and let one get away against 3-3 Exeter/West Greenwich, but they’ve taken care of business otherwise. After a key win over contender Cranston East on Saturday, Pilgrim eased past Burrillville 9-2 on Monday.
“Teams that are going to be kind of like us, in the same category, we’ve got to make sure we get those wins,” said Pilgrim head coach Bill Aquilante. “We have to win the games we’re supposed to win. EWG is one that could have gone either way and we let that one get away. But we beat Cranston East and this is another team that’s probably going to be in that same range, so it was good to get another one.”
The Pats are now 4-2, tied with West Warwick for second place in Division II-South. East Greenwich leads the division at 8-0. Two other teams from different sub-divisions, St. Raphael and North Smithfield, are also undefeated.
At this point, a team like Pilgrim that’s still learning the ropes can’t complain too much about where it stands. Defense has improved, hitting is coming around and the pitching has been solid. Throw in four wins, and the Pats are feeling pretty good.
“We’re still transitioning but I think we’re transitioning more quickly now into what we’re going to be,” Aquilante said. “Four-and-two is a good spot.”
On Saturday, Pilgrim took an important step. Coming off a loss to EWG, the Pats matched up with a Cranston East team that had a 6-1 record and is one of the best-hitting clubs in the division. Trailing 5-3 in the sixth, the Pats scored four runs, with Kelsey Johnston’s two-run double the big blow. They went on to the 7-6 win as Ellen McDonnell relieved Morgan Almon and shut the door in the seventh.
Pilgrim made only one error, continuing its improvement after some early-season struggles, and the offense came through in the way Aquilante has been hoping. Some of Pilgrim’s success last year was driven by the depth in its batting order. New players are stepping in now and delivering. The bottom of the order started Pilgrim’s sixth-inning rally against Cranston East.
“That’s what made us good last year, the fact that the bottom of the order produced,” Aquilante said. “If we go one through nine, that’s exactly what we need with this team.”
On Monday, Pilgrim squared off with the 2-2 Broncos and was even steadier. Almon allowed two runs in a complete-game effort, the offense delivered 10 hits and the defense didn’t make an error. The Broncos were kept off the board until the sixth inning.
“We made good decisions, which we weren’t doing earlier this year,” Aquilante said. “The two plays that they scored on, we made the right plays. That’s a good decision. I’m glad to see them doing that and physically fielding the ball better.”
The Pats got off to a big start, with Almon striking out two in the top of the first and getting a three-run cushion in the home half. McDonnell led off with a walk, Madison Balutowski reached on an infield hit and Johnston knocked a run home with a single. Tayla Ferreira made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly and Jane Dwyer poked a single into right to score another run.
“We’ve struggled in the first inning, we’ve fallen behind in a lot of games, so it was good to start like we did,” Aquilante said. “You get three early and you kind of change the way the game feels.”
The Pats put the game out of reach with five runs in the fourth inning. Dwyer started things with a base hit and MacKenzie Barone reached on a bunt single to bring up the top of the order. McDonnell had an RBI single, while Caitlin Blanchard and Ferreira each knocked in two with base hits.
Johnston chipped in an RBI single in the fifth inning.
The Broncos had chances to get back in the game, putting runners on in five of seven innings, but Almon worked out of trouble every time. The freshman has gotten the start in two straight games now and answered the bell. She scattered four hits against the Broncos while striking out four. After Burrillville scored two in the sixth, Almon worked a perfect seventh to clinch the victory.
At the start of the year, McDonnell had been penciled in as the team’s top pitcher. With Almon’s emergence, McDonnell can move back to catcher and Balutowski – who catches when McDonnell pitches – can anchor the outfield in center.
“Morgan’s got two in a row now,” Aquilante said. “We figure we help the defense by moving things around. Her in the circle, with Ellen catching and Maddy in center field. It makes our defense better and Morgan is doing a nice job.”
Johnston, Blanchard and Ferreira – Pilgrim’s three-four-five hitters – had two RBI apiece. Dwyer added two hits and an RBI while McDonnell went 1-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Pilgrim now has seven days between games, with their next one scheduled for Monday against Scituate at 4 p.m.
“We’ll work on game situations, staying out of the big inning, just keeping them sharp,” Aquilante said. “When we get back to play, we don’t want to have any letdown games.”