The Division II softball title chase is starting to come into focus as the season passes the halfway point, and Pilgrim is now squarely in the middle of it.
The Pats knocked off defending D-II runner-up West Warwick 15-8 on Saturday night, coming from behind thanks to a seven-run fifth inning and strong pitching from Witashnah Ellsworth. They have now won nine straight games overall and seven straight league games to improve to 8-1 in D-II-South.
The team’s one loss came on April 9 against East Greenwich. Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, as Pilgrim is now one of five teams in D-II with just one loss. It also now has a quality win over West Warwick – which fell to 6-3 – to add to its resume.
Adding to the moment was the fact that it was West Warwick that eliminated Pilgrim one game short of a trip to Rhode Island College in last year’s postseason.
“We did leave here in tears last June,” Pilgrim head coach Bill Aquilante said. “I didn’t have to remind them before the game. I said, ‘You know where we are. You know what happened last time.’ We’ve been waiting to get back here for 11 months.”
The Pats relished their return trip. After struggling in the early going both offensively and defensively, and falling behind 6-5 entering the fifth, it all suddenly came together.
Facing West Warwick starter Briana Gough, Pilgrim put the first five batters of the inning on base and eventually drove Gough from the game. Kelsey Johnston started it off by reaching on an error, and Ellen McDonnell followed with a single. Ellsworth singled as well, and Johnston came home to tie the score.
Caitlin Blanchard drew a walk to load the bases, and Stephanie Johnson walked as well, bringing home the go-ahead at 7-6.
The next batter, Tayla Ferreira, popped out to second, but when West Warwick’s Jamie Furtado tried to throw home after the runners faked as though they were tagging up, the ball got away and another run came home.
“The offense helped a lot,” Ellsworth said. “When we come in from an inning, we’re always like, ‘Score, score.’ First inning, it was bad, but they did what they could do for me and it was enough.”
Arianna Bordeleau was hit by a pitch to re-load the bases, before Katelyn Reph struck out for the second out of the inning. But Madison Balutowski didn’t let Gough off the hook, as she hit a ball that ricocheted off the glove of center fielder Dana Barclay, scoring two more runs.
At that point, West Warwick elected to bring in reliever Katelyn Henault, and Johnston greeted her with a two-run single. Henault got out of the inning after that, but the Pats had seized a 12-6 lead.
“They all got a chance to see her once, and that helps,” Aquilante said. “When you have hitters like we have, one time through the order they’ve seen it and they get it timed.”
Ellsworth buckled down from there on out. After a shaky first few innings in which she gave up six runs – only three of which were earned – she protected Pilgrim’s lead the rest of the way.
In the fifth, she worked around a one-out single to retire the side. In the sixth, a two-run, inside-the-park home run by Jenna Urso helped West Warwick narrow the gap, but Ellsworth retired two of the next three batters to limit the damage.
In the seventh, she worked around a one-out error to finish the game.
“Me and my catcher, we talked and we decided what they were hitting and what they weren’t hitting,” Ellsworth said. “We just stayed with that one spot in the strike zone.”
Ellsworth added to a season in which she has been a key cog in the middle of the order and the team’s top pitcher night in and night out. To go with her work on the mound, she also went 4-for-5 at the plate, including a two-run home run in the second inning.
“When the situation gets big, she’s up to it,” Aquilante said. “She likes the situation. She doesn’t back down. She’s real tough. She’s had a great year.”
Pilgrim grabbed three more runs in the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly by Reph and a two-run single by Balutowski.
It also scored three runs in the second inning – two on the Ellsworth blast and one on an RBI groundout by Johnson after a Blanchard triple.
In the third, it added two more thanks to RBI singles by McDonnell and Ellsworth. As a team, Pilgrim banged out 15 hits, and every player but one had at least one hit. Reph had two, McDonnell had three and Blanchard had two.
“Witashnah crushed three of them,” Aquilante said. “Caitlin Blanchard crushed a triple. We can do one through nine better than a lot of teams.”
West Warwick scored one run in the first, two more in the third and three in the fourth.
While Pilgrim passed that test, it’ll soon go up against another D-II contender that may be even tougher. After the Pats travel to 1-7 Ponaganset today at 4 p.m., they will host 9-1 North Smithfield on Thursday at 4 p.m.
North Smithfield is the only team this season to beat East Greenwich, the defending D-II champ. EG beat Pilgrim 5-4.
If the Pats want to win their division, they will likely need to win out, as East Greenwich is a half-game ahead of them and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“They really don’t treat any game differently,” Aquilante said. “A couple of them said they were anxious before the game, but it’s a good anxious. They don’t feel like they’re going to lose. If I put them on the bus to go to (defending D-I champion) Lincoln, they would expect to win that game. That’s just the way they are.”