The Johnston Junior League all-stars are one win away from booking a very familiar trip.
With a 9-5 victory over Chariho on Saturday and a 12-1 win over Northern Bernon on Sunday, Johnston moved into the championship of the 2012 Junior League state tournament. Johnston will play Northern Bernon again tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Tomlinson Field in Pawtucket, with the state title on the line.
If Johnston captures the championship, it will head to the East Regional for the third consecutive year. Last year, Johnston won the regional and advanced to its first-ever World Series.
“We’re playing well,” said manager Joe Santilli. “We’re 2-0. Our hitting has really come around and we’ve gotten really good pitching all the way along.”
Johnston, which is now 5-0 on the summer, won the District 1 championship a little over a week ago. At states, the team has taken the same path, winning its first two games to put itself in the driver’s seat. Northern Bernon would have to defeat Johnston twice for the championship, while Johnston just has to win once to capture the title.
The state tournament began with one of the tougher match-ups Johnston has had all summer. Chariho locked the Johnston stars into a tight game in Saturday’s opener and put the pressure on.
But Johnston responded, taking the lead thanks to some timely hitting and holding it thanks to strong defense.
The biggest moment came with Johnston ahead by two runs. Chariho loaded the bases with one out, but reliever Jake Podmaska induced a ground ball. Jake Coro handled it at second and flipped to shortstop John Willette for an out. Willette then fired on to first for a rally-killing double play.
“That was the turning point,” Santilli said. “They had some momentum, and it looked like they were going to score there, but my guys really came through.
Coro also led the offense, blasting a double and a triple for the biggest hits of the day. Johnston took advantage of a host of walks as well.
With the tough game behind them, Johnston went back to work and quickly took the pressure off. Matt Kennedy struck out seven in 4.1 innings as Johnston rolled past Northern Bernon 12-1 in a mercy-rule shortened game.
“Matt Kennedy did a tremendous job,” Santilli said. “He held them down the whole way.”
And he had plenty of support, as the offense delivered its best performance of the summer. Marc Conte’s mammoth home run was the signature moment.
“The home run was one of the longest balls I’ve seen hit by a 14-year-old in my life,” Santilli said.
Armani Henderson also delivered in a big way, going 4-for-4. Johnston got hits from nearly every spot in the lineup.
“Armani hit everything on the nose,” Santilli said. “And it was contagious. Pretty much everybody hit.”
Johnston is now gearing up for a rematch with Northern Bernon, who beat Chariho 13-11 in the losers’ bracket final. If Northern Bernon wins Thursday’s game, a winner-take-all title game would be played Friday at 5:30 p.m.
But if all goes according to plan, Thursday will be the final step on the road to regionals.
“We’re in a good position,” Santilli said. “They have to beat us twice and the way we set up the pitching, we have everyone available.”