The Johnston baseball team was making mistakes all over the diamond in the second game of the Division II championship series against Prout on Thursday afternoon at McCoy Stadium, letting the Crusaders hang around instead of delivering an early knockout blow.
But deadlocked in a 1-1 game in the sixth that it should have been handily winning already, the Panthers still had time to get it together.
And they certainly did.
The Panthers scored six times in the sixth inning – including a three-run triple from series MVP Chris Pistacchio – to take a commanding 7-1 lead, and James Picchi finished off a complete game effort by retiring the final 13 men he faced, lifting Johnston to victory. The win, paired with Johnston’s 11-1 mercy-rule victory in game one, gave the Panthers their second consecutive D-II championship.
A season ago, Johnston followed a similar script, beating Prout in consecutive games to capture the title. But the two titles felt much different. Last year, everybody expected Johnston to win, and it took care of business, winning its first title since 1995.
This year, no one knew exactly what to expect, but the Panthers still rose to the occasion.
“It’s two different things,” Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo said. “One, you’re expected to win. It’s better to be the hunter than the hunted. Last year we were the hunted.”
The Panthers hunted down just about every team they played this season, losing only one game during a 17-1 regular season and then only one more in the playoffs.
On Thursday, it found a way to claim its final prize despite some early miscues.
After Prout took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI groundout by Brendan Natal, scoring Shane Sandoval, Johnston tied the game in the third on a sacrifice fly by Pistacchio, which brought home No. 9 hitter Ryan McKeon – who had tripled to open the frame.
Then the problems started. In the fourth, Johnston’s Michael Pennacchia doubled to open the inning, but was thrown out at third trying to stretch it into a triple.
Stephen Pennacchia followed that with a walk, and he advanced to second on a dropped pop-up by Prout second baseman Andrew Horsfield, but he too was thrown out trying to go to third, killing any hope of a rally.
In the fifth inning, McKeon led off with a single before being nearly picked off first base on three occasions. On the fourth throw over, he did get caught, but Prout botched the run down and McKeon scampered safely back to first.
“I was angry at a couple of them,” DeMeo said. “The thing is, you’ve got to know how to pick and choose your moments. I told them – I’d rather have them be aggressive and make mistakes out of aggression than laying back.”
The good news for Johnston, though, was that Picchi was in complete control on the mound. After allowing two first-inning hits, he didn’t allow a single one the rest of the way. He walked one batter in both the second and third innings, but they were each erased on the basepaths – one caught stealing, and the other picked off.
From there on out, he didn’t allow a single baserunner.
“We were running into outs on the basepaths and doing all the stupid things, but James was that one constant,” DeMeo said. “Throwing strikes, getting outs.”
That set the stage for the Panthers’ big sixth inning.
Facing Prout reliever Marshall Vigneault – who entered the game in the sixth for Sandoval – Michael Pennacchia led off with a double, and Stephen Pennacchia walked.
After Steve Perfetto struck out, Alex Tenerella singled to left, loading the bases with nobody out. Picchi was the next man up, and he reached on an infield error, bringing home Michael Pennacchia with the go-ahead run. McKeon walked on four pitches, driving home the second Johnston run of the inning and making the score 3-1.
Up came Pistacchio, and the senior captain – one of two captains on the team, along with Gian Bianchi – essentially clinched the title for the Panthers with one swing.
With Vigneault out of the game for reliever William Thomas, Pistacchio worked the count to 2-2 before ripping a triple to deep left field on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, plating three runners and putting Johnston on top 6-1.
“I just got a pitch I could hit and I hit it hard,” Pistacchio said.
A groundout from Bianchi brought home Pistacchio for the final run of the inning.
After being unable to come through for five innings, Johnston had finally seized control.
“We just had to keep our composure,” Bianchi said. “We couldn’t worry about it. Keep your composure, it’s all you have to do, and the runs will come. We made a couple of bonehead plays, but we got a bunch of runs at the end thanks to Chris, the MVP.”
Picchi easily made the lead hold up, striking out two batters in the sixth before retiring Prout in order in the seventh. The second out of the inning was a groundout to Bianchi at shortstop, and the final out was a fly ball to Pistacchio in center field.
It was fitting.
“I’m really happy for Gian and Chris,” DeMeo said. “They’ve been great captains, and they’ve been great players for us all these years.”
Bianchi pitched in game one, allowing one unearned run on one hit while striking out seven and walking one in a six-inning, mercy-rule shortened game.
Picchi’s line in game two read seven innings, two hits, one run, six strikeouts and two walks.
For the series, Johnston used two pitchers, and they allowed one earned run on three hits with 13 strikeouts. Behind the two of them – had they struggled – would have been Joe Bongiovanni, the team’s No. 3 pitcher, who has also been one of the top pitchers in D-II all season long.
Defensively, Johnston committed two errors in game one and none in game two.
That combination of pitching and defense – combined with some timely hitting – proved hard to beat.
“We have three No. 1 pitchers,” McKeon said. “There’s no 1-2-3 or anything. Our defense plays great. When we make no errors, we win the game. We’ve done that in the playoffs all year.”
The Panthers also combined for 17 hits in the two games. Pistacchio led the way, going 4-for-6 in the two games with the triple, a walk and three RBI. Michael Pennacchia also stood out, as the junior went 5-for-6 with three doubles, a walk and two RBI.
McKeon had two hits, Tenerella had three hits and Bianchi added two, as well.
“We killed the ball both games,” Bianchi said. “Great pitching, great defense. It’s great.”
And this might only be the beginning.
Johnston is graduating only Bianchi and Pistacchio from its starting lineup, and it will return everybody else. Picchi and Bongiovanni are both sophomores, as are Tenerella and McKeon. Stephen Pennacchia is a freshman, while Michael Pennacchia and Perfetto are juniors.
But even though the future is bright, right now the Panthers are just enjoying this one.
For the second straight season, they are the last team standing in all of Division II.
“It’s a great feeling,” Pistacchio said. “To do it senior year, it’s even better than last year.”