When Johnston lost to Westerly 1-0 on Saturday, it wasn’t just a loss in game one of a Division II semifinal series. It was Johnston’s first loss in 18 games, and you never know how a team is going to respond to the end of that kind of streak.
On Sunday, the Panthers delivered an emphatic answer.
Behind a complete game from James Picchi and a steady offensive performance, the Panthers cruised to a 10-4 victory in game two. They went on to a 10-1 victory in game three and a spot in the state championship series at McCoy Stadium.
“It’s a credit to the kids,” DeMeo said after game two. “The cool they have is all them. You’ve got it or you don’t have it. These kids just want to play. They’re a good bunch of guys. They like being together and they don’t want it to end.”
The path back to McCoy started with a realization. Though Saturday’s loss was Johnston’s first since April 9, it didn’t come about because of a lack of effort or execution. The Panthers simply had to tip their hat to Westerly pitcher Kaelan Rayner. The senior left-hander limited the Panthers to just two hits, didn’t walk anybody and struck out three in the complete game shutout. Gian Bianchi was almost as good for Johnston, but an unearned run in the fourth inning stood as the difference.
“It was a great game of baseball and they came out ahead,” DeMeo said. “The kids were kind of bummed out because they lost, but sometimes that’s good. You ride the gravy train for a long time and sometimes you get complacent. It wasn’t lack of effort, it wasn’t lack of anything. Baseball is a game where the pitcher controls 90 percent of it, and we ran into by far the best pitcher we’ve faced all year.”
The Panthers started to regroup Sunday morning, when they spent a lot of time in the batting cage. And as soon as they got to Pierce Field, they made sure to keep swinging.
In the top of the first inning, Bianchi singled through the left side with one out and Joe Bongiovanni lined a single into right. Bianchi then tagged up on a fly ball by Mike Pennacchia and scored when Steve Pennacchia reached on an error.
Though the Panthers hadn’t crushed the ball, the quick start was key.
“Getting that first run was humongous for us,” DeMeo said. “We kind of got that monkey off our back.”
Westerly answered with a run in the bottom of the first off Picchi, but Johnston quickly responded in the top of the second. Using an aggressive approach, the next five Panthers in the batting order saw a total of nine pitches, and all of them pounded line drives. Alex Tenerella doubled, Picchi singled, Ryan McKeon singled to score Tenerella, Chris Pistacchio singled to score Picchi and Bianchi singled to bring home both McKeon and Pistacchio.
Just like that, Johnston led 5-1 and Westerly starter Kyle Forsberg-Ley was heading to the dugout.
From there, the Panthers never trailed – and they added to their lead. Bongiovanni singled with two outs in the fourth, starting another string of five straight hits. Mike Pennacchia had a single, Steve Pennachhia knocked in two with a single, Steve Perfetto singled and Tenerella followed with a single to score another run. That made it an 8-1 game.
Westerly wasn’t quite done, though. A walk and three straight singles plated three runs for Westerly in the bottom of the fourth and brought the Bulldogs within striking distance at 8-4.
But just when it seemed like the Bulldogs had a comeback in them, Picchi slammed the door. He pitched a scoreless fifth, struck out two in a quick sixth and needed just 13 pitches to finish off the complete game with a perfect seventh.
“James has been one of our horses all year and he was tremendous,” DeMeo said.
Johnston added two insurance runs in the sixth. Bianchi scored from third when a pickoff throw from the plate hit the bill of his helmet and kicked away. Perfetto knocked in another run with a sacrifice fly.
The Panthers finished with 15 hits and every player in the lineup had at least one. Five Panthers had multi-hit games, led by Bongiovanni, who went 3-for-3 with two runs scored. Bianchi, Pistacchio, Mike Pennacchia and Tenerella had two hits each.