HAVERHILL — After a series of dramatic extra-inning wins in the American Legion state tournament, Pittsfield Post 68 earned a slightly more comfortable 6-0 victory in the semifinals over Northbridge.
Undefeated Pittsfield advanced to the championship against one-loss Lowell, to be played Wednesday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m., with an “if necessary” game right after. Both teams have automatically had their tickets punched to the regional tournament, beginning Aug. 5 in Bristol, Connecticut.
“This was definitely nice. The last couple of games have been really tough, coming down to the last innings,” said catcher Dom Traversa. “This one was nice to be able to relax a bit in the last couple innings, knowing we were ahead by a good bunch of runs.”
In the nine-inning-game tournament, Pittsfield has had to use their full stable of arms to get through some incredibly tight competition. They got a bonus on Tuesday night, though, and that very well may have saved their season.
For much of the summer, MCLA pitcher Ryan Grande has been forced off the mound and into right field with some shoulder issues. Entering the state tournament, head coach Pat Bassi was doubtful he would have the former Pittsfield High star available to pitch. However, the night before Post 68 took the field against Northbridge, with yet another extra-inning marathon behind them, Grande asked his coach for the ball.
Bassi passed the request along to the rest of his players the next morning at a meeting, and the whole Post 68 squad gave him a ringing endorsement. Grande would get the start on a short leash.
“I didn’t need a short leash,” joked Bassi afterwards. “That was the Ryan of old pitching. That’s how he was throwing early in the year. He kind of caught that team by surprise because they figured we’d be limping in with our pitching staff.”
Four innings into Tuesday night’s contest, Grande had struck out six Post 343 batters, including the side in the second, and allowed no runs. The leash grew longer. It grew into a seven-inning outing that saw Grande shut-out Northbridge while striking out 10 and walking just two.
“The most impressive thing was his location,” said Traversa. “He was hitting his spots like he hadn’t been off the mound a day. His breaking stuff was on the plate, everything was working for him. I could call any pitch in any count of any at bat.”
The seven innings were enough to put Pittsfield in a great spot to win again, and more importantly give another day’s rest to Alex Carusotto and Steve Witkowski, who are scheduled to start and relieve in Wednesday’s title game.
Denis Cooney would work two innings of scoreless relief, striking out two to preserve the shutout.
“Yes and no. He tried a bullpen about a week ago and still said he felt a little discomfort,” said Bassi on his expectations earlier in the week for Grande. “It is a tough tournament, five games in five days, plus a couple extra-inning games, no team has that pitching.”
After earning a walk-off win on a bunt the night before, Post 68 was preaching what they had all year: small ball. Tuesday saw another piece of that strategy pay off: speed.
In the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Kevin Donati dropped down a beauty of a bunt to lead things off with a single. After Anthony Jones walked and the two picked up a stolen base each, Traversa sent a single by the shortstop to score both runs and stake Post 68 to a 2-0 lead.
In the fifth, leadoff man Chad Shade and Donati both walked, putting runners on the corners with one out. Shade drew a pick-off throw from the catcher at third that went sailing into left field. Both runners raced around the bases to score.
“With the lefties throwing, both had pretty good moves, but both Chad and Kevin got great jumps on them,” said Bassi. “They both got really good reads on them, and they’re just exceptional baseball players. They have essentially the green light on base, I have so much confidence in them.”
Pittsfield picked up their final two runs in the seventh. Once again, Shade set the table with a leadoff single and stolen base. Carusotto singled him to third, where he would tag-up and score on Donati’s sacrifice fly.
A Jones single moved Carusotto to third, where he was able to score from when Mitch Clary’s sharp grounder was mishandled by the Post 343 shortstop.