The Cranston 14-year-old Babe Ruth all-star team is no stranger to success, especially the dramatic variety.
Just a season ago, as 13-year-olds, Cranston advanced all the way to the Babe Ruth World Series, and did so with some tight wins in both the state tournament and the New England regional.
In the final two games of this year’s state tournament, the Cranston stars found success again – and the drama reached even greater heights.
After it beat Portsmouth and Cumberland in its first two games of the tournament, Cranston advanced to the winners’ bracket final against rival Warwick, where it fought its way to a 7-1, extra-inning victory on the strength of six runs in the ninth inning.
Then, playing Warwick again in the state finals, Cranston came back from a late 4-2 deficit to walk-off with a 5-4 win and capture the state title for the second consecutive year.
It was quite a script for Cranston to repeat as champs.
“They really put us to the test,” Cranston manager Mike Rice said. “[Warwick] would have represented Rhode Island well. I think all in all, the baseball that was played that whole tournament, Rhode Island should be very proud. It was incredible.”
Cranston’s next step is the New England regional, which begins over the weekend in Wilooski, Vt.
There’s no question that Cranston is battle-tested.
In the first game against Warwick, Cranston went on top 1-0 in the first on a bloop single from Gersham Rainone, scoring Chris Aybar.
Cranston starter John Beneduce then did his part, keeping Warwick off the board until it scored its lone run in the fifth inning. Travis Collins kept up the trend with two more scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh.
On the other side, Warwick starter Shane Kittila matched Beneduce, holding Cranston scoreless after the first inning through regulation, sending the game into extra innings tied at one apiece.
Collins kept Warwick scoreless in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Cranston finally broke the tie in the top of the ninth.
Collins led off with a hit, and Matt Lonardo followed that with a double. A single by Rainone put Cranston on top 2-1, a single by Andrew Ciacciarelli brought home another one, and Danny Smith doubled in two more.
Then, on third base, Smith timed his jump perfectly and stole home, sending the Cranston dugout into a frenzy with the team’s fifth run of the frame.
“Between the noise and the chaos, he just totally went on his own,” Rice said. “We had gone over it with him in the past. Everyone had their head down. It was pure baseball. It was just wonderful.
Cranston added another run before Warwick finally got out of the inning, and then Cranston sent Smith to the mound in the bottom of the ninth to close it out. He walked the first man, but then retired the next three in a row to finish the game.
“That was as good a game as I’ve seen,” Rice said. “That was just a heavyweight fight. We got a couple of breaks and we put a few hits together and blew it open.”
The loss sent Warwick to the loser’s bracket, where it beat Newport/Middletown 8-6 to advance to play Cranston again.
And the second game between the two teams was just as good.
Cranston went on top 1-0 when Collins scored in the bottom of the first.
The game remained that way into the fifth, where Warwick seized control. It scored four runs to go up 4-1, and looked like it was going to force a winner-take-all championship game.
But Cranston had other ideas.
It came back with three runs in the home half to tie the score, and then worked out of a jam in the sixth. With two outs and a runner on third, Beneduce came into the game and stranded the runner, preserving the tie.
“He was just a man out there,” Rice said. “I said, ‘I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t go out there and throw strikes like that.’ They’ve got nerves of steel.”
In the bottom of the seventh, Collins led off with a double but was picked off second. However, undeterred, Cranston kept coming. Matt Lonardo reached on an error and Aybar followed with a single, putting runners at the corners.
Rainone then hit an infield dribbler that Warwick couldn’t quite handle, allowing Lonardo to cross the plate with the state-title-clinching run.
“Everything went right for us,” Rice said. “The kids executed, they played under pressure.”
Cranston also got a standout performance behind the plate from Peter Coccoli, who was battling a fever. Coccoli held runners in check all weekend, setting the tone for the entire team.
“He was immense the whole weekend, making tremendous throws,” Rice said. “He caught popups, made diving catches, all while being sick. It rubs off on everybody.”
It all amounted to a state title. Cranston’s next challenge will be defending its regional title.
It plays its first game on Saturday at 12 p.m. against the state champion from Maine, and Cranston figures to be ready.
“We’re going to go up there, and we’re built to win it,” Rice said. “We think we’ve got a good shot. My boys, they know how to win.”
Following that game – win or lose – Cranston will play again on Sunday. With his team as the defending champ, Rice is expecting everybody’s best shot.
And he’s looking forward to it.
“They went to the World Series last year and they played remarkable, but we added about five boys that were not on the team last year,” Rice said. “Four of them didn’t even play Babe Ruth. This year they came aboard. I think we’re deeper – I know we’re deeper. The kids have pedigree. This Cranston baseball pedigree is special.”