No finals, but an amazing postseason

No finals, but an amazing postseason

South Kingstown runner Blaine Lidsky, #18, gets ready to slide safely into third base as Cumberland third baseman Joe Molis awaits the late throw to the base during last Friday night’s Division I playoff game at McCarthy Field. The Rebels needed to stave off a late comeback by the Clippers before celebrating their 7-6 win. (Breeze photos by Eric Benevides)
Cumberland, Lincoln baseball teams make their marks with long runs in state playoffs

WEST WARWICK – Cumberland vs. Lincoln in the Division I championship series? For a while last week, it looked like there may have been a slight chance that matchup would happen.

Both high school baseball teams, who were seeded near the middle of the 13-team field, made magical runs through the losers' bracket of their respective regional double-elimination playoffs before watching their seasons end nearly 24 hours apart from each other at McCarthy Field.

For the Lions, the end of the road for them was a heartbreaking one. It came last Thursday night in a 3-2 loss to Bishop Hendricken that saw the Hawks squeak out the win in the bottom of the seventh inning with a walkoff single.

The following afternoon, the Clippers were dealt a 7-6 defeat to South Kingstown that saw Cumberland valiantly battle back from a 7-1 deficit by rallying for five runs in the top of the seventh and putting the tying run on third with one out, but coming up short.

Had the Clippers topped the Rebels, they would have forced a winner-take-all game for the right to play in this week's best-of-three state championship series at McCoy Stadium. A victory by the Lions, meanwhile, would have sent them into the regional losers' bracket final against the playoffs' Cinderella team, 13th-seeded Coventry, and moved Lincoln two wins away from a trip to McCoy.

"That would have been something else," Cumberland head coach Andy Tuetken said after last Friday afternoon's game when asked about nearly experiencing a Cumberland-Lincoln title series. "(Lincoln head) coach (Vin) Zibelli and I actually talked about that a little bit, because they also had one heck of a ride and that tough loss to Hendricken. But that would have been something."

The Clippers, who were the sixth seed in the playoffs, posted a 4-2 record that saw them win a 6-5 nailbiter with 11th-seeded Pilgrim in their opening game on March 29, but two days later, suffer a 1-0 loss to 3rd-seeded Cranston East in a game that featured just four hits and saw sophomore Brendan Wright pitch a masterful two-hitter in a losing cause.

In the losers' bracket, the Clippers impressed in rolling off three straight victories in a six-day spanning, edging 10th-seeded North Kingstown in extra innings, 5-4; 7th-seeded Central, 6-5; and Cranston East, 2-0, and the highlights were numerous.

Against the Skippers at Tucker Field, Cumberland fought off elimination by rallying back from a 4-0 deficit with three runs in the sixth and one each in the seventh and eighth – Joe Molis’ two-out RBI single in the seventh and Adam Bertherman’s run-scoring single in the eighth accounted for the heroics.

Solo runs in the home half of the fifth and sixth innings then enabled the Clippers to grab another come-from-behind victory, and while there wasn't as many dramatics in the win over the Thunderbolts, Wright pitched a five-hitter and Reuben Hancock's first-inning RBI single and Addison Kopack's fourth-inning home run provide the offense.

"We've been coming back all season long," Tuetken said. "We don't play with the lead too often, so two runs, five runs, seven runs, it doesn't matter; we just keep fighting, and that's been our expectation all year."

Unfortunately for the Clippers, last Thursday's loss to the Rebels saw them endure their worst inning in more than a month, a six-run uprising by the Rebels in the bottom of the third, which saw S.K. take advantage of two walks, a hit batsman, and two-run singles by Cole Podedworny and Robert Brutti.

But as they did time and time again throughout the season, the Clippers fought back by scoring a run in the sixth and five more in their final swings on a run-scoring single to right by Nick Croteau, an opposite-field two-run double to the fence in left by Zach Fogell, and a run-scoring groundout by Hancock that advanced Fogell to third.

The comeback ended, however, when a pair of pitching changes by the Rebels resulted in a strikeout and a groundout to second, as well as the end of the Clippers' playoff run.

"I'm so proud of these guys," Tuetken said. "Going into today's matchup, we were low on arms, but these guys had that mission that they were going to give South Kingstown the best game they could. And we thought going into this game that we were going to win. We came up a little short, but I'm so proud of these guys. What a great job they did."

The last time the Clippers finished among the top four in the state playoffs was 2015, Tuetken's first season at the helm. And while the Clippers reached the state finals before losing in three games to Bishop Hendricken, most of the juniors on this season's CHS team were busy leading the North Cumberland Middle School baseball team to their own state title.

"We have that championship mindset every year," said Tuetken, whose team ended up with an overall record of 15-9. "(Reaching the) Final Four is definitely an accomplishment, especially coming out of the losers' bracket and having to play five games in nine days. That's a lot of baseball with limited arms, but they did a great job. Coming up short a little bit stings, but we'll be back."

When it comes to arms, not many teams were as impressive as 9th-seeded Lincoln, which gave up just five runs in its four playoff games and saw ace pitcher Dominic Cunha fire a no-hitter in the Lions' 8-0 victory over 5th-seeded Cranston West on June 2 in their losers' bracket opener.

Cunha had opened the playoffs four days earlier with another strong outing against 8th-seeded East Providence that resulted in a 1-0 loss, as he tossed a four-hitter, but gave up an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Three days after blanking the Falcons, the Lions were singing in the rain after overcoming the elements and defending state champion La Salle Academy, 2-1. Another excellent outing on the mound was turned in by sophomore Randall Hien, who delivered a three-hitter that included seven strikeouts in his first start of the season, and Lincoln walked off with the win in the bottom of the seventh on a throwing error that chased home two runs.

The Lions nearly pulled off another one-run victory two nights later against top-seeded Hendricken, but this time, it was them who lost in walkoff fashion. Aaron DeSousa's solo homer to right field and Jason Marolla's pinch-hit RBI single in the top of the sixth had given the Lions a 2-1 lead.

"These kids competed," added Zibelli. "They had it right down to that seventh inning and I'm so proud of these kids. All year long, our seniors have been stepping up and doing their job, but in that game, I thought our sophomores and juniors were incredible. Our third baseman was diving all over the field and started two double plays. A junior hit the home run. Another junior drove in the go-ahead run in the sixth, and our junior center field was crushing the ball and making plays. It was so great to see."

The Lions ended the season, their first under Zibelli, with an 11-11 overall record that included an impressive six-game win streak midway through the year, and in Zibelli's eyes, this spring was truly a marvelous one in more ways than one.

"You could see the progress that they made over the course of the season and how they came together from day one," he said. "In our first meeting back in February, they were all sitting in their little cliques, but (on Monday), I walked into the locker room (to collect uniforms) and they were all staying together, talking to each other. And it wasn't just three our four different cliques; it was one big team of 23 guys in the program, from the freshman on the junior varsity team to the seniors who were departing, and that's the rewarding part of how well they played."

"Their baseball skills have always been there," continued Zibelli. "It's Lincoln baseball. We're a product of a great feeder system, but they decided to become a program and a team as one, and that's exciting, and I think that's a big reason for our success. And I think our playoff run helped set the foundation of the program moving forward and that's the nice thing. A lot people have been very complimentary of how well the kids have come together and how much they bought into the system and competed. It's just a credit to everything they've done."

As for the possibility of a dream matchup in the finals against their neighboring rivals?

"It kind of looked the way the way things went," added Zibelli. "You have to give Hendricken and South Kingstown credit; they're both very good teams, and even if we did beat Hendricken, I don't know how we would have made out against the buzzsaw that was Coventry at the time. They were on fire. Talk about a team just gelling at the right time."

Cumberland catcher Reuben Hancock, left, gets ready to throw the ball to second base to nab a would-be base stealer during last Friday afternoon’s Division I winners’ bracket final game against South Kingstown. The Clippers saw a last-inning comeback fall short and suffered a 7-6 loss.