By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – When you can’t get anyone on the bases when Bristol Central pitching ace Matt Blandino is on the mound, you’re doomed.
And if you ever get a runner or two onboard, you better find a way to get those players home or be prepared to pay the preverbal price.
And while Bristol Eastern ace Mike Nocera pitched one heck of a ballgame – just like he did the last time against the Rams – it wasn’t enough as Central scratched two runs across in the fifth frame to topple the Lancers 2-0 in a CCC South showdown from Muzzy Field in Bristol on Monday, May 20.
Central moved to 19-0 on the season with the victory while capturing another CCC South championship with a perfect 14-0 ledger.
Eastern evened its record to 10-10 but will once again head for the postseason, a consecutive streak of appearances that started back in 1999.
Blandino (9-0) was his usual self, giving up just the two hits while striking out 11 in another complete game effort.
He retired the first 16 batters and he faced only two batters above the minimum.
And even when the Lancers put a couple runners on base, neither moved into scoring position as Blandino forced Eastern into situations that favored the winning team.
With the tying run at the plate, the Lancers were a combined 0-for-4.
“You’ve got to make the plays,” said Eastern coach Mike Giovinazzo. “Don’t make them, Central gets a run, same scenario as last time. You just can’t give Blandino anything.”
In a scoreless game in the fifth tilt, Central netted its two winning tallies against Nocera (1-5), which was a shame because the hard-luck chucker pitched the entire game and gave up just six and two unearned runs.
In the fifth frame, Andrew Laviero (2-for-3, run) started the rally off with a grounder to third that was thrown over Eastern’s Eric Therrien at first base.
With Laviero making it to second, Ronnie St. Denis laid down a perfect bunt in front of Nocera but the pitcher bobbled the ball and quickly, runners were on first and third with on one out.
And that set up opportunities for Blandino and Mitch Guilmette to drive a couple runs home.
“We’re going up against a tough pitcher, you have to take advantage of what you’re given but we still had to execute,” said Central coach Bunty Ray. “We get a bunt down, and we get a hit-and-run, we get the guys to third with less than two out and two of our best hitters come through.”
“That’s the name of the game.”
With runners on the corners and no outs, Blandino smacked a fly-ball to right and as the catch was made by Eastern’s Ryan Chiasson, Laviero tagged home plate to put Central in front 1-0.
Vin Nocera followed up with a single down the right-field line and once again, runners were on the corners and Guilmette was up at-bat.
He also launched a ball into the outfield, scoring St. Denis from third, as the Rams increased its edge to 2-0 and that put the Lancers in a significant hole.
“That’s how these games are…you have to take advantage of opportunities,” said Ray. “And you have to make sure the other team doesn’t get those.”
But after that inning, Nocera got out of a jam in the sixth as he finished the evening with four strikeouts and one walk.
However, the two runs were damaging enough.
“Well, you know Mike (Nocera) continues to keep us in the game (and) we continue to do things (to) shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Giovinazzo. “Like I said, you can’t give Blandino an edge. You’ve got to go into the late innings, hoping to have a shot at him, down one or a tie game.”
“But once they get that second run, it changes the whole scope of your game.”
But off the quick 2-0 push, Eastern attacked quickly in the sixth inning and tried to sneak on base.
To open the tilt, Chiasson laid down a near perfect bunt but Blandino chased it down, steadied himself and whirled a perfect throw to first to just get the runner.
“You’re not going to beat Blandino the normal way. You’ve got to try something different,” said Giovinazzo. “Those kids work on that all the time. They try to execute that play just to get a rally started. Blandino made a great play…it’s just something you’ve got to do when you’re facing a kid like that.”
“You’re not going to get three hits in an inning off of him…it’s not going to happen.”
But Eastern sophomore Jake Colello – pinch hitting for catcher Dave Cugno – finally broke Blandino’s perfect game as he snuck a single past first base as the tying run was quickly at the plate.
However, two ground-balls later, it was still a 2-0 push by Central as the Rams‘ defense was sharp from start to finish.
“We played some very good defense tonight,” said Ray. “We made all the routine plays and we made some you’re not supposed to, that’s the difference. You make a couple you’re not supposed to, that’s the mark of a team that’s getting a little bit better on defense.”
In the bottom of the sixth, Nocera tallied up two quick outs but Central wasn’t finished in the stanza.
Andrew Martin sent a single to centerfield while Laviero did the same to put two on.
But while St. Denis flew-out to center, the Rams were still making things happen on offense.
“You have to battle on offense against good pitching,” said Ray. “That’s what we did.’
Eastern took one more stab at it and it was up to Dave Levesque to start it off in the seventh.
With one out, Levesque sent a shot up the middle for a hit and once again, the tying run was represented at the plate.
But Eric Therrien and Nick Plachno struck out as Blandino mopped up as Central won its 19th straight game of the year.
Laviero nailed a double in the contest – for the game’s only extra-base hit – while four other batters had one hit apiece for the victors.
And while the Lancers held the Rams below its typical offensive output in the contest, Central played a complete game to stave off a very tough Eastern outfit.
“Now we’re at the end and those things are the things you need to do…the hit and runs, the executing of bunts, the moving of runners,” said Ray. “The base-running was great. There was outstanding base-running. Those things are lost…everybody just sees pitching and hitting. There are so many other nuances of a baseball game you have to command and those are the things we work on.”
“That’s what wins you games…the big things take care of themselves, you’ve got to do the little things and that’s what we do.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE