Special to The Transcript
Back in early March, Winthrop Little League was about to wrap up a very positive, well done Friday night baseball clinic. League president Joe Murphy and the Little League board of directors had coordinated with Mark DiGregorio and Mike DeFelice to have some of the high school players coach groups of about 70 Little Leaguers, ages ranging from 7-12 in the old middle school gym. It was a very successful program, and the youngsters really enjoyed learning from the big kids. As they approached the final Friday, COVID-19 struck and the board regretfully canceled the final week.
At that point, hopes were for a quick end to the quarantine and a typical Llittle Lleague season, but COVID-19 had other plans, and for a while it seemed there would not be a baseball season. But The board (Mary Spinale, Kim Griffin, Danielle McLaughlin, Eric Matthieu, Chris Previte, Chris Evans, Greg Buchman, Greg Sullivan, Joe Murray and Joe Murphy) worked to keep abreast of state and town guidelines and kept in contact with each other. When it looked like an opportunity to put a season together, they needed to act quickly. They determined that in order to have any season, and to keep the children and families safe, it would take considerable effort, attention, cooperation, and management. With that in mind, they made the difficult decision to cancel the T-ball, C Division, and B Division, and only offer A Division (ages 10-12), and, for the first time in 15 years, Senior League (13-16).
The board members and a large group of volunteers spent most of a Saturday tending to the A field, pulling the weeds that had taken over, hanging the padding and windscreens, and leveling the infield. Soon after that teams were drafted and schedules were made, and once the State approved practices, teams began working out.
“We really had no idea what we had for a team,” said Mariners manager Greg Sullivan. “We drafted back on June 14th,, I think it was. It seems like a lifetime ago. I knew we had a few strong ballplayers in Joe Dalton and Francesca Indrisano, because I had them last year in
B-division. And I knew Danny Connolly because he had absolutely punished us the last couple of years, so I was excited to have him on our side this time! And my son Antonio was coming off a very good 8 year-old season in B division, but beyond that, I wasn’t familiar with many of these kids as baseball players.”
The Mariners lost the season opener 9-4 on July 6th. “It was close for a while, but we made some mistakes on the bases and in the field, and we let them snowball.” explained coach Jack Joyce. “One bad throw turned into three bad throws, and next thing we knew it had gotten away from us. The Angels are a good team, and we can’t make mistakes like that with them.” Six straight hits by Nate Previte, Mark D’Ambrosio, Paul Ferrara, Nikita Rossi, JJ Melchionda and Ethan Staff developed into 6 runs and put the Angels ahead to stay, earning D’Ambrosio the win.
“Two days later, the day started off great!” recalls Sullivan, “I got a phone call that Ricky MacKenzie was joining our team. Ricky is such a great kid and player, I was excited that he was joining us.” That night however, they were trailing again, this time to the Royals. Behind the pitching of Ryan Murphy, the Royal cruised to a 7-1 lead headed to the fourth inning when lightning struck. There had been storms in the forecast all day, so the coaches agreed to finish the game at a later date.
That weekend there were reports of a spike in Winthrop Covid cases, and although none of the cases involved Little League players, coaches, or their families, the Board of Directors chose to pause the season for two weeks out of an abundance of caution.
“That was rough.” remembers Coach Dan Connolly, “we had a feeling they were better than they were playing, but we’re basically down 0-2 and need to sit on our hands for two weeks instead of trying to improve.”
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. During the two-week shutdown, Indrisano broke her arm. “Her radius and ulna bones in her right arm. A game and a half in and her season was done.” Coach Steve Indrisano sympathized.
“I figured since it was her right arm, she could still catch!” quipped Sullivan. “But seriously, it was a big blow. She’s a very good player, she knows the game, she learns everyday at practice, and she’s a leader.”
Coach Victor DiPrisco said “She’s a really good catcher! I was really impressed with her work back there.”
“She is! Blocking pitches, throwing runners out, plus on the bench she keeps everyone involved and accountable,” added Joyce, “Greg and I coached her for the past two years and she’s a heck of a player.”
July 27th they were supposed to resume playing, but a heatwave had hit. “It was in the high 90s that day, and Angels manager Mark D’Ambrosio texted me about rescheduling. It was still supposed to be 95 degrees at game time, so as eager as we were to play, we knew we had to wait.”
“It felt like an omen,” remembered coach Jessica Sabin, “first covid, then a lightning storm, then the shutdown, a player injury, and now a heatwave! What’s next? Locusts?”
That Wednesday they lost to the Royals 5-3, wasting some strong pitching by MacKenzie and Noah Survilas, the latter had also homered. Ryan Murphy had stifled the mariner bats again, going five strong innings and striking out 9. “But it was a much better played game,” explains DiPrisco, “they played well. Less mistakes, more focus. We knew we had something.” The only other loss the team would suffer was the completion of the rain suspended game.
“We started preaching at them to minimize the mistakes. Don’t try to be perfect, but when you make a mistake, flush it, don’t compound it. And take the game one at bat at a time” added Sullivan.
That Friday they sent Stephen Barron to the mound against the Angels. “I had seen him pitch when I coached him on the 9 year-old all star team last year.” says Joyce, “and I told Greg we had a secret weapon.” Barron went four strong innings, striking out 8 and giving up only 2 earned runs before turning it over to Connolly, Sullivan and Carmen DiPrisco. This time it was the Mariners who put together the big fifth inning, sending 16 batters to the plate, highlighted by a triple by DiPrisco and a homer by Ricky Mackenzie. “It got a little scary at the end, but they held on,” the Mariners would end up winning 13-11.
The following week they beat the Yankees 8-5 behind MacKenzie, and Angels 6-5 behind Survilas, and their record was 3-2. They would not play under .500 again. The next game saw Joe Dalton start on the mound, and combine with Louk Belghiti, Michael Barron, Tony Bordonaro and Antonio Sullivan for a shutout against the Yankees, 15-0. “That was the day,” smiles Sullivan, “everything came together. Great pitching by a bunch of different arms, and everybody hit. Everyone got at least a hit, almost everyone scored at least once, Noah drove in 4, Tony knocked in 3 and tripled, Louk had a big hit; it all came together and they played a team game top to bottom, and minimized the mistakes.”
The Mariners would go on to finish the regular season 7-3, good for second place and the two seed headed to the playoff tournament. “By the time the regular season ended, our team had really found it’s identity, and it was full of contributors. Carmen and Noah led the team in runs scored, Louk led the team in extra base hits, Tony and Ricky led in hits, Stephen led in walks earned, Danny, Joe and Louk in average, Danny and Ricky in RBI, Noah and Danny in pitcher strikeouts, Michael Barron and Joe Dalton n ERA, Tony in steals, Tony and Antonio in outfield putouts, and the catchers: Danny, Noah, Ricky, Franny, Dax and Antonio, grinding out innings behind the plate, in the heat, with all that gear on! And the intangibles, guys like Mchael, Stephen, Carmen, Dax, and Antonio, all who we ended up asking to play a bunch of different positions.
Awaiting them in the first round was the familiar foe, the Angels. “They were a very good team. Each game had been close, but we felt good about sending Stephen Barron out there. He had pitched well against them twice already and given them fits.” commented Sullivan. But his time the first three Angels batters ended up scoring and the Mariners’ coaches wondered if the magic had faded. “We (the coaches) were definitely all looking at each other, and wondering if we’d made a mistake,” said Sullivan. “But I looked at how it happened: Previte, Ferrara and Dambro are all good hitters and they got good hits. That’s what good hitters do! There was only one walk in that first inning, and that was to cleanup hitter Nikita Rossi, and hey, you walk him you limit him to one base! Stephen was throwing strikes, and that’s what we wanted him to do.
Sometimes you just tip your cap to the guys who are able to put a bat on it. After that it was three straight ground outs, and Stephen cruised through the next two innings.”
Meanwhile the Mariner’s bats went to work, getting one run in the first when Connolly knocked in Belghiti after he had tripled. In the second Sullivan and Stephen Barron earned walks before a single by Bordonaro knocked them in, and Belghiti doubled to drive in Bordonaro, and just like that they had the lead. In the fourth Stephen Barron and Sabin got it started getting on base for Bordonaro to come up big again with an RBI angle. Later in the inning Connolly would drive in two important insurance runs with a stinging single. That would be enough as the bullpen of Connolly, Mackenzie and Survilas locked down the 8-6 win.
In game two the Mariners faced the Royals, the only team to beat them twice. “They’re tough!” Dax Sabin exclaimed, “but coach pointed out they beat us twice early, and we’re a different team now. We’ve really gotten better, and we beat them last time (the teams faced each other).”
Ryan Murphy started for the Royals and Danny Connolly started for the Mariners. The Mariners stuck first, scoring in the first when Ricky Mackenzie singled and later scored on a Belghiti single. In the third Mackenzie began the scoring again with a single, followed by a single by Survilas, a double by Bordonaro, a triple by Belghiti and a single by Connolly. When the fourth inning ended, The Mariners led 4-0, and Connolly was dealing from the mound, but he had hit his pitch limit, closing the book with seven strikeouts, three walks, and only one hit. Connolly was replaced with Belghiti, who ran into a little trouble when an error allowed Lucas Souza to reach and steal second. But a very alert Belghiti was able to pick off Souza in a rather unconventional way: between pitches Belghiti was headed back to the mound when he saw Souza off the bag and with his head down. Belghiti sprinted over with the ball and applied the tag to record the out. “Coach tells us to play smart, and stay focused,” Belghiti explained. “I just try to do that.”
The big Royals bats of Luke Griffin, Michael Harrison and Jake Buchman threatened with three straight hits in the bottom of the sixth, but Noah Survilas slammed the door to earn another playoff save and the Mariners won 6-3.
The Royals would win 8-7 in walkoff fashion against the Angels on the following night, with Buchman and Griffin pitching, earning their way to face the Mariners again in the championship game.
This time it was Noah Survilas for the Mariners and Ty Matthieu for the Royals, fire against fire. The visitor Royals turned a hit, a pair of walks, and an error into three runs early. But the Mariner bats came right back, with singles by Bordonaro and Mackenzie followed by a triple by Belghiti, a single by Survilas, and a double by Connolly, and the Mariners had taken the lead 5-3. After that it was a pitcher’s duel. From the second inning on, Matthieu struck out 5 and stranded 5 runners before hitting his pitch limit after the fifth. Survilas matched him, striking out 10 and allowing only one more runner after the 1st. He eventually hit his pitch limit as well with one out in the sixth. He turned the ball over to Ricky Mackenzie and the A field crowd showed their appreciation for the battle they had just witnessed between these two excellent pitchers by giving a rousing round of applause. Mackenzie faced the tough Owen Carver, who battled to an eight-pitch walk. Things were getting tense on the Mariners side when Ben Spencer popped a foul ball off the first base line. Survilas, now playing first, charged after it to make the catch, and then turned to see Carver had let the bag. He sprinted to first, diving to tag the bag before Carver could return, and recording the game ending double play.