BRISTOL, Conn. — Give Pittsfield American Little League manager Joe Skutnik credit for knowing the opposition.
After Wednesday's win over Rhode Island at the New England Regional, Skutnik was asked about Pittsfield's success against the top of Rhode Island's lineup.
Skutnik was quick to reframe the conversation.
"And the Fuentes kid, he's a good little stick," Skutnik said. "They hide [Sammy Fuentes] down there in the eight hole."
As Coventry, R.I., showed on Friday afternoon, you cannot sleep on the bottom of its lineup.
Little Rhody came up big in the bottom of the sixth, scoring six times to stun New Hampshire, 6-5, and earn the right to face Pittsfield on Saturday afternoon for a regional title and a berth in next week's Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
The dramatic comeback was kept alive when Fuentes, again hitting eighth in the lineup, drew a two-out walk. No. 9 hitter Dylan Mourao then hit a single up the middle to load the bases in a game telecast worldwide on ESPN.
After an RBI walk to make it a 5-4 game brought New Hampshire's third pitcher of the inning, Rhode Island's Tommy Turner singled up the middle to drive in Fuentes, the tying run, and Mourao, who slid under the tag at home to send New Hampshire home.
In fairness to the reporter who asked Skutnik about the top of Rhode Island's order, it's been pretty darn good at this regional.
Turner, the No. 2 hitter, has gone 8-for-12 with five RBIs in the Coventry's four games. Cleanup man Logan Lama has a slugging percentage of 1.000, going 5-for-10 with three doubles and a triple.
As a team, Rhode Island is hitting .389 with 27 runs in four games -- the first two games cut short because of the 10-run mercy rule.
Pittsfield, meanwhile, is hitting .348 and has scored 23 runs while going 3-0 to open the tournament.
To the surprise of no one, Evan Blake leads the offense with a .889 batting average (8-for-9) and a 2.11 slugging percentage for an other-worldly 3.02 OPS (on-base plus slugging).
Those are the only kind of numbers that could eclipse the performance posted by Owen Salvatore at the regional. He is hitting at a .750 clip (6-for-8) with a 1.50 slugging percentage and 2.28 OPS.
Nick Brindle also has an OPS over 1. The player they call "Nicky Singles" is 4-for-8 at the plate, and his one walk and two hit-by-pitches give him an on-base percentage of .636.
Antonio Scalise, who won the state championship game with a two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the sixth, broke out of a self-described "slump" at the regional in a big way on Wednesday with a home run against Rhode Island.
"I've been in a slump lately, not doing very well hitting," he said. "But I think that got me out of it."
The regional tournament is played under what is described as a "modified double-elimination" format. Basically, it means that although the Pittsfield Americans made it through the first six days without a loss, they have to win Saturday afternoon's game in order to extend their season.
Everyone else who lost a game this week dropped down into the "elimination bracket," where the losers played one another to get one survivor, Rhode Island, to face Pittsfield, the survivor of the winner's bracket.
The flip side of having no margin for error is that Pittsfield has had two days off to recuperate from Wednesday's winner's bracket finale.
"It will be nice to have a little bit of a break because we've been playing pretty much every day," Scalise said on Wednesday evening. "But I also think we need to stay in that groove we've been in and keep going."
"Like Antonio said, if you have too much time not doing much, you tend to get a little lackadaisical in your playing," he said. "But I think two days off will be good because it gives us time to rest and prepare for the upcoming game."
Pittsfield also has something perhaps more valuable than rest: rested pitching.
Rhode Island, which has a team earned run average of 3.90 at the tournament, burned its two best pitchers, Mather (1.44 ERA) and Turner (3.13 ERA) in Friday's win over New Hampshire.
The Pittsfield AL, meanwhile, goes into Saturday's regional final with Blake, its Game 1 starter, available for the first time since Sunday's opener. In that 4-2 win over New Hampshire on Sunday night, Blake struck out 10 and scattered four hits while allowing no runs in five innings of work.
If he does need help, Skutnik can turn to either of the pitchers who worked in Monday's 9-4 win over Maine: Scalise (no runs allowed in 1 1/3 innings of work) or Cam Sime (3.38 ERA).
Salvatore allowed all the other arms to rest by throwing a complete game gem on Wednesday in the 10-1 win over Rhode Island.
Admission to Saturday's regional final, as all the games at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center, is no charge. The city of Pittsfield is making two buses available to ride to Bristol. Each bus seats approximately 50 and are first come, first serve. Pickup location is Wahconah Park and buses will depart at 10:30 a.m.
But if you cannot make the trip down for the 1 p.m. start, the game will be telecast live on ESPN.
If you want to watch as part of a crowd, Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema will be showing the game live on the big screen at the North Street venue. "Tickets will be free, and issued starting at noon Saturday on a first-come, first-served basis. As seating is limited, you must be present to receive a ticket," according to the theater's Facebook page.
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