Pitcher Manny Bjorklund of the Coventry Little League 11-year-old All-Stars shut down Portsmouth, 9-2, scattering six hits and striking out seven Portsmouth batters to help his squad claim the 2011 Rhode Island Little League State Championship on Wednesday night in Warwick.
In sweeping through just three games in the state finals, this squad of All-Stars claims its first Little League state championship at any age level in Coventry Little League history.
Portsmouth walked a tightrope most of the night trying to keep the potent bats of the District Three champs off the bases either by hits or walks.
Coventry scored twice in the first inning when Joey Barter (4-for-5) hit a high-bounding single up the middle and Cam Reid walked. Bjorklund helped his own cause when he was hit by the ball thrown by the catcher while running out a squib hit, as the ball rebounded away, allowing both runners to score.
Portsmouth had a chance to score in the second inning when they loaded the bases with two outs after singles by Peter Stamoulis and Zach Coleman, with Aidan Burke reaching on an error. Bjorklund then stabbed a hard hit by James Reilly, a very high one-bouncer headed for center, but the Coventry pitcher threw to first for the last out to strand all three runners.
In the third inning, Cam Major walked, Barter singled again and Reid walked. Bjorklund singled in a run and Brandon Lamothe delivered an RBI squib single for a 4-0 margin. Portsmouth escaped with just two runs being scored against them with excellent infield play, forcing two bases-loaded outs at home, including a clutch throw to the catcher by shortstop Jon Young deep in the hole.
Barter singled, Reid doubled and Jarrad Grossguth walked in the fourth. Bjorklund then walked to force in another run. Portsmouth reliever Ryan Hurd then made an inning-ending strikeout to strand three Coventry runners.
A two-run homer over the right field fence in the fourth inning by Porrtsmouth lefthanded batter Peyton Robinson cut the deficit to 5-2, giving the District Two champions a glimmer of hope.
But Bjorklund was untouchable the rest of the way with his teammates boosting the lead twice more.
In the fifth, D.J. Lopes singled, Cam Touissant bunt singled a ball pitched a foot over his head and Josh Andrade walked to load the bases again. Cam Reid came through with his second double to increase the lead to 7-2.
Coventry starting the sixth by loading the bases again. Bjorklund was grazed by a pitch, Steven Verrier bunted his way on and D.J. Lopes walked. A suicide squeeze bunt by Koyle Bankauskas worked perfectly to score a run and Bartter singled in the final run for the champs.
Relying almost entirely on his fastball, Bjorklund finished the game by retiring the last six batters- three on strikeouts and still had four pitches to spare on the maximum 85-pitch count to record the complete-game victory.
Coventry coaches were Randal Grossguth and Jean Touissaint.
“It was amazing this whole journey started in the late week of June,” said Coventry manager Chris Lopes. “We told parents, kids and coaches it’s going to take quite a commitment to ask of them and it could be a long ride. But there’s a nice reward at the end. Now everyone can look up at this championship banner and know this was associated with them.”
“Manny was outstanding,” added Lopes of his tall righthanded hurler. “He was pumped up and ready to go. He had a focus that we’ve never seen to this extent. In the state tournament, our bats quieted a bit, but we got timely offense and were more aggressive on the bases than we were in the districts. Our defense struggled at times, but made the big plays when we had to.”
“It was fun and the whole team chipped in,” said Reid, whose batting, catching and pitching abilities helped get the squad through, especially in the memorable extra-inning, 18-17 win over Wickford to win the District Three title. “Everyone contributed.”
Portsmouth began its run to the state final for the second year in a row with four straight victories in District Two. Their only losses in the states were to Coventry while posting victories over Smithfield and Cranston Western.
“We ran into a pitcher that was really strong tonight,” said Portsmouth manager Pat Young. “We just gave up too many walks and they capitalized on those walks just like the first time we met. They hit the ball when the needed to.”
Other players on the Portsmouth squad included Nick Colicci, Owen Gallagher, Conor Keily, Kyle McGowan, Cole Swider and Ben Varier. Assistant coaches were Mark Stamoulis and Roy McGowan.