PROVIDENCE – The past few years hadn’t been kind ones for the North Smithfield High baseball team, and senior co-captain Cole Skinner is well aware of that.
During his freshman and junior years, the Northmen totaled just eight victories and quite a few lopsided losses as a Division II team, and Skinner’s second season with the team never took place because of the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out the spring sports season.
But last Saturday afternoon, Skinner’s high school career came to a joyous end in the middle of a celebration near the third-base line of Rhode Island College’s Pontarelli Field, as the Northmen capped an entertaining best-of-three Division III championship series with Classical High by blanking the Purple, 6-0, in the third and deciding game.
The Northmen had won the series opener in dramatic fashion on Wednesday, June 8, grabbing a 4-3 victory that saw sophomore Kayden Artruc knock in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning. But two nights later, the Purple evened the series by also posting a 4-3 win that saw them walk off with the tying and winning runs on a throwing error in the home half of the eighth.
The championship was only the second in the 54-year history of the Northmen’s program. North Smithfield had won the D-II championship in 2008, but lost in the D-II finals in 2014 and the D-III title series in 2017 and ‘18.
“It feels great,” said North Smithfield head coach Jon Leddy. “We were here a couple of times (in the late 2010s) and it was an ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ type of thing. We’ve always been really close – inches away, and even the game (last Friday) when we were a pitch away from a win – but we got the job done and I hand it to my guys. They came in with the right focus today and they knew what they had to do.”
Back in D-III after their two-year struggle in D-II, the Northmen captured the regular-season title with a 13-1 record and handily swept their best-of-three semifinal-round series with neighboring Davies by scores of 11-0 and 8-2 to reach the finals and take a thrilling series from the Purple.
“I’m happy for all my teammates,” said Cole Skinner, who along with shortstop and fellow co-captain David Doherty, are the lone seniors on the 15-player roster. “We’ve had a couple of tough seasons, but this (season) was special, especially this being my senior year. And this week has been a great week. It’s been the best baseball I’ve ever seen. Two walkoff games and today’s game – it’s incredible.”
Skinner was certainly incredible in raising his record on the mound to 7-1, as he ended his high school career in style by blanking the Purple (14-5) on one hit, striking out six batters, and walking four. Skinner carried a no-hit bid into the final inning, but lost it on an infield hit by Tony Sanchez, the first batter he faced in the seventh. Doherty raced in to make a great grab on Sanchez’s roller, but couldn’t set his feet and get off a throw to first.
“I felt confident that I could throw strikes, and I trust my defense more than anything,” said Skinner. “I know that they have my back and I have theirs, so I know that if I can do my job, they will do theirs.”
The Northmen, meanwhile, produced the only run they needed off Classical freshman pitcher Allen Espinal, who was the starter in the Purple’s 5-4 win over the Northmen during the regular season on May 11. Espinal worked four-plus innings and allowed just one hit, but walked seven batters and hit two with pitches, and his wildness helped lead to N.S.’s first three runs.
Sophomore leadoff batter Wyatt Letizia, who drew walks in his first three plate trips to the plate, led off with a walk, and after he stole second base and took third on a wild pitch, Skinner drew a walk, and Letizia scored with ease on a fielder’s choice grounder that erased Skinner at second.
Espinal, like Skinner, was also quietly working on a no-hit bid, but in the fourth, after walking the first two batters he faced, Artruc and junior Ethan Harnois, he gave up an infield single to the left side of the diamond to junior Sam Beauchemin that drove in Artruc. Two batters later, Letizia walked again to load the bases for Skinner, who got hit by a pitch to force in Harnois.
“We were just trying to make sure we weren’t too aggressive at the plate,” explained Skinner. “We wanted to see a lot of pitches, and that’s why we got all those walks.”
Espinal’s day on the mound was done in the fifth after he hit the first batter he saw, junior catcher Danny White, with a pitch in the back of the helmet. He was relieved by senior Max Gleadow, who got the next two outs, but saw the Northmen load the bases for freshman Tyler Albino, who delivered the game’s biggest hit, a bases-clearing double down the right-field line.
In the series opener, the Northmen, which had won 11 of their 15 games by 10 or more runs, took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second on a bases-loaded walk to Beauchemin and a run-scoring single to center by Albino, but Classical came back to tie the score with two unearned runs in the fourth.
North Smithfield then reclaimed the lead in the bottom of that inning on a ground RBI single to left by Letizia, but Classical again tied the score in the seventh on a two-out, bases-loaded walk to Gleadow.
The Northmen nearly won the game in the bottom of the seventh when Harnois, who had doubled, tried to race home on a ground single to center by Albino, but Classical senior center fielder Javier Gomez threw out Harnois at the plate.
But in the eighth, after Albino, who took over on the hill with two outs in the seventh, struck out the side in the top of the inning, the Northmen won the contest on a walkoff single by Artruc that he lined over the shortstop’s head and into left field and drove in Skinner from third with ease.
Two nights later, the Northmen went for the series sweep behind the potent left arm of Harnois, who pitched 7 1/3 innings of spectacular five-hit ball, striking out a dozen batters and walking three before reaching his pitch count. Harnois gave up singles to three of the first four batters he faced, including RBI hits to senior Max DeLuca and Espinal, but only gave up an infield hit over his next 6 2/3 innings of work.
Sophomore standout Tyler Lee also pitched a splendid game for the Purple, as he worked 7 2/3 innings, scattered four hits and five walks, and whiffed six batters. Only one of North Smithfield’s runs was earned.
The Northmen, meanwhile, cut their deficit in half in the third, when with one out, Letizia, who had reached on a fielder’s choice grounder, stole second, and when the throw there sailed into center, he raced to third. The throw from center then sailed over the third baseman’s head, and when Classical catcher James Ninneman raced over to recover the ball, he left the plate wide open, and that allowed Letizia to easily cross the plate.
In the fourth, North Smithfield tied the score when Artruc socked a double to left that two-hopped the fence, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a groundout to second by Harnois.
The eighth inning was indeed a wild one. In the Northmen’s half of the inning, they took advantage of two misplayed popups behind the plate, as well as a single by Doherty and a fielding error, to load the bases with one out.
Doherty slid across the plate with the go-ahead run on an errant throw to the plate, but Lee and Espinal, who faced the frame’s final batter, came back to retire the next two batters and force the Northmen to leave the bases loaded.
In the bottom of the inning, the Purple’s number nine batter, Dennis, led off with a double that he smacked into the gap in right-center and took third on a passed ball. But after Harnois struck out the next batter, Dennis was cut down at the plate when he tried to score on a sharp grounder to Albino at second base.
One out away from the title, Harnois walked the next batter, DeLuca, on four pitches, and his reliever, Albino, proceeded to also walk the first batter he faced, Espinal, on four offerings.
That brought Gleadow to the plate, and he proceeded to hit a slow roller to the left side of the infield. A strong throw would have nipped him at first, but instead, it bounced past first and to the fence, and Lee and DeLuca were able to dash home with the tying and winning runs.