WORCESTER, Mass. -- Ed Riley wasn't about to take any chances. In an elimination game, you can't afford to.
With St. Peter-Marian deadlocked against Doherty in Friday's CMass. Division 1 semifinal, the Guardians head coach summoned his ace pitcher Jack Riley to the mound with one out in the fifth inning and the Highlanders threatening with two runners aboard.
Riley, who pitched SPM to a quarterfinal victory over Wachusett Regional four days earlier, was brought in to try and prevent the Highlanders from scoring the go-ahead run.
The scenario played out to perfection. Riley, one of the top pitchers in Massachusetts, got out of the fifth inning jam and went on to pitch 2 2/3 innings of no-hit ball and, in the process, drove home the winning run to lift the Guardians to a 2-1 victory at Tivnan Field.
No. 3 SPM (16-6) will square off against No. 1 Leominster (18-4) in Sunday's final to be played here beginning at 1 p.m. The two clubs met twice during the regular season earning a split.
SPM starting pitcher Steve Albert put forth a quality start. The senior allowed one run on five hits in his 4 1/3 innings of work.
"For Steve to go out there and give us four-plus tough innings, you couldn't ask for anything more," said Riley, whose club edged Doherty 4-3 back on April 25th. "Earlier in the season he and I talked and I told him that his time would come in Game 2 of the districts and I told him to prepare all season to get to that point. Today he gutted it out against a very good lineup."
But Albert ran into trouble in the fifth. The right-hander served up a lead off single to Peter Franco. A sacrifice bunt put down by Matt Lyons moved Franco to second. That was followed by a Tim Quitadamo single putting runners on the corners. With Albert beginning to fade, Riley felt it was the right time to bring his son into the game and try to extinguish the fire.
With Franklin Pierce-bound Luke Brennan at the plate, the senior bounced a chopper to Nate Frederick. The senior shortstop, noticing Franco's initial move upon contact was down the baseline, immediately threw to third baseman Christian Walsh. Now caught in a rundown, Franco would be tagged out by catcher Brandon O'Connor. With the pressure lifted a little, Riley followed that up by retiring Anthony Rentsch to keep it a 1-1 game.
"My thinking at that point is that our season is on the line," Riley said. "I decided that I needed to put my best pitcher in because if we don't get this thing done then that's it for us. Nate happened to make a ridiculous play for us during that rundown which really set the tone for us and helped Jack finish the inning off.
"If we were going down then we were going down with our No. 1 pitcher and that's what it came down to. Nate's play was certainly the key play of this game."
That would lead to SPM taking the lead for good in the top half of the sixth. Brendan Kelly opened by hitting a grounder to the right side that was snagged by first baseman Anthony Isildaki. But on the play, Doherty pitcher Jackson Benoit failed to cover first base thus allowing Kelly to reach safely.
Kelly moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Benoit answered back by retiring O'Connor on a comebacker for the Guardians' second out.
After Doherty head coach Ed Whalen came out to chat with Benoit, the collective thinking throughout the park was he would have Benoit intentionally walk Riley, SPM's top hitter. But instead, his advice was to have his righty not serve up anything good to Riley in the hopes he might chase some off-speed pitches.
But the strategy backfired once Riley smashed a 1-1 curve ball to right for a single that scored Kelly, who barely beat Brennan's throw to the plate, with the eventual game-winning run.
"I thought they would walk me," Jack Riley said. "He threw me a good curve but I knew it was coming and I waited back on it. I knew I would have to hit a good pitch to get a base hit and get that run in and that's what happened. Doherty played very hard but we played a little harder and were able to pull out the win."
Playing with the lead, Riley, who will play for UConn next season, now turned all of his attention on maintaining the lead. The lefty made quick work of Highlanders in the bottom of the sixth. But one inning later, after setting down the first two batters, Riley hit Quitadamo with a pitch and walked Brennan. However, the senior was able to bear down by inducing Rentsch to fly out to end the game.
SPM got to Benoit for a run in the first. Mike Pezzano walked and O'Connor lined a single to left. A Riley ground out moved both runners up a base. Frederick next grounded to shortstop allowing Pezzano to cross the plate.
After getting out of a slight jam in the bottom of the frame, Albert then set the Highlanders down in order in the second. But Doherty mounted a two-out rally in the third. Brennan smoked a triple to right and scored later on Rentsch's single to knot things. But the second-seeded Highlanders (15-7) failed to inflict any further damage the rest of the way.
"Jackson pitched an outstanding game," Whalen said. "There were a couple of breaks here and there which was the difference. In the sixth, we didn't want to give (Riley) anything good to hit but tip your cap to him. He hit a curve ball that kind of hung a little bit. We weren't trying to throw any fastballs to him. We were looking to pitch around him with first base open.
"To his credit he stayed back on that pitch. Luke threw a strike to the plate from right field but it just wasn't meant to be in that case."