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PROVIDENCE â€” Cumberlandâ€™s return to Rhode Island College for the first time since the Clippers won the 2011 state championship was spoiled by the team that handed them their worst defeat of the season.
Undefeated North Kingstown snapped a scoreless tie with two unearned runs in the bottom of the fourth inning and a three-run uprising in the fifth before winding up with a 6-2 win on Tuesday night in a Division I winnersâ€™ bracket semifinal.
The Skippers, who are 19-0 and have outscored their opposition this year by a 159-19 count (including a 9-0 win over Cumberland back on April 9), will take on second-seeded Smithfield, a 9-6 winner over sixth-seeded Lincoln in their semifinal, in Saturdayâ€™s 1 p.m. winnersâ€™ bracket final back at RIC.
As for the fifth-seeded Clippers, who fell to 13-6, they will be back to work on Thursday in a losersâ€™ bracket game against the survivor of todayâ€™s contest between third-seeded La Salle and seventh-seeded Chariho.
For the Clippers, who had won their last four games, this defeat was difficult to swallow, especially since they traded zeroes with the Skippers through the first three innings, and unlike N.K., made some loud outs along the way.
Cumberland ace pitcher Juliet Nelson was also at her best in the early going, setting down nine of the first 10 batters she faced, striking out five of them (including the side in order in the first), and allowing just one batted ball (a ground single up the middle by Kiara Oliver) to reach the outfield.
But then came the Skippersâ€™ half of the fourth.
Winning pitcher Rachel Kantor got things going by smacking the first pitch she saw from Nelson up the middle for a leadoff base hit.
After she stole second on a 2-2 pitch to the next batter, Heather Jackson, she bravely took off for third when Jackson socked a grounder to third baseman Madison Leite.
Leite gloved the grounder, but immediately looked over her left shoulder to see Kantor dash past her and slide into third. She then fired the ball to first, but her throw sailed over the head of first baseman Haley Bouley, allowing Kantor to score with ease and Jackson hustle to second.
Jackson soon took third on a passed ball that just got behind catcher Melinda Veliu, and she trotted home when Natalie Wirth grounded a sharp single to left.
The Clippers tried to answer back in the fifth, when with one gone, Bouley belted a long double over the head of left fielder Amy Augenstein.
But when the next batter, Emily Anderson, grounded out sharply to Wirth at shortstop, Bouley tried to advance to third, only to get cut down on a strong throw by first baseman Abby Haberle to third baseman Taylor Chatowsky.
Things went from bad to worse for the Clippers in the bottom of that inning, when with one out, the Skippers, thanks to an infield single by Haberle and a bunt hit by Chatowsky, put runners on the corners with one out.
A sacrifice fly to center by Augenstein allowed Haberle to tag up and score with ease, and back-to-back singles to center by Kantor and Jackson drove in two more runs.
â€śEarly on, we played with a lot of energy,â€ť offered Cumberland coach Marty Crowley. â€śNellie pitched well and we made some good plays. But we came a little unraveled, and we didnâ€™t do the little things well. We didnâ€™t run the bases particularly well, we didnâ€™t make plays when we had to, and we gave extra bases.â€ť
Down, but not out, the Clippers struck back in the sixth, as an infield miscue on a grounder by Veliu and a pinch-hit single to center by Rachel Gillardi was followed by a triple by Nelson that she lined by the dive of Augenstein in left field and to the fence. That two-run hit produced the first runs yielded by the Skippers in seven games.
But Oliver, who relieved Kantor after she worked four full innings, stranded Nelson on third by striking out the next two batters she faced.
The Skippers eventually plated their final run in the bottom of the inning on a sacrifice fly to right by Oliver that drove in Emma Simmons. She led off the frame with a triple hammered deep into the gap in left-center and scored on a close play at the plate.
The Clippers were outhit by N.K., 10-5, and only one of their hits came off Kantor, who retired 12 of the 13 batters she faced. Four of the Clippersâ€™ hits went for extra bases, and in addition to Nelsonâ€™s triple and Bouleyâ€™s double, Sam Jalbert and Leite also collected doubles.
â€śWe battled all the way to the end,â€ť said Crowley. â€śBut itâ€™s on to tomorrow. This was a learning experience for our club, and weâ€™re just going to move on and get ready for our next game.â€ť
Follow Eric Benevides on Twitter @EricBen24