GRAY — Gray-New Gloucester lived and died by the squeeze play Friday afternoon.

Fortunately for the Patriots, with the game up for grabs in the bottom of the ninth inning, having runners at first and second base with one out forced coach Brad Smith to let freshman designated hitter Nick McCann swing the bat.

McCann slapped a hot grounder to second base, where it caromed off the Poland fielder’s glove and into shallow right field. John Henry Villanueva rounded third and raced home with the winning run in a 5-4 season-opening verdict in the Shaker Hill baseball rivalry.

“They kind of stole my thunder, because I was ready to tell them how many opportunities we squandered away, but we hung tough,” Smith said.

Zach Mann’s floater to right field prior to McCann’s walk-off grounder was the Patriots’ fourth hit of the afternoon. Poland cracked a dozen, all singles.

Gray-New Gloucester scored four runs without the benefit of a hit in the third inning thanks to four walks and two perfectly executed bunts. The Knights shut down a pair of would-be game-winning runs when the Patriots employed the same small-ball tactic in the seventh.

“We defended it well late. You can’t defend walks. We gave them baserunners,” Poland coach Mike Connor said. “With the exception of that one inning, we threw strikes, and for the most part we made the plays. We just gave them too much early.”

Poland could squawk about its own squanders, as well. The Knights cracked multiple hits in each of the first five innings against Patriots’ ace Villanueva, but they stranded nine runners in that sequence and left 11 on base, in all.

Caleb Hodgkin’s RBI single made it 1-0 in the first before the Patriots squirmed out of trouble with a Mann to Nathaniel Brindley to Nick Chandler double play. Belanger pushed it to 2-0 in the second on a successful squeeze after a single by Quinn Callahan and Gray-New Gloucester’s third of five errors.

It was the mixed-bag start that might have been expected with two seniors on each roster.

“You look at how many times they had base runners, and the less than stellar defense, but when we had to come up with a stop, we came up with a stop,” Smith said. “All around, I couldn’t be happier for these guys. They aren’t on anybody’s list of teams to watch. I don’t have anyone who’s considered a player to watch, and that’s fine with me.”

Villanueva, Mann and McCann drew consecutive walks against Poland starter Noah Salmons to ignite the third. Salmons then gave way to Hodgkin, who coaxed a pop out prior to the first successful squeeze by Jake Winchester.

Josiah Rottari drew a bases-loaded walk to tie it. Although Poland took advantage of its only available play on Evan Plummer’s bunt and retired him at first, McCann and Winchester both hustled home for a 4-2 lead.

“We even squeeze with two outs. I’ve done it with other teams,” Smith said. “We work on it every single day, and we work on it because we know a lot of schools don’t defend it very well. It’s a good thing it worked, because I don’t think we put one ball in the outfield the whole game.”

Poland scratched out single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to pull even.

Evan Gallagher reached on an error, stole second and third and scored on a Wiseman single. Austin Love led the fifth with a single and scored the equalizer on Salmons’ two-strike line drive through the box.

Villaneuva struck out the side in the seventh to strand Gawain Tibbetts at second before giving way to Rottari, who retired all six Knights he faced to earn the win.

Wiseman, Hodgkin, Love and Callahan each delivered two hits for Poland.

“We hit early. We didn’t hit late,” Connor said. “All of a sudden we were swinging right through it and popping it up instead of hitting the line drives we were hitting the first four innings or so, and that was the difference.”

Ben Bernier took over on the hill in the bottom of the fifth and worked the duration for Poland. He sat down six consecutive batters before the jam in the seventh. Wiseman threw out Plummer at third after a failed squeeze to end the eighth.

Villanueva reached on a one-out error to fuel the game-ending ruckus.

“They’re a great team, well-coached, and the kids know each other well, so it’s as good as it gets,” Smith said. “You go nine innings, and it could have been a flip of the coin.”

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