STANDISH — One inning was all that separated the powerhouse Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth baseball teams this spring.
Locked in a scoreless tie through the top of the sixth inning in a tense duel of senior aces, second-seed Yarmouth’s righthander Nick Whittaker had matched top-ranked Cape Elizabeth’s senior lefty Conor Moloney zero-for-zero with a resilient outing on the hill and a pair of wicked breaking balls he used to pile up nine strikeouts.
After Whittaker set down the side in order in the bottom of fourth, then again, with all three by way of the K in the fifth, everything changed in the sixth.
Sam St. Germain led off the sixth with a sharp single into right for the Capers, then, suddenly, Whittaker’s curveball that had darted sharply out on the black all game betrayed him and he plunked the next batter to put runners on first and second. With the strike zone seemingly shrinking at not-so great of a time, Whittaker issued his first walk of the game to load the bases for Cape Elizabeth’s cleanup batter, senior Will Pierce.
With the suicide-squeeze on, Pierce offered at the first pitch to fall behind 0-1, but Whittaker missed on four straight and lost him to walk in the game’s first run. Cape Elizabeth scratched out one more run on a fielder’s choice that deflected off of Whittaker’s glove and with first base open Yarmouth coach Marc Halsted elected to intentionally walk Moloney, allowing his infield to play back at double-play depth and set up a force at any base.
Trailing 2-0 in a season that saw Yarmouth come back and steal more than a few wins in the late innings, the Clippers watched their hopes fade away along with the Western B regional championship, when junior Kyle Danielson delivered a bases-clearing, three-run triple on the line to the gap in left-center.
“That was probably the biggest hit I’ve ever had,” Danielson said. “Definitely my biggest of the season. Whittaker’s a great pitcher. I had just missed the last couple of times. He left one up and I took advantage.”
“Both teams had opportunities,” said Cape Elizabeth coach Chris Hayward. “Good pitching and defense squashed that for both teams. I was much more comfortable being up 5-0 than being 2-0. Connor was one pitch away from going the whole season without an earned run.”
Whittaker did come back and strike out the next two batters and Yarmouth (17-2) got a run back on a consecutive two-out hits, senior Jeff Kuklewicz singled and scored on an RBI triple off the bat of senior Travis Merrill to the deepest part of the ballpark in straightaway center for the 5-1 final score.
But Moloney proved he had enough to finish the job and outlast Whittaker, getting Yarmouth junior shortstop Luke Pierce in on the handle for a second time for a fly ball to right to cement the second regional title for Cape Elizabeth (18-1) since 2008.
In a tidy, 93-pitch effort, Moloney scattered seven hits, one in each inning from the top of the second on through the sixth and two in the seventh, struck out two, walked two, and earned the complete-game win. Incredibly enough, Merrill’s RBI triple that plated Kuklewicz with two outs in the top of the seventh was the first earned run of the season for the left-handed location specialist.
“I knew this wasn’t going to be easy coming in here,” said Moloney. “I’ve said over and over, Yarmouth is the best hitting team I’ve faced all season. They have bats up and down the lineup. This was not strongest performance. I would say I pitched OK. I have to give all the credit to my teammates. The way they played defense tonight kept the game tied up. Whittaker is a great pitcher. We were both out there just trying to hold each other off. I guess I outlasted him.”
The loss brings an end to one of the best seasons of Yarmouth baseball (easily the Clippers best in Class B) and sure did come at an interesting point in time. Just about 24 hours before the regional title game, Halsted had welcomed his first child into the world, a son, with the Clippers preparing to face off with a Cape Elizabeth team they split with during the season. With Halsted no doubt a little bleary-eyed, his experienced team was quite obviously capable of keeping its focus, especially Whittaker, who was superb throughout on the mound.
The hard-throwing righthander had dominated hitters with his fastball whenever he needed big outs all season, but seemed to favor a sharp curve and cutter with great action in this game. Whittaker closed out his career on the bump for Yarmouth with a five-hitter, but couldn’t survive one shaky inning.
“Baseball-wise, we hit the ball hard, but we hit it right at guys,” Halsted said. “We hit a couple of line drives with a runner on third to end the fifth and the sixth. We’re proud of our guys. They never stopped competing. Both teams played hard and (Cape) won.
“In life, if one little boy could get quality from each of the 19 players we have, I’d be a proud dad. We have 19 great kids on this team.”
Yarmouth did have more than one chance to put some runs up and take the lead, but Moloney found a way to space out all seven hits he allowed one inning at a time until Kuklewicz and Merrill put together consecutive knocks in the seventh. The Clippers hit the ball hard all game, particularly the top five spots in the lineup that produced all seven hits. Merrill blistered a double that came perhaps two-feet away from leaving the yard, thumping off the 335 marker in left-center just to the left off scoreboard in the fifth.
“Coach just had a baby yesterday,” said Pierce. “It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for all of us. We had a great group of seniors this year. They built this program. I get to come back next year, but those guys don’t. We would have liked to get this one for them, but it was a heck of a season for us.”
Winning has a reputation for curing most of what ails teams on the other side, but that was never the case for a Yarmouth team that just seemed to give off a good vibe as they went about putting together a 17-win season. The Clippers made the game fun to be around, brandishing an all out attacking-style that started at the top and ended with a dynamic lineup with the knowledge, skill and the freedom to play the game at a high level, and do it the way they wanted.
Next season, Yarmouth should be right back in the top of the standings when Pierce, Sullivan, Campbell Haley, Dustin McCrossin and catcher Nick Proscia return as seniors, but there is no question the Clippers will miss the presence of Whittaker, Kuklewicz, Merrill and Reed Womack.
One win left
Saturday, at 11 a.m., at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor, Cape Elizabeth battles Waterville (18-1) for the Class B state championship.
The Capers have no history with the Purple Panthers as the seek their 11th Class B crown and first since 2004.
“We’ve got two days to get better,” Hayward said. “Waterville is a good team. We’ve never seen them play, but have heard they have some great players. They’re 18-1 for a reason.”