WESTBROOK—When this baseball season began, the Westbrook Blue Blazes were the consensus favorite to finally wrestle the Western Class A regional title from the steely, three-year grip of the Deering Rams.
Bolstered by the return of the league’s top pitcher in lefthander Scott Heath, and with the anticipated emergence on the hill of righthander Sean Murphy, the Blue Blazes were expected to recapture some of the magic that led this particular nucleus of juniors all the way to Williamsport for the 2005 Little League World Series.
It’s just that Westbrook coach Mike Rutherford’s third season didn’t quite start out the way popular vote had been leaning. The Blues Blazes stumbled out of the gates dropping two of their first three games, and soon the talk of parity had swept its way across the league with “on any given day” as the central theme. But in the meantime, Westbrook busied itself with an eight-game win streak and very quietly has begun to gain separation from the pack as the season takes shape. Even so, the Blue Blazes have known all along the path to the championship, at least for them, had to go through Deering at some point for this team to fully emerge as the best in the west.
Thursday afternoon, Westbrook rode the arm of Heath and some power from a new source to solve the Deering mystery and take another step forward on a mission to unseat the Rams on the big stage. In a tense, playoff-like atmosphere, Heath frustrated the Deering lineup with three quality pitches he can locate to both sides of the plate and slumping junior catcher Tom Lemay broke open a tie game with a two-out, two-run home run to left to give Westbrook the lead at 7-5. Lemay’s shot stung the Rams extra good, coming directly after they had scored three times in the top of the third to crawl even on the strength of freshman John Miranda’s two-run double.
Back in control of the game, the Blue Blazes left the rest up to Heath as he grinded his way into the later innings against a well-disciplined Deering lineup. The lefthander refused to give in, battling the Rams deep into the count over seven intelligent innings of work to help Westbrook pull away for a 9-6 victory in front of a taut contingent of fans from both teams lining the fences at Olmsted Field.
“This was a huge win we needed to get that monkey off our backs and finally beat Deering,” said Rutherford. “Actually it was a gorilla. They beat us by a run in some big games the last couple of years, the league finals last year and then 3-2 in the regional championship two years ago. They tied things up but we came up with some big hits when we needed them.”
With the win, the Blue Blazes improved to 9-2 on the season. Deering dropped to 8-3, leaving Westbrook alone in the two-loss category as the regular season rounds third and heads for the homestretch.
Things started out just fine for the Rams when they scored a pair of runs in the first highlighted by junior Nick Colucci’s RBI double for a 2-0 lead that wouldn’t last very long. Westbrook got one back in the first and exploded for four runs in the home half of the second to take a 5-2 lead.
Senior Jake Nichols, a righthander, just had one of those days on the hill for the Rams, best displayed in the Blue Blazes four-run outburst in the second. Westbrook strung together four straight hits to begin the fourth, watched the same player make the first out and the last out of the inning at home plate, and still came away with a three-run lead after two complete.
Murphy led off the inning with a double to deep right, but was gunned down at the plate by Deering junior Sam Balzano charging a hard-hit single back up the box to center. The Blue Blazes batted around in the inning, with Murphy ironically enough, bouncing to senior Travis Wade at first for the final out.
Westbrook’s dramatic inning at the plate would only serve to magnify Lemay’s two-run, two-out homer in the third after the Rams had battled back against Heath to tie the score on three hits and one bases loaded catcher interference call to get even at 5-5. The Deering catcher, freshman John Miranda, supplied the big blow, carving out a bases loaded, two-run double the opposite way in right to drive in Nichols from third and junior Devon Fitzgerald from second to tie the game.
“I was trying to go with the pitch in that situation,” Miranda said. “He threw me an outside fastball and I was able to take it the other way. It was tough loss. If a few plays went out way it could have been a different game, but we still feel we’ll be there in the end.”
The Rams first run in the third came in an unusual manner with the bases already loaded and two away for senior John Hardy. Heath had coughed up back-to-back, two-out singles to Nichols and Fitzgerald and walked junior Jamie Ross to fill the bases with Rams. Hardy would follow Ross with a harmless dribbler that spun foul but somehow didn’t sound right off the bat. The home plate umpire jumped out on the infield grass and motioned that Lemay’s mitt had interfered with Hardy’s swing and Nichols was free to jog home with the Rams third run. Of equal importance, Hardy was awarded first base to re-load the bases and get Miranda to the plate.
“Heath was tough out there on us tonight,” said Ross. “He works both sides of the plate well and has command of three pitches. We hit the ball, but he did a good job of spreading them out. We couldn’t string anything together to get rolling. When we get down, we need to find a way to keep the intensity up and pull through.”
The flash of resiliency Deering showed to tie the score 5-5 at the time seemed like it could be that moment this team had been searching for to get out from the shadow of the three-peat Rams of a season ago. It really seemed like it when Nichols returned to the mound and quickly set down the first two Westbrook batters and appeared to be settling down.
But the next hitter, junior Jake Gardiner, drew a walk that would soon turn into a trot as he circled the bases with Lemay after the latter went deep to put the Blue Blazes back on top, 7-5. Lemay, struggling at the plate all season to date, was scheduled to be the designated hitter on the first of two cards Rutherford had penciled in before the game. But playing a hunch and a little bit of the numbers game as well, Rutherford tore up his first card and inserted Lemay into the middle of the Westbrook order. Lemay was kind enough to oblige with his first homer that no doubt was tough to swallow for Deering after battling back to pull even and being just one out away from returning to the bat rack.
After stranding a base runner in the top of the fourth, the Rams still trailed by a pair when Nichols went back out for the bottom of the half of the inning. In a replica of the Blue Blazes last at-bat, Nichols got a ground ball and retired Heath for the second out before running into more trouble. Junior Zach Collett drew a walk, and Murphy, though still on the shelf when it comes to pitching with a sore shoulder, dug in on the left side and crushed his second double of the game to the fence in right to score Collett and put Westbrook ahead 8-5. Trying to stretch his double into a triple, Murphy was gunned down at third on the relay from Deering junior Matt Bevilacqua for the final out of the fourth. Murphy’s second such adventure on the bases that helped Deering stay within striking distance.
The Blue Blazes would score their ninth and final time in the bottom of the fifth to stretch the lead to four with only six outs left to put a big win in the books. Nichols was done after four complete and the Rams sent Fitzgerald to the mound with availability an issue for the Deering staff. Fitzgerald gave up two singles and walked two batters, the second with the bases loaded to force in Westbrook shortstop Zach Gardiner from third.
With one down and the bases still loaded, the Rams lifted Fitzgerald in favor of sophomore lefthander Nick DiBiase. The sense of urgency the Blue Blazes felt to finally beat the Rams was evident, as well as costly, when Rutherford decided to give up an out and asked freshman Sam Stauble to drop down a bunt on the suicide-squeeze play. Stauble squared to do the job but couldn’t get his bat above the baseball and popped directly back to DiBiase at the foot of the mound. Dibiase went to Nichols, now at third, to force the runner charging toward the plate for an inning-ending double play. With Deering hanging on by a thread, already down four runs in a one out, bases loaded situation, Rutherford’s playoff-type gamble in a game he felt they needed to win simply didn’t work out for Westbrook, now leading 9-5 after the fifth.
The Rams got one back in the top of the sixth when Miranda came around to score after reaching on a high-chopper to third to lead off the inning. Bevilacqua followed with a walk, but was erased at second on a fielder’s choice groundball to the right side by Deering junior Sam Balzano. Collucci lined hard to center for the second out and with runners on the corners the Blue Blazes looked to be out of the inning when Wade grounded in the direction of Zach Gardiner at short, but Gardiner let the ball get too deep on him and by the time he fielded the ball and realized Collett wasn’t covering second for the force, there was no chance to go across the diamond and get Wade. The mental error allowed Miranda to score and cost Heath an earned run as the Rams pulled within three-runs at 9-6.
“We didn’t expect there would be this many runs but it was pretty ugly out for both sides,” said Deering coach Mike Coutts. “I kept thinking Jake (Nichols) would settle down and find his groove. He looked like he might when he got the two outs, but the home run was s big play in the game. That’s the game of baseball. How we bounce back from this is more important to me. It was a big game for us, but we still have some big games left.”
After inheriting Fitzgerald’s jam in the fifth, DiBiase stayed on for the remainder and recorded seven outs without allowing a run to close out the game for Deering, including a 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth he ended by catching Murphy staring at a called third strike.
But Heath slammed the door in the seventh with a strikeout and a pair of groundballs to preserve the 9-6 statement win. At 9-2, the Blue Blazes have re-emerged as the clear-cut favorite to win the West.
The Rams, still searching for an identity and far more consistency in all phases of the game, will host South Portland Saturday at Hadlock Field in a game that’s been moved to 7 p.m. The outcome will go a long way in sorting out the top of the standings as both teams try to stay even with Bonny Eagle in the three-loss column.
For Westbrook, the rest of the way has several potential stumbling blocks lurking after they welcome Windham Saturday. The Blue Blazes hit the road for three straight beginning with games at Cheverus and South Portland. They close out the season at home with Portland in a rematch of the season opener the Bulldogs stole at Hadlock in extra innings to hand Heath his only loss of the season.