SOUTH PORTLAND—Not much separated the perennial powerhouse Deering Rams and host South Portland Red Riots in the teams’ mutual baseball opener on a brisk, but pleasant Friday afternoon at Wainwright Field.
When all was said and done, the Rams had just enough to win, 4-3, thanks to strong pitching from senior Sam Balzano and junior Nick DiBiase, as well as timely hitting.
Deering went ahead to stay in the third inning and held off the Red Riots from there as the Rams downed their rival for the sixth time in a row.
“A win’s a win,”said Deering’s first-year coach Mark Sutton.
Deering has been a perennial championship contender and expects to play deep into June again this spring. Last year, the Rams had their 50-game win streak snapped in the opener, then reached the Western Class A semifinals before losing to Westbrook. With a senior-laden roster, Deering feels some urgency in 2011.
South Portland, meanwhile, also has a new coach, Mike Owens, and hopes to contend. The Red Riots were a quarterfinalist in 2010 and were also ousted by Westbrook.
Last year, Deering beat South Portland, 4-3, at home.
Friday, the Rams enjoyed a win by the same score, but it was a fight to the finish.
In the first two innings, Balzano and Red Riots senior pitcher Andrew Richards held the opposition at bay. Richards set down Deering’s first six hitters, while Balzano allowed a base runner in each of the first two innings (a two-out walk to senior shortstop Paul Reny in the first and an infield single by senior Dillon Leary in the second).
In the top of the third, the bottom of the Rams’ order gave them the lead for good.
Junior first baseman Jamie Gullbrand got things started with a single to center. Senior rightfielder Anthony Balzano followed with a sharp double down the third base line (just past the dive of South Portland senior third baseman Evan Indorf). A sacrifice fly to right from senior centerfielder John Hardy scored the first run and an infield single from Sam Balzano scored Anthony Balzano to make it 2-0.
“From the dugout we were all watching and we all saw (Richards’) slider and got his timing,” said Gullbrand. “When we got there, we were ready to go and teed off. We did the job.”
“Everybody swings the bat in the lineup,” said Sam Balzano. “Gullbrand stepped up huge. Anthony had a big double.”
The Red Riots got a run back in the bottom half as centerfielder Nick Whitten reachd on an infield single with one out, stole second and went to third when senior catcher John Miranda’s throw was wild. With two outs, an error by senior shortstop Nick Colucci allowed Whitten to score to cut the deficit to 2-1.
Deering would bounce right back, however, and restore the two-run bulge.
With one out, DiBiase singled to left. One out later, Gullbrand drove him home with a double down the leftfield line and it was 3-1 Rams.
It stayed that way until the bottom of the fifth. There, South Portland junior second baseman Shawn Shannon led off with a double and with two down, rightfielder Will Bushey launched a double to left-center to make it a 3-2 game.
Again, the Rams answered.
In the top of the sixth, on the first pitch of the inning, Colucci tripled to left-center. Richards bounced back and got DiBiase to bounce out to Indorf, but with senior third baseman Devon Fitzgerald at the plate, Richards threw a pitch high and outside that sophomore catcher Adam Helmke couldn’t reach and when the ball got away to the backstop, Colucci raced home with what proved to be the decisive run of the contest.
South Portland kept the pressure on in the bottom of the sixth as senior first baseman Zach Horton singled, one out later, senior designated hitter Connor Vincent singled and Leary followed with a single to left that scored Horton and chased Sam Balzano.
DiBiase came in and showed why he’s a natural for the closer’s role, getting Shannon to fly out to right and Helmke to ground out to Colucci to keep it a 4-3 game.
After Deering went in order in the top of the seventh, the Red Riots had one final chance to beat the Rams for the first time since April 25, 2006, but Whitten grounded out to second, Bushey popped out to first and after Reny drew a walk, Horton hit into a shortstop-to-second force play and the Rams held on for the 4-3 victory.
“It was a good win for us,” Gullbrand said.
Balzano got the win, hurling 5.1 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits with a walk, a wild pitch and four strikeouts.
“If coach needs me to throw, I’ll throw strikes,” Balzano said. “My fastball worked for me. The first couple innings, my off speed pitches weren’t going over the plate. Later in the game, my curve and changeup got over the plate and that helped me out.”
DiBiase, who, according to Sutton, will start Tuesday, was nearly perfect in relief, allowing just the one walk, but no hits in 1.2 innings.
“Sam was absolutely amazing,” said Gullbrand. “Nick DiBiase definitely deserves that closer spot.”
Offensively, the Rams had six hits, including doubles from Anthony Balzano and Gullbrand and a triple from Colucci. Gullbrand was the lone batter with multiple hits (two). Sam Balzano, Gullbrand and Hardy had RBIs. Anthony Balzano, Colucci, DiBiase and Gullbrand had the runs. Sam Balzano stole a base.
For South Portland, Richards went seven innings, surrendering four runs on six hits. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out five, while hitting one batter and throwing the fateful wild pitch.
“Andrew goes out and hits spots and stays down in the zone and keeps teams off-balance enough where they can’t square him up,” said Owens. “He battled the first time out all year and didn’t make too many mistakes at all. His effort was phenomenal.”
“Their pitcher did a great job,” Sutton said. “He kept our guys just enough off-balance that we couldn’t square off on him.”
The Red Riots’ lone multiple hitter was Leary, who had a pair. Horton, Shannon and Whitten scored the runs. Bushy and Shannon both doubled, while Bushey and Leary drove in runs. Whitten also had a steal.
“(Deering’s) a good team,” said Owens. “We just couldn’t string together that big inning, get hits back-to-back. Most of that is credit to their pitchers, keeping us off-balance. Against a good team, you have to have multiple run innings. We got out of our approach a little bit. There are no moral victories. We have learn from it and build from it.”
The 0-1 Red Riots are at Massabesic Tuesday, then return home to greet Biddeford Thursday and Kennebunk Saturday.
This team will only get better.
“It’s hard to say we’re young grade-wise, but we’re very inexperienced,” said Owens. “We have a lot of new guys stepping in. We’ve scrimmaged and practiced. You don’t know until you get out here how we’ll react. I was happy with how we battled There’s no quit in the kids. That’s all you can ask. Our motto is to get better every day. I think we’re on our way.”
The 1-0 Rams go to defending regional champion Biddeford Tuesday, open their home schedule Thursday at Hadlock Field versus Kennebunk and host Bonny Eagle Saturday.
“I think we’ll be alright when we get healthy,” Balzano said. “We don’t think about it. We have a lot of seniors and want to win it. We’ll take one game at a time.”
“I think we definitely have a shot at states,” Gullbrand added. “We’ll go far this year.”
D – 002 101 0- 4 6 2
SP – 001 011 0- 3 7 0
S. Balzano, DiBiase (5) and Miranda; Richards and Helmke
WP- S. Balzano (1-0)
LP- Richards (0-1)
Doubles- A. Balzano, Gullbrand; Bushey, Shannon
Repeat hitters- Deering, Gullbrand; SP, Leary
Errors- Deering, Colucci, Miranda
RBI- Deering, S. Balzano, Gullbrand, Hardy; SP, Bushey, Leary
SB- Deering, S. Balzano; SP, Whitten