By Eric Carson
PORTLAND— If indeed they do exist, the baseball gods were smiling down on our fair city on Thursday night. With late afternoon temperatures reaching as high as 90 degrees, and still hovering comfortably in the mid-80’s nearing first pitch, the sun readied to leave a day that felt much more like July than it did late-May. The humidity took a hike, too, and the conditions were as close to perfect as they get for baseball in our little corner of America.
The largest crowd of the season, suddenly in shorts and primed for that first burn of summer, descended on Hadlock Field for perhaps the finest rivalry game in all of Maine high school baseball. For so many reasons, there just seems to be a little something extra in the air when the Portland Bulldogs and the Deering Rams get together at the ballpark for another spirited game.
And on this delightful evening, the Bulldogs trotted out their best pitcher in senior Brian Furey, a hard-throwing righthander, with a well-deserved reputation as one of the league’s premier aces.
The Rams, the new guard in this ancient struggle, countered with senior left-hander Regan Flaherty, still feared more for his bat than his stuff despite winning the state championship game for the Rams his sophomore season, starting the state game they eventually won his junior season, and beginning this year with four consecutive wins.
What more could one ask for?: perfect weather, the top baseball venue in the state, and a pitching matchup of the finest order set to take place between Portland High, the league’s all-time leader in wins, and a Deering program in the midst of a dynastic decade that’s already produced seven Class A state titles.
Heck, even the wind felt like cooperating, pushing the stars-and-stripes out to dead center with just enough force to grab the attention of every power hitter penciled in the lineup.
True to form, the old-time rivals were deadlocked at 6-6 after four complete innings, but in the end, the strength of the Deering machine fought its way to the surface, pounding out 18 hits and scoring at least one run in every inning but the second to remain unbeaten on the season at 11-0 with a 14-6 victory.
Deering held leads of 2-0 after the first inning and 6-3 after the visitors’ half of the fourth, but Portland rallied on a bases-loaded, three-run triple by senior Bobby Nelson to tie the score at 6-6 after four complete.
The Rams’ answered back with a pair of runs in their next at-bat to take an 8-6 lead on a big double by junior Jake Nichols, then tacked on two runs in the top of the sixth and four more in the seventh to put the game out of reach.
“One of the things this team does well is score runs with two outs,” said Deering first-year coach Mike Coutts. “That was huge tonight. And every time they scored, we came back and answered. The guys in the bottom of the order came out and did their jobs. They hit the ball hard today. Games like this are good for us. I want us to be in close games.”
Flaherty (5-0), heading to Vanderbilt University on a full baseball scholarship next season, struggled with his command early and coughed up a pair of runs in the bottom half of the first inning, one more in the third and three in the fourth, before settling down and hanging three consecutive donuts to close out the game and earn the win.
The Bulldogs certainly made Flaherty work. The lefty threw a season-high 107 pitches, allowed six runs, five of them earned, on 10 hits, while walking one and hitting another over six complete innings of work. In an odd twist of fate, Flaherty actually earned his own unearned run, throwing wildly to first on a pick-off attempt with a runner on third base in the Bulldogs’ one-run bottom of the third.
“(Flaherty) was good tonight,” said senior Taylor Candage, the pitcher turned sometimes catcher. “Once he started to get his changeup down and throw his curve for strikes he was fine. He got tough late. He manned up and started hitting his spots consistently. On offense, we put the ball in play and kept the pressure on. We wore them down late that way. That’s what happens when you put the ball in play.”
Deering senior Matt Powers, a three-year starter at shortstop, pitched the seventh inning, allowing a lead-off single to Nelson (his fourth hit of the game), before retiring the side on strikes to end the 2-hour, 30-minute hit parade.
For the Bulldogs, Furey had a tough go against the league’s most dangerous offense, surrendering eight runs on 12 hits and two walks, before exiting with two outs in the top of the fourth inning down 8-6. With a live fastball and one of the slowest, most tempting breaking pitches of all time, Furey has compiled his share of strikeouts and wins, but facing a Rams’ team that hits from top to bottom, he never did seem to find his groove and paid for it.
Remarkably, seven different Deering starters recorded multi-hit games, and every hitter on the card chipped in at least one knock. Senior newcomer Luke Hammond, a left-handed transfer from Telstar Regional, led the charge with a pair of triples on his way to a three-hit game. Senior Marc Ouimet, another left-handed hitter and perhaps the most underrated player in recent memory, chimed in with three hits and three RBI, including a pair of the Rams’ five that came with two outs. Ouimet would be the centerpiece of just about every other lineup in the league, but hides out in the sixth slot for Deering.
The bottom third of the Deering order: Hammond, sophomore second basemen Nick Colucci and Nichols, the third baseman, combined for seven hits and three RBI, scoring four times along the way. Nichols broke a 6-6 tie with his two-out, two-run double in the top of the fourth that ended Furey’s day on the hill.
“It was big that the bottom of the order came out and hit today,” said Nichols. “We need every spot in the lineup to produce. We have a great top of the order, so it’s important that we knock them in. He threw me a curveball. It was a 3-1 count and I noticed he had been throwing his curve in odd counts. I waited back and went with the pitch.”
At the top of the order, Powers, as usual, had a huge impact on the game, going 2-for-3 with a double, scoring four times and swiping four bases. Flaherty managed a pair of hits and drove in a run, and Candage, the cleanup hitter, hammered an RBI double to the fence in center in the top of the first inning, and later hit a blooper over the shortstop’s head with Powers at third base for his second RBI.
Deering senior Jack Heary returned to centerfield for the first time this season (his action had been limited due to a sore throwing shoulder) and smoked a two-run triple in the top of the third inning for a 4-2 Deering lead.
Candage and Heary have both signed up to play baseball together with the University of New Haven in the NE-10 conference for next season.
Surprisingly, sophomore leadoff hitter Sam Balzano, red hot of late, had a quiet game, singling in the fourth and walking on four-straight pitches in the seventh. The league leader in runs scored crossed the plate only once, on a bizarre series of throwing errors by Portland in the final inning. A left-handed hitter with plus-plus speed, Balzano’s game has been the talk of the league so far this season, and when the Rams score 14 runs the natural conclusion is that he must have had a day. But that’s baseball.
The Portland offense was hardly stagnant, banging out 10 hits against the proven Flaherty and 11 for the game, but upon further review, only four players had hits and they all came from the top five slots in the batting order. Furey, the leadoff hitter, had a two-hit day and knocked in a run in the bottom of the first when he somehow fisted a double off the boards in deep right field. Senior Campbell Rico, the No. 2-hitter, had a very good night with three singles and an RBI. Senior leftfielder Ed Bogdanovich had a pair of hits and scored a run, and Nelson led all Portland players with four hits, including his bases clearing, three-run double that tied the game after four innings. Without getting any help from the bottom third of the order, the Bulldogs just didn’t have enough to keep up with the Rams.
“It was a good game there for the first five innings or so,” said Portland coach Mike McCullum. “They hit and we hit, but Flaherty got tough out there when he needed to. The difference was when we came back and tied the game, we needed to come out and shut them down in the next inning. It didn’t happen.
“(Furey) pitched well tonight. He was having trouble keeping his changeup down and that can be dangerous for him. You have to keep the ball down against Deering. They swing the bats and they swing them well. But overall I’m happy with the way he pitched.”
The loss drops Portland to 6-5 on the season with five games left against some pretty heavy competition. The Bulldogs return to action at home Saturday at 6 p.m. against Thornton Academy. They host Cheverus on Tuesday and then welcome South Portland on Thursday. Both games are scheduled for 7 p.m. The Bulldogs finish the season with two road games: one against a tough Westbrook team and their former coach, Mike Rutherford, and end the season at Sanford.
Deering has a considerably easier time of it, at least on paper, with one tough game left against a surprising Bonny Eagle team next Saturday at 1 p.m. The Rams’ immediate future includes this Saturday’s game at Biddeford. Deering welcomes a pair of York County teams to Hadlock on Tuesday and Thursday, with 4 p.m. games scheduled with Sanford and Marshwood.