GORHAM—The storied Deering baseball team was on the verge of a comeback for the ages Friday afternoon, but in the end, the unheralded Hawks of Marshwood made a big-time statement in a Western Class A quarterfinal round baseball game played at the University of Southern Maine.
In a makeup of Thursday’s contest, which was wiped out in the third inning thanks to dangerous weather, the Hawks staggered the Rams with a four-run first inning, stretched their lead to 7-1 in the fifth and appeared home-free up, 7-2, with two down and no one on in the bottom of the seventh, but the proud Deering program rose off the deck, producing three straight singles and a walk and after a throwing error made it a two-run game and put the tying run at second, the bottom was about to fall out for Marshwood.
Luckily for the Hawks, however, they boast an us-against-the-world mentality and finally got to send junior ace Luke Fernandes back to the mound. Fernandes, in relief of senior Ben Claus, who dazzled for 6.2 innings, fanned Rams’ senior catcher John Miranda looking to end the 7-5 contest.
Third-ranked Deering finished 13-4 by virtue of its first quarterfinal round loss since 1998. Marshwood, the No. 6 seed, which improved to 12-5, moves on to meet No. 2 Westbrook (15-2), the preseason favorite, Saturday in the semifinals.
“Marshwood did a good job executing.,” said Rams’ first-year coach Mark Sutton. “They got hits when they needed to. They’re competitors. They don’t think they’re going to lose.”
This has been the most balanced Western Class A season in recent memory and the tournament began with virtually every team in the field feeling it could win three times to reach the state game.
Deering, a semifinalist a year ago, welcomed Sutton as coach this year and the Rams played very well most of the spring.
Deering won its opener, 4-3, at South Portland, then lost by the same score at Biddeford. The Rams followed that by rattling off eight consecutive victories, highlighted by bludgeonings of visiting Sanford (18-0), host Noble (22-5), visiting Portland (11-0) and host Thornton Academy (12-0). On May 21, the win streak ended with a 6-0 home loss to Westbrook. After victories at Gorham and Scarborough, Deering was pounded at Cheverus, it won its final two, over visiting Marshwood and South Portland.
Marshwood started 4-0 as Fernandes threw a no-hitter versus Portland, but an arm injury sidelined him soon after. The Hawks remained competitive, however, beating South Portland and Biddeford en route to an 11-5 campaign.
Deering edged Marshwood in the penultimate game of the regular season, 3-2, at home, on May 28.
The teams had no prior playoff history unless you want to count Thursday’s game, which reached the top of the third inning before lightning and thunder postponed it to Friday.
In that one, the Hawks scored three unearned runs in the top of the first and the Rams answered with one unearned run in their half.
Friday, Marshwood again got the jump.
Sophomore centerfielder Alex McLean ripped a single off Deering senior starting pitcher Sam Balzano to left to get things started. Claus then drew a walk and Fernandes, then playing shortstop, pounded a shot to deep left-center. Junior centerfielder Nick DiBiase made a dive, but couldn’t reach the ball and McLean and Claus scored easily as Fernandes steamed into third with a triple.
“When Fernandes was up, I overrode the call from the catcher and I wanted (Sam) to throw a changeup,” Sutton said. “I take responsibility for that. To me, that changed the game. You should probably throw him a difficult pitch like a slider, something a little more difficult.”
After Balzano caught junior second baseman Troy Pappas looking at a third strike, junior first baseman Jack Verrill singed to center to make it 3-0. Verrill moved up on a ground out and with two down, junior second baseman Tyler Pratt singled to right for a 4-0 lead.
“We’ve seen six or seven lefties this year,” said Marshwood coach Eric Fernandes. “I’m a lefty and I throw them BP. I get upset when they get fooled, but they got good swings. I switched to wooden bats three weeks ago and it’s forced them to really come through the baseball with their bodies. I’m seeing better swings.”
That uprising was huge for the underdogs.
“It was good to come out and score four runs,” Claus said. “It gave us breathing room and gave me more confidence on the mound.”
Deering (playing without senior standout Jamie Ross, who was away taking classes at Sacred Heart University, where he’ll play football in the fall) answered in its half, with a little help from Marshwood.
After Balzano fanned, senior second baseman Matt Bevilacqua drew a walk. Senior shortstop Nick Colucci then bounced to short, but Fernandes threw the ball into rightfield, putting runners at the corners. DiBiase then flew to left and Bevilacqua raced home to cut the deficit to 4-1.
The Hawks threatened again in the top of the second when Claus walked with two outs and stole second, but Fernandes’ line drive to right was run down by sophomore Jared Bell to keep it a three-run game.
In the bottom half, senior designated hitter Devon Fitzgerald blistered an infield single off Claus’ foot with one out. Senior third baseman John Hannigan then grounded a ball appeared bound for centerfield, but Fernandes made a nice scoop and tossed to junior Troy Pappas at second, who recorded the putout with his bare hand. Senior leftfielder John Hardy then grounded to short to end the threat.
In the top of the third, Pappas led off by beating out a dribbler to third. Verrill flew to right, but Pappas stole second on the first pitch to sophomore catcher Matt Brenner. Balzano battled back and fanned Brenner, then got Pratt to line softly to second.
Deering appeared to get a break with two down in the bottom half, when Colucci’s ground ball was misplayed by junior third baseman Ken Kuzman and Colucci reached second, but DiBiase popped harmlessly to center and the score remained 4-1.
In the top of the fourth, Kuzman was throw out trying to bunt, but sophomore leftfielder Robert Jones got a rally going with a single to right. McLean followed with a line drive that Bevilacqua leapt for, but was only able to deflect with the tip of his glove as the hit went into center, putting runners at first and second. After Claus sacrificed the runners, Fernandes was intentionally walked, leaving it up to Pappas.
Then, in an pivotal at-bat, on a 2-1 pitch, Balzano got Pappas to hit a liner to Colucci’s right. Colucci dove and caught the ball on the fly, keeping the Rams alive.
Miranda led off the bottom half with a pop foul down the leftfield line that Kuzman caught on the run. Bell grounded to short, but Fitzgerald was hit by a pitch. Junior Jamie Gullbrand pinch-hit for Hannigan and on the first pitch, lined to right.
In the top of the fifth, the Hawks got some additional breathing room.
Brenner singled with one down. Pratt followed with a walk and senior Matt Robida pinch-hit for Kuzman and drew a walk on a full count pitch to load the bases. Kuzman went back into the game to run for Robida and Jones laid down a perfect suicide squeeze and beat it out.
“They hid that squeeze play well,” said Sutton.
McLean then seemingly broke it open with a single to left, scoring two runs to make it 7-1, chasing Balzano from the game.
Sophomore Dominic Esposito-Martin came on and got Claus to line to center where Balzano (who moved to that position) made the catch and doubled McLean off second to end the inning.
In the bottom half, Hardy got things started with a walk, but Balzano flew lazily to left and Bevilacqua popped to short center where Fernandes raced over and made the putout. Colucci then came through with a ringing double down the leftfield line and Hardy raced home to make it 7-2. Claus got out of the jam, however, as Brenner caught Colucci off second and the runner was thrown out trying to get to third.
Esposito-Martin got out of the top of the sixth with the first 1-2-3 frame. In the bottom half, Deering went in order.
Esposito-Martin closed his stellar relief effort by retiring the Hawks in order in the top of the seventh.
The Rams then made things very, very interesting in the bottom half.
Fitzgerald struck out swinging and senior pinch-hitter Anthony Balzano did the same to put Deering on the brink of defeat, but Hardy kept hope alive with a single to right-center. Sam Balzano followed with a single to center and that was it for Claus.
Enter Fernandes, who had been cleared to pitch in relief.
He would finally end it, but it took a few anxious moments.
Bevilacqua greeted Fernandes with a ringing single to center to drive in Hardy, cutting the deficit to 7-3. Colucci was then intentionally walked, setting up a force play at any base, but also bringing the tying run to the plate in the imposing form of DiBiase.
The game looked over when DiBiase grounded to short, where sophomore Max Mccomb had taken over during the pitching change. Mccoomb’s throw to first sailed high and Balzano and Bevilacqua touched home to make it a 7-5 game.
It that wasn’t bad enough, Colucci moved to third and DiBiase took second.
The tying run was in scoring position.
Fernandes would calmly end it, however, getting Miranda looking a high third strike. The Deering fans were up in arms, while those from Marshwood exulted.
Hawks 7 Rams 5.
“As a hitter in that situation, I wouldn’t expect a slider either,” Sutton said. “I’d look fastball. He’d been throwing all fastballs. He throws in the high 80s, why wouldn’t he challenge us. Everybody thinks maybe it was a ball, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. You can’t blame the umps. It’s a very disappointing ending.”
“I struck out the first two, then Hardy got the hit,” Claus said. “I think coach wanted to put Luke in just in case. It was nerve-wracking. I knew he’d settle down. He’s a competitor.”
“Luke hasn’t pitched since the second game of the year,” coach Fernandes said. “He’s been cleared to close. If he gave up one more hit, Pappas would have come in. I’m not lying, but I wasn’t nervous. These kids have ice in their veins. (After Luke got hurt,) I didn’t know what I was going to get from the other guys, but they’ve come through. (Deering’s) a hitting team and they’re a great program.”
Claus improved to 5-3 by allowing four runs (two earned) on six hits in 6.2 innings. He walked two, hit a batter and struck out three.
“I had my curveball today,” said Claus. “It was nice to have that. My fastball was working pretty good. I threw strikes for the most part. It was nice to have the defense behind me. I knew my teammates would make the plays. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Both coaches were impressed with the winning hurler.
“Claus threw a two-hitter against us for six-plus innings,” Sutton said. “He struggled with his slider, but he was spotting his fastball well. He moved it in and out, kept it low. I thought we’d get to him. These guys are upset, I’m upset, but you have to give him some credit. We average 10 hits a game. Two hits in six innings, it’s very, very tough to come back.”
“Claus has been a bulldog, a horse,” said coach Fernandes.
Fernandes gave up an unearned run in relief on a hit and a walk and had the biggest strikeout of the game.
Offensively, Marshwood got three hits from McLean and a pair from Jones. Brenner, Claus, Fernandes (who had the team’s lone extra base hit, a triple), Kuzman, McLean, Pratt and Verrill all touched home plate. Fernandes and McLean both drove in a pair of runs. Jones, Pratt and Verrill one each. Claus, Pratt and Verrill all stole a base.
For Deering, Balzano suffered his first loss in six decisions, allowing seven runs on 10 hits, with five walks in 4.1 innings. He fanned three. Esposito-Martin was stellar in his 2.2 inning perfect relief stint. He struck out one.
“Dominic’s a good competitor,” Sutton said. “He gave us a chance.”
On offense, Colucci had a double, scored a run and had an RBI. Bevilacqua and DiBiase also drove in runs. Hardy scored twice.
The Rams went home faster than most expected.
“It was a good first year,” Sutton said. “I’d rather have gone 9-9 and played Westbrook tomorrow.”
Next year’s team will have a dramatically different look.
“I’m only losing 10 out of 12,” Sutton said, with a laugh. “Our JVs went 15-1 this year. Will that relate to next year? It’s a good sign. We’ll definitely be a different team.”
Marshwood lost, 7-0, at Westbrook back on May 12, but is a very different team now. The Hawks have nothing to lose entering their semifinal. Overlook them at your peril.
“We have a lot of heart,” said Claus. “We’ll see where it goes. I’ll go with these guys as far as we can take it.”
“I’ve told (the kids) until we do something, we don’t deserve the respect that Deering or Westbrook deserve,” coach Fernandes said. “Are we as good as them? Probably. We have another game tomorrow. This win made these guys know there’s no one we can’t play with. We’re not scared of anybody. We’ve made great strides.”
M- 400 030 0- 7 10 2
D- 100 010 3- 5 5 0
Fernandes tripled to left-center, McLean and Claus scored. Verrill singled to right, Fernandes scored. Pratt singled to right, Verrill scored.
DiBiase flew out to left, Bevilacqua scored.
Jones reached on bunt single, Brenner scored. McLean singled to left, Pratt and Kuzman scored.
Colucci doubled to left, Hardy scored.
Bevilacqua singled to center, Hardy scored. Balzano and Bevilacqua scored on throwing error.
M- McLean 3, Jones 2
M-Brenner, Claus, Fernandes, Kuzman, McLean, Pratt, Verrill
D- Hardy 2, Balzano, Bevilacqua, Colucci
M- Fernandes, McLean 2, Jones, Pratt, Verrill
D- Bevilacqua, Colucci, DiBiase
M- Claus, Pratt, Verrill
Claus, Fernandes (7) and Brenner; Balzano, Esposito-Martin (5) and Miranda
Claus (W, 5-3) 6.2 IP 4 H 4 R 2 ER 2 BB 3 K 1 HBP
Fernandes 0.1 IP 1 H 1 R 0 ER 1 BB 1 K
Balzano(L, 5-1) 4.1 IP 10 H 7 R 7 ER 5 BB 3 K
Esposito-Martin 2.2 IP 0 H 0 R 0 BB 1 K