PORTLAND—It was the baseball game most everyone had planned on seeing in Standish with a trophy and a trip north hanging in the balance as the final act of the Western A season.
The perfect storm gathering strength as this particular Westbrook Blue Blazes team has come of age in the wake of its magical 2005 run to Williamsport now seemingly ready to touch down, perhaps at just the right time.
With the ruthless Deering Rams somewhat in a recovery mode after turning over the roster on the heels of a third straight state championship, looking at least mortal considering the list of brand name stars that moved on. Westbrook had arrived with hopes of taking over the Maine baseball scene held hostage by the Rams for the better part of the past two decades.
The time had finally come to see if there was indeed a power shift in the works once and for all, or if the Rams still had enough to protect the tradition passed along from one dynasty to the other, Flaherty to Flaherty.
It just came one game ahead of schedule.
Top-ranked Deering had the pitching matchup it wanted, homefield advantage and the ghosts of champions past on its side Saturday afternoon, but couldn’t match the heightened intensity of fourth-ranked Westbrook fixing to swing the bats early and take control. The Blue Blazes jumped all over the sleepy Deering team that started the game, capitalizing on a costly base-running error and a pair of misplays in the field to build a 7-1 lead after staging a four-run third.
Dazed and confused, to say nothing of being on the ropes, the Rams made a pitching change and finally snapped to it at the plate when senior Jake Nichols smacked a two-run double and made it a game again at 7-4 after five complete. With new life, Deering dug in and offered Westbrook a glimpse at what it might take to earn the title of champions, battling all the way back to put the game-tying run just 90 feet away.
With two outs and a runner on third in the bottom of the last inning, Westbrook still needed a great play on a chopper to third to smother Deering and officially put an end to its latest dynasty by the narrowest of margins, escaping with a 7-6 win on the grand stage at Hadlock Field.
“That was a heck of a ballgame,” said Deering coach Mike Coutts. “I’m proud of this team. Last year we won states and this year we didn’t, but we battled right down to the end. We got every ounce out of these kids they had. A lot of people didn’t think we’d go .500, so to make it back here to this game and have the tying run on third show what these kids are all about.”
Both teams entered the game less than 24-hours after winning in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon. Westbrook (13-5) had made the decision to send out the league MVP and top left-handed pitcher in Scott Heath to get past South Portland in the first round, and set him up for the two championship games that would follow. Heath (6-1) had beaten the Rams 9-6 at Westbrook back on May 20 in the only regular season game between the teams.
Deering, meanwhile, went with Nichols in its quarterfinal win over Cheverus and had senior Travis Wade, the league’s stingiest pitcher during the season lined up for the semifinals. But the Rams gave the Blue Blazes a free one in the first, and tacked on two more in the second including junior Jake Gardiner’s first RBI-double of the game.
Westbrook broke the game open with a four-run top of the third, which the Rams could have avoided altogether if not for a misplay on soft liner to the infield that extended the inning. With one out, junior Zach Collett doubled to center. He went to third when junior Sean Murphy’s odd-duck line drive to short got away for what could have been the second out. And of course, Collett came in to score when junior Zach Gardiner got the job done with a sac-fly to left for the actual second out.
Westbrook then added three more runs on Jake Gardiner’s second RBI double in as many innings and junior Tom Lemay’s wall-scraping, two-run double to left that chased Wade, and gave the Blue Blazes a six-run lead to work with on top 7-1.
Deering had matched the Blue Blazes run in the first when junior Sam Balzano led off the game for them with a line-drive double off the signage in deep right and came around to score two batters later on a sac-fly from junior Nick Colucci.
The Rams got another one back in the second to pull within 7-2, scratching out a run after Westbrook junior Matt Wiemer had efficiently set the first two hitters down. Wade started it off with a chopper back up the box into center and scored on of all things, an RBI-infield single to third from Nichols.
“We didn’t show up ready to play,” Nichols said. “You could see it before the game in the dugout. We just weren’t anxious enough at the start. As the game got going things started to come together for us but by then it was too late.”
With Wade not having his good stuff to start on Saturday, Deering coach Mike Coutts summoned left-handed sophomore Nick DiBiase in from the outfield and he was outstanding the rest of the way. DiBiase got the last out of the Blue Blazes’ four-run third and pitched two-hit, scoreless ball to close out the game and give Deering a chance to get the bats going.
The Rams piled up 11 hits on Weimer through 5 2/3 innings but had troubling stringing big hits together and left eight men on base in the game, including two each in the third and the sixth innings.
This was not the case in the bottom of the fifth when Wade led off with a single and Colucci doubled to put runners on second and third with one out. Nichols, the glue of this year’s Deering team, loaded up on a fastball from Weimer and doubled off the base off the wall in right to clear the bases and slice a five-run deficit down to three at 7-4 after the fifth.
DiBiase escaped a one out walk in the sixth, and set Westbrook down in order in the seventh on a pop-up to the infield and two groundballs from the Gardiner brothers to set up the drama in the bottom of the seventh.
Needing three runs to tie up the game and four to win it, Deering got two back and fell 90-feet short of extending the game and possibly its mystique in extra frames.
Colucci led off with a single to centerfield but was replaced at the bag by Nichols on a fielder’s choice groundball to first base. “The Boss,” junior Jamie Ross, delivered in his spot, tripling to the gap in left-center to score Nichols and pull the Rams within 7-5. Ross also ended the day for Weimer with his pitch count up and over 130 and the left-handed hitting DiBiase ready to dig in at the plate.
This forced the Blue Blazes to go and get Murphy, a hard-throwing lefty, for just the fifth time all season. Murphy was set to pair with Heath in the Westbrook rotation this season, but spent most of the year as the designated hitter with soreness in his throwing shoulder. Murphy was greeted quite rudely, DiBiase doubling to the wall in right to score Ross and keep the Rams hopes alive at 7-6.
DiBiase moved to third on a ground ball for second out, and suddenly after facing a six-run deficit in the third inning the Rams had the game-tying run at third base and a hitter at the plate who can handle his bat. Junior catcher Johnny Miranda chopped to third and Westbrook’s Jake Gardiner, charging in two steps and to his left, fielded it on the high hop and made a strong throw across to beat Miranda’s headfirst slide and end the Rams’ season just one-run shy of the regional championship game.
“They came out with a little more intensity than we did,” said Ross. “I want to say we out-hit them, but we had a few plays in the field and some baserunning mistakes that cost us. But there was no way we were going to go out without putting up a fight. We came all the way back but just couldn’t tie it up.”
Deering finishes the season 13-5, but figures to be right back in the title hunt in 2011.
Westbrook advances to Standish for Tuesday’s Western Class A Final where it will meet the surprising seventh-ranked Biddeford Tigers (11-7) on the campus of St. Joseph’s College at 7 p.m.
Deering senior Travis Wade slides safely into third base during Saturday’s showdown.
Deering senior Travis Wade delivers a pitch during the early phase of Saturday’s game.
Deering sophomore Nick DiBiase finds himself in a pickle between third and home before being tagged out.
Deering’s junior second baseman Nick Colucci tags out a Westbrook runner at second base Saturday. The Rams season ended without a state title for the first time since 2006.
Deering senior Jake Nichols beats out a base hit during Saturday’s 7-6 loss to Westbrook in the Western A semifinals at Hadlock Field.