PORTLAND—Midway through the season, the defending Class A state baseball champion Cheverus Stags were scuffling.
But now, the Stags are back to championship form.
Cheverus closed the regular year with seven straight wins and Thursday afternoon, in a Western Class A quarterfinal round playoff game versus Westbrook, they made it eight thanks to a stellar effort from senior ace Louie DiStasio.
DiStasio worked out of a first inning jam and went on to throw a two-hit shutout, striking out 10 batters. If that wasn’t enough, DiStasio also scored the game’s first run and drove in the second and the Stags held off the Blue Blazes, 2-0.
Cheverus improved to 13-4, ended Westbrook’s season at 11-6 and advanced to host ninth-ranked Bonny Eagle in Saturday’s semifinals.
“We got the lead and Louie turned into Louie,” said Stags coach Mac McKew. “A couple mild threats, but nothing major.”
While most years, Western Class A features a dominant favorite, like Deering so often before, the 2012 season has been one of great parity. Several games resulted in surprise endings and no team navigated the slate unscathed.
Westbrook, a frequent contender in recent years, produced another strong season under first year coach Greg Souza. The Blue Blazes won their first five games and went 7-1 in the season’s first half. They came back to Earth a bit in the second half, but still earned the No. 5 seed in Western Class A with an 11-5 mark.
Cheverus returned an abundance of talent from last year’s first ever state champion and opened with an 11-3 home win over Bonny Eagle and a 2-1 (10 inning) triumph at Windham. After falling, 6-3, at Marshwood, the Stags downed visiting Noble (10-1) and Massabesic (9-1) and host Thornton Academy (2-1) to improve to 5-1, but the road then got quite rocky.
Cheverus lost 10-2 at Kennebunk, 2-0 at Scarborough and 1-0 at home to Biddeford to fall to 5-4, but a 9-4 home triumph over South Portland turned the tide and the Stags wouldn’t lose again. Cheverus finished the regular year with wins over visiting Portland (3-2), host Westbrook (4-3 in eight innings), host Deering (8-1), visiting Gorham (3-2), host Sanford (7-3) and visiting Windham (1-0) to go 12-4 and finish fourth.
The Stags had won just one of the previous their three prior playoff meetings against the Blue Blazes, but that triumph came in last year’s regional final, 2-0.
Thursday, Cheverus’ quest for a repeat title cleared the first hurdle.
DiStasio had to work out of a jam in the first as Westbrook senior centerfielder Joe Quinlan reached on an error, one out later junior first baseman Sam Stauble walked and a wild pitch put both runners in scoring position, but DiStasio was true to the task, striking out both senior designated hitter Matt Moody and junior pitcher Keenan Lowe (on a check swing).
DiStasio then got things going with his bat in the bottom of the first, leading off with a single to center. After senior third baseman Tyler Flaherty sacrificed DiStasio to second, senior first baseman Harry Ridge went the other way and blooped a hit down the leftfield line, chasing home DiStasio. Ridge managed to reach second with a double.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much, just get a single through the infield since Louie can run,” Ridge said. “(Lowe) threw me an outside curveball, I just went with it and kind of slapped it the other way.”
Lowe escaped the inning without further damage, getting both sophomore leftfielder Mitchell Powers and junior designated hitter Ryan Casale to both fly to center.
DiStasio hit his stride in the top of the second inning, fanning sophomore leftfielder Kaleb Kent swinging and getting both junior third baseman Derek Bouchard and junior rightfielder Kyle Schumaker to look at strike three.
The Stags pushed across a second run in the bottom of the frame as sophomore catcher Chris Tinsman led off with a single to left, moved to second after an errant pickoff throw and with two down, scored when DiStasio singled to the hole and although junior shortstop Zach Bean knocked the ball down, the throw home wasn’t in time.
DiStasio caught Bean looking at strike three to open the top of the third, his sixth straight strikeout. Quinlan managed to make contact, but bounced out to short and sophomore catcher Kyle Heath went down swinging for out number three.
Lowe set Cheverus down in order in the bottom half.
Stauble led off the top of the fourth with an infield single and stole second, but DiStasio stranded him there, getting Moody to pop out to senior second baseman Brandyn Chretien, Lowe to fly to senior centerfielder Spencer Cooke and Kent to ground back to the mound.
Lowe again retired Cheverus 1,2, 3 in the bottom half, but the Blue Blazes could do nothing in the fifth as DiStasio struck out Bouchard swinging, got Schumaker to look at strike three and Bean to hit back to the box.
After Lowe got three straight outs in the bottom of the fifth, Westbrook had its last, best chance in the top of the sixth inning.
Quinlan led off with a walk. After Heath flew out to Cooke, Stauble hit a slow roller to third that led to a force play. Moody kept the inning alive with a single to left and put the tying run on, but Lowe flew to senior rightfielder Cam Mullen.
Ridge reached first on an error to lead off the bottom of the sixth, but Powers fouled out to the first baseman, Casale flew out and after Ridge stole second and moved to third on a throwing error, Tinsman watched strike three to keep the score 2-0 heading for the final inning.
In the top of the seventh, Kent hit a grounder that went off DiStasio’s leg to Chretien, who couldn’t handle the ball and the tying run came to the plate. DiStasio got Bouchard to fly to Cooke, struck out pinch-hitter Austin Blake and ended it by racing into foul territory to catch a pop up off the bat of Bean.
Cheverus 2 Westbrook 0.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but we’ve gotten better as of late and that gave us confidence going into the playoffs,” said Ridge. “Westbrook came back at us again. It was a good game. A good win. We’re just trying to do our job, not trying to do too much. I think before, we tried to hit a double or hit a home run. Now, it’s base hits, one by one.”
“We knew it would be this kind of a game since they’ve got three good pitchers over there,” McKew said. “This league doesn’t score a lot runs, especially when you have the 1 or 2 pitchers out there. We’re glad we got a 2-0 win. That’s all I can say.”
As expected, DiStasio was masterful. He only allowed two hits and two walks and threw a wild pitch in a shutout effort, striking out 10 as he improved to 5-2 on the year.
“I had the same approach,” DiStasio said. “The Windham game seemed to work. I wanted to throw strikes and mix up my pitches a little bit better. That’s what I’ve done the past two games. It’s the playoffs. I was a little jittery to start the game. Once I settled in, I seemed fine. My defense played great today. Everything seemed to work today. It was a good day. My arm didn’t open up as much as it does when it’s warm out, but my velocity was high. I felt good.”
“When he’s throwing strikes, we’re confident,” Ridge said. “I had confidence that with Louie one run would be enough today.”
“That wasn’t vintage Lou, but it was good Lou,” McKew added. “He doesn’t waste a lot of time. He gets the ball and throws the ball. He knows that keeps the defense on their toes. He had good velocity. He was in the 86-miles-per-hour range.”
Offensively, there was plenty of DiStasio as well. He had two hits, scored a run and had an RBI. Tinsman scored the other run, while Ridge also had an RBI. Casale stole a base.
“Coach McKew did a great job (with the offense),” DiStasio said. “He switched up a couple things. He added a couple new bats to the lineup. Took a couple out. It seemed to spark out team. Mitchell Powers has definitely been the biggest spark. He’s brought a ton of energy. Even when he doesn’t get hits, he does a great job in the field.”
A sidebar to the game was the absence of Cheverus senior second baseman Nick Melville. Melville was sidelined last weekend by appendicitis and had to miss graduation as well as watch Thursday’s contest in street clothes.
Rest assured, his teammates have him in their thoughts.
“Melville doesn’t deserve to miss his last baseball game of high school and his graduation,” DiStasio said. “He deserves to play another game. We’re definitely playing for him.”
“We used Melville as motivation,” said McKew. “We don’t know when he’ll be back.”
For Westbrook, Moody and Stauble had hits, while Stauble had a stolen base. That was it for offense. Lowe fell to 3-3 despite allowing just one earned run on four hits and a walk. He fanned five.
Shorty after its game ended, Cheverus got a gift courtesy Bonny Eagle, which upset top-ranked Marshwood.
As a result, instead of having to travel to South Berwick Saturday to play a team that already beat them once, the Stags get to stay at home and face the 8-10 Scots at 1 p.m., with a trip to the Western A Final on the line.
Cheverus beat Bonny Eagle in both prior playoff meetings, 9-1 in the 1987 preliminary round and 10-9 in the 1993 quarterfinals. While the Stags (who plan to pitch Ridge) have a great chance to get back to the regional final, they’ll take nothing for granted.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Ridge said. “I love pitching in big games. One game at a time.”
“We played five close innings with them the first time,” said McKew. “We broke it open late. All of these games are tough.”
Westbrook junior Sam Stauble steals second in the fourth inning while Cheverus senior second baseman Brandyn Chretien takes the throw.
Cheverus senior rightfielder Cam Mullen catches a flay ball as classmate and centerfielder Spencer Cooke watches.
Cheverus senior first baseman Harry Ridge takes a big swing.
Cheverus junior designated hitter races down the first base line after grounding out to second in the bottom of the third inning.
Cheverus senior ace Louie DiStasio delivers a strike during the Stags’ 2-0 Western Class A quarterfinal round victory over Westbrook Thursday.
More photos below.