SOUTH PORTLAND—The South Portland baseball team wasn’t mentioned as a favorite entering the season, but when the Red Riots have things rolling, they’re going to be very tough to beat.
South Portland put its winning recipe on display Friday afternoon in the regular season opener: One large serving of junior ace pitcher Robert Graff and several dashes of timely hitting and defense.
It all added up to a dish of revenge served cold and tasty as the Red Riots avenged last year’s playoff ouster with a 6-0 victory over visiting Biddeford at Wainwright Farms.
Graff wriggled his way out of an early jam and went six dominant shutout innings, allowing just five hits, while striking out 10. South Portland’s offense produced nine hits, took advantage of a pair of Tigers’ errors and scored runs in four different frames to start the season on a high note, in 89 tidy minutes.
“It was a very good start,” said Red Riots coach Mike Owens. “We just kind of jumped on Robert’s shoulders today. We put good swings on balls. We did the little things.”
South Portland went 6-11 a year ago, losing, 9-2, to Biddeford in the preliminary round of the playoffs. The Red Riots entered 2013 having lost seven starters and weren’t viewed as a top contender.
This group believes, however, that it can win and it certainly made a positive first statement.
The game turned in the first inning, when the Tigers squandered a great opportunity, while South Portland took advantage.
Biddeford shortstop Corey Collard led off the game by slamming Graff’s second offering deep to the left-centerfield wall. Collard trotted into second with a double and moved to third when third baseman Brady Fleurent followed with a base hit through the hole between shortstop and third base. The Tigers had a great chance to grab an early lead, but Graff settled down and slammed the door.
First, the ace caught catcher Corey Brown looking at strike three. Pitcher and cleanup hitter Patrick Wilson was next, but his fly ball to rightfield was too shallow to score Collard. The inning came down to centerfielder Casey Twomey, but he swung at strike three and the Red Riots had escaped the threat.
“It kind of made me angry,” said Graff. “I buckled down and got out of the inning.”
“That was a testament to Robert and our defense,” said South Portland senior catcher Adam Helmke. “We didn’t let down. We don’t have individuals. It’s all about the team. We picked each other up.”
“Anytime you can strand guys, it’s huge,” Owens added. “That allowed us to relax and take a deep breath.”
The hosts pounced in their half of the inning, as junior second baseman Jon Vickers ripped the second pitch from Wilson deep to the gap in right-center. As Vickers neared second, Owens yelled at him to hold there, but Vickers kept coming and beat the throw for a triple.
Rightfielder Matt Beecher followed with a bloop down the rightfield line that fell in fair, allowing Vickers to score the only run South Portland would need. Vickers stole second with two down, but Helmke popped out to end the threat.
Graff really got going in the top of the second, catching three straight Biddeford hitters looking at strike three, a rare occurrence to say the least.
“I liked my fastball today,” Graff said. “I was hitting my spots. I kept them off-balance with my curveball.”
“Graff’s an incredible pitcher,” Helmke said. “He’s got great stuff and great control and he’s really tough mentally. He established his fastball. He hit the inside of the plate all day. With his fastball, if he has the kind of stuff if he gets you down, you’re done. He definitely had them off balance. He can make your knees buckle with that looping curveball.”
The Red Riots added two runs in the bottom half, as with one down, junior leftfielder Joe DiBiase was hit with a pitch and he came all the way around to score when a ground ball off the bat of junior shortstop Cosmo Romano was thrown wildly by Collard. Romano took third on the play and came home when third baseman Dillon Burns blooped a single to left.
Graff fanned the first two hitters in the top of the third. After Fleurent reached on an error, Graff struck out Brown to end the frame, giving him eight strikeouts to that point.
South Portland kept the pressure on offensively in its half of the frame. Centerfielder Nick Whitten singled to center. First baseman Zac Marles then singled between first and second. Helmke was next and he ripped a shot down the leftfield line for a double, scoring Whitten (Marles was thrown out at third). After Helmke was wild pitched to third, DiBiase lined a single between first and second with two down to make it 5-0.
The Tigers got a two-out single from designated hitter Bryan Gelinas in the top of the fourth, but Graff struck out rightfielder Chris Gregoire to end it.
After Wilson set the Red Riots down without a run for the first time, Graff got in a jam in the top of the fifth, allowing singles to leftfielder Matt Cote and Fleurent, but with two down, Burns made a stellar defensive play on a ground ball and threw out Brown to end the threat.
South Portland’s final run came in the bottom of the fifth as Helmke doubled down the line with one down and took third when Cote over-ran the ball. Graff then helped himself by hitting a ground ball to Collard, who couldn’t handle it, allowing Helmke to come home to make it 6-0.
Graff set the Tigers down on three ground balls in the top of the sixth, ending his day. After the hosts went in order in the bottom half, Marles came in to close it out and despite hitting pinch-hitter Christian Knight with one away, he managed to slam the door, getting Collard to ground out to Graff (fittingly) to make it official.
“That’s a good team over there,” Owens said, of the Tigers. “We might have brought (up last year), but it’s a completely different year. We respect them.”
Graff improved to 1-0 with six shutout innings. He gave up five hits, but didn’t walk a batter and struck out 10.
“We got six innings out of him,” Owens said. “We were hoping for four or five. When he settled in, he started to roll. He velocity got up. He kept the ball down and kept them off balance. He had a really good curveball.”
Marles didn’t allow a hit or a walk in his one inning. He did have one strikeout.
Offensively, South Portland was very impressive, as seven different players had at least one hit and Beecher and Helmke each had a pair. Four different Red Riots drove in a run and five different players scored.
“We don’t really have a superstar hitter,” Helmke said. “We have a bunch of guys who can make contact. If you string base hits together, that’s how you get runs. We didn’t take our foot off the pedal and we got six runs.”
“We still have a few things we need to work on,” said Owens. “We made a few baserunning errors and a few defensive things, but they were out of aggression. We talk about being aggressive. If we do that being aggressive, I can live with that.”
For Biddeford, Fleurent had two hits and reached base three times. Wilson fell to 0-1 after allowing six runs (three earned) on nine hits in five innings. He didn’t allow a walk, but did hit a batter and had two wild pitches. He fanned two.
South Portland looks to improve to 2-0 Tuesday when it hosts Noble. Visits to Thornton Academy and Massabesic also loom next week for a team seeking a fast start.
“The sky’s the limit with this team,” Helmke said. “We’re really young. We’re an athletic team. We know what we have to do to win. This is a good start.”