Falmouth advances to first Western B Final
FALMOUTH—Prior to the bottom of the sixth inning of Monday afternoon's Western Class B semifinal, Falmouth senior leftfielder Ryan Conley had zero home runs to his credit.
Then, he picked the best and most dramatic time possible to launch one.
The second-ranked Yachtsmen found themselves in a pitcher's duel with No. 3 Morse and after junior Thomas Fortier escaped a jam, with a little bit of luck sprinkled in, in the top of the sixth inning, his teammates gave him some offense.
Junior rightfielder Connor Murphy led off the frame with a sharp single to left and after Conley couldn't lay down a bunt, he swung away and sent a pitch from Shipbuilders junior Aaron Barrett high and far and deep and over the centerfield fence to put Falmouth on top to stay.
The Yachtsmen added a third run in the frame and Fortier did the rest, slamming the door on his two-hitter and Falmouth prevailed, 3-0, in a crisp 82 minutes, improving to 15-3, ending Morse's solid season at 13-5 and setting up a Western Class B Final showdown versus No. 9 Cape Elizabeth Wednesday at 7 p.m., at St. Joseph's College in Standish.
"That was a great game," said Yachtsmen coach Kevin Winship. "It seems like we've been in some pretty good ones. We had a couple big hits to break it open and got the win."
While Falmouth had a dominant run in its Class C days, winning championships in 1985, 1996 and 1998, since moving up to Class B in 2000, the Yachtsmen have been very competitive, but had been unable to advance to a regional final.
They almost did in 2011, leading Greely much of the way in the semis before falling victim to a rough inning and losing, 8-3.
Falmouth wasn't considered to be a top contender entering 2012, but the Yachtsmen have impressed from the very start.
Falmouth opened with an 8-2 victory at York, then downed visiting Cape Elizabeth (10-5), host Fryeburg (11-1, in six innings), host Gray-New Gloucester (6-0), visiting Lake Region (8-2), host Poland (8-4), visiting Wells (2-1), visiting Freeport (5-4, in nine innings), host Yarmouth (5-0), visiting Poland (7-0, behind Nick Spencer's no-hitter) and host Traip (11-1, in six innings) to make it 11 straight.
The run finally ended, barely, with a 2-1 home loss to Greely. The Yachtsmen were up-and-down the rest of the regular season, winning at Cape Elizabeth (4-2), falling at home to Yarmouth (6-4), romping at Freeport (12-2) before closing with a 3-1 home loss to Gray-New Gloucester.
Falmouth wound up 13-3 and second in the Western Class B Heal Points standings and downed 10th-ranked Spruce Mountain, 7-3, behind Fortier, in Thursday's quarterfinals.
Morse, meanwhile, enjoyed a big-time turnaround this spring, winning its first five games en route to a 12-4 campaign, which left it third in Western B. The Shipbuilders held off No. 6 Gray-New Gloucester, 7-6, in a quarterfinal round thriller Thursday.
The teams were supposed to play their semifinal Saturday, but rain and poor field conditions conspired to push it back to Monday afternoon.
"We've been dealing with delays and adversity all season with our field," said Winship. "It doesn't handle water well. We haven't been able to practice. We're used to it. We didn't practice over the weekend. I don't know if it helped or hurt."
Once the game arrived, it was quick, well played and taut throughout.
Fortier gave up solid contact to Morse centerfielder C.J. Hardin, who lined out to junior second baseman Drew Proctor leading off, but finished the first frame by striking out first baseman Chris Paulus and shortstop Zack Groat (hero of the quarterfinal with two home runs).
Not too shabby for someone who didn't even know he was starting until this afternoon.
"It was a gametime decision," Winship said. "We had Spencer ready to go. We waited to see how Tom felt. We weren't sure what we were going to do until gametime. We got a feel for how he was feeling. When we heard he was feeling good, we made the decision to give him the ball."
Barrett had a similar first inning, getting Proctor to line out to second before inducing a groundout by junior designated hitter Seamus Powers and getting senior centerfielder Grayson Beressi to pop out to shortstop.
In the top of the second, Fortier sandwiched a pair of strikeouts around a groundout.
In the bottom half, sophomore shortstop Will D'Agostino ripped a one-out double to the gap in right-center, but Spencer, the third baseman, grounded out and Barrett fanned senior catcher Jeremy Lydick to end the threat.
Fortier started the top of the third with his fifth strikeout, but Barrett produced the Shipbuilders' first hit with a dribbler up the middle. With one down, Barrett stole second, but he was stranded when Hardin grounded out.
Barrett had his most dominant frame in the bottom half, catching Murphy looking at strike three before striking out Conley and Proctor swinging.
"Barrett settled in," said Winship. "I thought in the first inning, we'd get to him. He throws good speed, but he wasn't getting the breaking ball over. We couldn't get to him."
Two groundouts and a liner to center ended the top of the fourth. In the bottom half, the first two batters grounded out before Barrett struck out junior first baseman Andrew Emple swinging to end it.
The fifth inning was more of the same.
In the top half, Fortier struck out the side. In the bottom half, a fly ball to right, a strikeout and a foul pop kept the game scoreless.
It took only 54 minutes to get through five innings and the teams had combined for two hits.
Action picked up in the sixth.
Barrett got things going in the top half by lining a double down the line in right and in a game where it appeared the first team to score would be the victor, Morse played for a run and second baseman Gary Stevens laid down a pretty sacrifice bunt. Unfortunately for the visitors, Barrett stayed put.
"It was miscommunication with Barrett on second," said Morse coach Garrett Olson. "He hesitated too long. It didn't really cost us anything. It would've been nice to get him over, but did it change anything? Not really."
Hardin followed by popping out to Fortier, but Paulus reached on a rarely seen catcher's interference call and Winship elected to pitch around Groat, putting him on after three balls, to load the bases for rightfielder Trent Moore.
Moore then almost put his team ahead by lining a shot that appeared ticketed for centerfield, but the ball barely deflected off of Fortier and instead of going up the middle, rolled to D'Agostino, who threw to Proctor for the force out, diffusing the threat.
Falmouth had dodged a big-time bullet.
"We got lucky on the bunt," said Fortier. "(The last out) was a line shot. It would have been up the middle. The baseball gods were watching there."
"I had to give respect to the Groat kid," said Winship. "We definitely pitched around him. I wasn't going to let him beat us. He's their best hitter. The next kid almost made me look foolish. He hit a missile back up the middle. Luckily Thomas got a glove on it. Will D'Agostino made a great play and got the force out at second."
The Yachtsmen then broke the ice.
After Murphy sharply singled to left, Conley tried once to bunt him over, but couldn't do so. He then swung away and drove the ball over the fence and just like that, Falmouth had a 2-0 lead.
"At the beginning of the at-bat, I was bunting, but once I fouled the pitch off, I had to do something to make up for it," Conley said. "It was hit-and-run, so I had to swing at the next pitch. I made nice contact. It was the pitch I was looking for, right down the middle. I knew it when I hit it. It felt good. We deserved it. I knew we'd score. It happened in a dramatic way, but it happened."
"It was a slow start with the bats," Fortier said. "Murphy led off with that single, then Conley hit it. I thought it was gone once it got up there with the wind blowing out, like it always does here."
"We've had a hard time bunting and moving guys around and when we didn't get the first one down, I thought we'd give the hit-and-run a shot," Winship added. "(Ryan) took advantage of the swing and hit out. It was a great pitch, but Ryan got a hold of it. Dead center here is quite a good shot."
The Yachtsmen kept the pressure on as Proctor doubled to left and after Powers struck out, Beressi blooped a single in front of Hardin, scoring Proctor with Beressi taking second on the throw. Bennett escaped further damage, aided by a terrific diving catch of a foul pop fly by catcher Wade Hunt, but Morse was on the ropes.
Shipbuilders third baseman Liam McDonough grounded to second to start the top of the seventh, but Proctor couldn't handle a bad hop and McDonough reached.
Fortier wasn't about to let the visitors rally, however, and cranked up the strikeout machine once more.
Fortier got Hunt swinging at strike three, fanned a pinch-hitter, then caught Barrett looking at strike three to end it.
"We had a tough loss in the same game last year," Conley said. "It's good we have another chance this year. Nobody thought we could go this far, but we believed and we're proving it."
Fortier improved to 5-1 with a two-hit, one-walk, 11-strikeout effort. He was in command throughout.
"I had butterflies, but I was excited," Fortier said. "I had to buckle down. My curveball had a lot of life on it today and I hit spots."
"Tom was amazing," said Conley. "He's done so well all year. He deserves this so much."
"(Thomas has) grown leaps and bounds from when he was freshman," Winship added. "He's established himself as one of the best pitchers around. He's executing three pitches for strikes. He's just pitched great for us. He's our go-to guy right now. We'll get him rested."
There wasn't an abundance of offense, but Conley certainly provided the biggest hit of the season. He also scored a run and drove in a pair. Murphy and Proctor had the other runs, Beressi the third RBI. D'Agostino and Proctor doubled.
Barrett pitched very well, but took the loss. He allowed three runs on five hits in six innings, walking no one and striking out seven batters. Barrett was also his team's offense, collecting two hits, including a double, and stealing a base.
"It was an awesome high school baseball game," said Olson. "One swing of the bat. That's going to happen. Especially on a day like today when the wind's howling out. I couldn't ask for anything more (out of my guys). They put it out there. We were two inches from scoring two with the line drive off the pitcher. That's baseball. Stuff like that happens. When it's a close ballgame, little things matter and it's tough to do all the little things right, but today, defense-wise, both teams were amazing. Both pitchers were awesome. We don't have many lefties like that in Maine."
This group put the Shipbuilders back on the map and had a splendid season.
"(The guys) are hurting, but the seniors have come a long ways," said Olson. "From 1-15 to now. I tried to let them know how proud I am. Aaron Barrett was unbelievable on the mound. Zack Groat should've been the KVAC Player of the Year. He's phenomenal. He won us a game the other day. It's huge for where we've come from. We haven't had many chances to go to or win a playoff game. We have a lot of young guys. We lose some key seniors, but we have plenty coming back. We hope to do this again."
Falmouth has one step remaining as it seeks to reach and win its first Class B title.
But there is a dangerous obstacle standing in the way.
Cape Elizabeth was just 8-8 in the regular season and entered the playoffs as the No. 9 seed, but upset No. 8 Freeport (4-0) in the preliminary round and shocked the baseball world with a 9-6 quarterfinal round victory over presumed champion Greely. Saturday, in the semifinals, the Capers outlasted No. 4 Yarmouth in 10 innings, 7-1.
The Yachtsmen took both regular season meetings as well as last year's quarterfinal, 2-1, a game which they were the lower seed.
Falmouth, which plans to pitch Spencer, enters Wednesday's contest confident, but cautious.
"Nicky will go out there and throw a great game like he always does," said Fortier. "We're excited, but it won't be easy. They upset Greely. That was big. Nobody expected that."
"I have full confidence in Nick Spencer for Wednesday's game," Winship said. "Cape's a solid team. They're playing with house money. (Capers coach Chris) Hayward just wants to get into the playoffs. He doesn't care what seed he is. In high school baseball it doesn't really matter what seed you are. They're playing well. We know each other well. It's a big rivalry. I expect a really good game. I'm really looking forward to it."
The Falmouth-Cape Elizabeth winner will face either defending state champion Waterville or Foxcroft Academy in the Class B state final Saturday at 11 a.m., in Bangor.