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Cronin's blast sends Scarborough to state game

Sports

Cronin's blast sends Scarborough to state game

STANDISH—The player with the Hall of Fame name pitched and slugged his team into school immortality Tuesday evening at Larry Mahaney Diamond on the campus of St. Joseph's College.

Scarborough senior Joe Cronin found himself playing the role of which every little boy dreams, at the plate with a championship, in this case, the Western Class A championship, on the line.

The Red Storm and defending Class A champion Cheverus had gone back and forth in a thrilling affair with each squad appearing to have a win locked up.

First, Scarborough rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and took a 5-3 lead on a prodigious home run by senior shortstop Nick Bagley, but with the Stags three times down to their final strike in the top of the seventh, Cronin couldn't slam the door and Cheverus senior first baseman Harry Ridge cracked a clutch two-run single to tie the score, 5-5.

A one-one walk by junior leftfielder Sam Terry in the bottom of the frame allowed the Red Storm to turn over the order and Cronin came to the plate with two down.

Then, just like that, it was over.

On a 2-2 pitch, Cronin made solid contact and sent a blast toward left-center. The ball kept carrying and cleared the fence and Cronin danced home and touched the plate, giving Scarborough arguably its most dramatic win ever, 7-5.

Cronin didn't just drive in the two deciding runs, he also scored three times and earned the win on the mound as the second-ranked Red Storm improved to 17-2,  ended the fourth-seeded Stags' season at 14-5 and set up a Class A state final showdown versus Messalonskee (14-5) Saturday at high noon, back at St. Joe's.

"It's the best feeling," Cronin said. "I've hit a couple home runs, but nothing in a game like this. It's not my first home run, but it's my biggest. It was a completely different game. It was the best. It's what you play for. Games like this."

Last two teams standing

Both Cheverus and Scarborough were expected to be strong in 2012 and haven't disappointed.

After winning the 2011 Class A  title, the first in program history, the Stags won five of their first six games this spring, then suffered three straight losses, including 2-0 at Scarborough. Cheverus quickly turned things around, however, and rattled off seven successive victories to wind up 12-4, good for the No. 4 seed in Western A.

The Stags held off No. 5 Westbrook, 2-0, in the quarterfinals, as senior ace Louie DiStasio surrendered two hits and also sparked the offense with two hits, an RBI and a run scored. Saturday, in the semifinals, Cheverus broke open a close game and went on to down No. 9 Bonny Eagle, 10-0, in six innings.

The Red Storm, meanwhile, coming off an upset loss to South Portland in last year's quarterfinals, lost just twice (to Marshwood and Windham) in a strong regular season and earned the No. 2 seed at 14-2.

In the quarterfinals, Scarborough got a no-hitter from Cronin and defeated No. 7 Thornton Academy, , and broke open a close game in a 5-0 semifinal round win over No. 3 Windham in the semis.

The teams had met just once before in the playoffs, a 6-2 Stags' victory in the 2003 preliminary round. The Red Storm had won eight of 11 all-time meetings coming in (please see sidebar).

Tuesday, the squads put forth a 95-minute passion play that none on hand will soon forget.

Cronin went right at DiStasio to start the contest and fanned him on three pitches. Cheverus senior second baseman Nick Melville, making his return after an appendectomy, grounded out to short on the first pitch and after Ridge reached on a throwing error, Cronin got junior leftfielder Mitchell Powers swinging to end it.

In the bottom half, DiStasio went to work, striking out Cronin on four pitches, getting an incredible catch from Cooke in center on a line drive by junior second baseman Brendan Hall and getting senior designated hitter Ben Wessel to fly lazily to Cooke.

In the top of the second, Scarborough third baseman Ben Greenberg flashed the leather, snaring a vicious line drive off the bat of Stags junior designated hitter Ryan Casale. Cronin then got sophomore catcher Chris Tinsman to hit a towering fly ball on the infield. After initial confusion, the pitcher took charge and made the catch. Cronin then struck out senior third baseman Tyler Flaherty to end it.

In the bottom half, the Red Storm went 1-2-3, setting the stage for the game's first run.

Cronin was on the verge of setting the Stags down in order in the top of the third, inducing a groundout by senior rightfielder Cam Mullen and striking out Cooke, but on a 1-2 pitch, DiStasio got around and sent a drive over the 335-foot sign in leftfield to break the ice.

DiStasio held the 1-0 lead in the bottom half, even though he couldn't handle a throw from Ridge on a ground ball wide of first and junior rightfielder Aaron Ravin reached, but Terry grounded to Flaherty at third, who threw to Melville at second for a force and Melville threw on to first to complete a double play. A ground out by junior centerfielder Greg Viola ended it.

Cheverus doubled its lead in the fourth as Ridge walked leading off, moved to third on a single up the middle by Powers and scored on a ground out by Casale.

Scarborough got that run right back in its half of the fourth. Cronin was plunked by a DiStasio pitch leading off. One out later, Wessel produced the Red Storm's first hit with a soft single to center. Cronin didn't stop and wound up at third and Wessel took second on the throw. DiStasio appeared primed to escape the jam  by striking out senior catcher Conor McCann, but with Bagley at the plate, DiStasio uncorked a wild pitch and Cronin scored. DiStasio kept it 2-1 by getting Bagley to pop into foul territory by the Cheverus dugout along first base and DiStasio ran over to make the catch.

After the Stags failed to score in the top of the fifth, Scarborough drew even on two pitches.

Greenberg ripped the first pitch of the frame to deep right-center and even Cooke couldn't run it down. By the time the ball was returned to the infield, Greenberg stood at third with a triple. Ravin then swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a deep fly ball down the leftfield line. Powers made the catch, but Greenberg scored easily to make it 2-2.

In the top of the sixth, Melville ripped a single to left on the first pitch to get a new rally started. Ridge grounded to Bagley's right and raced down the line before Bagley could get off a throw. That brought up Powers, but Cronin struck him out. Casale then managed to come through in the clutch, flying out to deep left and Melville scored on the sacrifice fly to break the tie.

In the bottom half, Cronin walked leading off, but Hall's sacrifice attempt was popped up and caught by Flaherty. Wessel struck out with Cronin stealing second, but McCann's grounder to Melville was thrown away, allowing Cronin to jubilantly race home with the tying run.

"I'm coming home expecting the inning's over," Cronin said. "I was happy to be tied."

Scarborough wasn't finished.

Up came Bagley and he pummeled a pitch deep into the night, well over the wall in left to make it 5-3 and seemingly send the Red Storm on the road to the regional title.

"I was on (DiStasio) the whole game from the start," said Bagley. "I missed the first one. The second one I just got under a little bit. I knew I was going to get a hold of one. I didn't know it would go that far though. It was right in my wheelhouse. I swung hoping it would stay fair. It went over the fence. I never hit a home run since Little League."

"I freaked out when he hit the home run," Cronin said.

Yet, the valiant Stags simply wouldn't go quietly.

Flaherty reached on an error to start the seventh and junior pinch-hitter Liam Fitzpatrick walked on a full-count pitch to put the tying runs on. Cooke couldn't bunt the runners over and bunted foul with two strikes, fanning in the process. When Cronin struck DiStasio out looking, the champions' reign appeared to be finished.

Yet Melville wasn't about to be the final out, drawing a walk and Ridge resolved to keep things going as well.

On an 0-2 pitch, Cronin (and most everyone else at the ballpark) thought he caught Ridge looking at strike three, but the home plate umpire deemed the pitch a ball and the game continued. Ridge hung in and laced a single to right-center, chasing home Flaherty and Fitzpatrick and just like that, the contest was deadlocked, 5-5.

I (wasn't happy) when I couldn't hold it," Cronin said. "I thought I had strike three before. I threw a good fastball, he just put a great swing out there and got it in. That was clutch."

Shaken, but still poised, Cronin escaped further damage by striking out Powers and Scarborough came up for the bottom of the seventh needing just one run to advance.

The Red Storm would get two.

DiStasio remained in the game and fanned Ravin leading off, but Terry drew a walk and even after Viola looked at strike three, Cronin had a chance to hit.

Cronin worked the count until it was 2-2, then he struck.

Cronin turned on a DiStasio fastball and it looked good off the bat, but it wasn't until the ball cleared the wall near the scoreboard that it was official.

Cronin roared around the bases, took a big leap and landed on home plate, then as the clock showed 8:40 p.m., was mobbed by his teammates.

Scarborough 7 Cheverus 5.

"The first pitch, I was trying to lose it," Cronin said. "It was a fastball. I tried to put a swing on it, but I was late. (Louie) was jacked up. I took a ball. I took a low strike. I thought it was a ball and that put me in a hole. I thought he might go breaking ball. It was fastball in and I hacked it down the line. He threw another ball. If it was me out there, I'm going to throw as hard as I can. I figured that's what he would do. If he threw me his best slider, I'm probably out. He just ripped it. I knew he'd put more on it. I've seen the ball great the last few games. I put a swing on it. When I hit it, I had a feeling right off. I hustled down the line. When I got to first, I saw it dip over (the fence) and it was just awesome. I can't say we wanted it more, but we wanted it. We've worked hard all year. We've battled all year. We didn't panic when we're down. "

"I have all the confidence in Joe so I knew he could do something special," Bagley said "We all knew it was gone. We all jumped up. It was unbelievable. We were pumped up at the beginning and it was back and forth all game. It was nuts. I got chills frequently. I was on the tip of my toes waiting to see what happened."

"I told the boys in 30 years, this is one of the best games I've been involved in," added Scarborough coach Mike Coutts. "It was a fun game. Typical us, we got nothing early, but we kept battling and ground it out. I'm excited for the kids. They worked really hard. It doesn't get better than that for anybody, me, the kids or the fans. (The Stags are) obviously great champions. They battled and came back. That's what we expected would happen. We had last at-bat. We talked about getting Cronin up. Sam Terry's walk was huge. We were hoping for anything at that point."

To say the win was the Joe Cronin Show would be both accurate and far from the truth.

Cronin was an offensive machine, homering, reaching on both a walk and after being hit by a pitch, scoring three times, driving in two runs and stealing a base (adding to the magic of the night, his father, Jim, the former Scarborough coach and current St. Joseph's College assistant, was watching every pitch from the press box).

Then, there was his effort on the hill. He surrendered five runs (three earned) on five hits and three walks in seven innings. He threw a wild pitch, but struck out 11 as he improved to 5-1 on the season.

"I think stuff-wise, that's the best I've had all year," Cronin said. "I was a little off on location, jacked up, throwing as hard as I could. (Cheverus is) a good hitting team. I hung a slider and (DiStasio) hit a bomb. I wished I could have that one back. You have to locate, not just throw hard. My arm's gotten stronger as the year's gone on."

"He threw well," Coutts said. "He got out of some jams when he needed to. Typical Joe."

But there were plenty of other contributors.

Bagley (whose clout got lost in the seventh inning excitement), Greenberg (who had a triple), McCann and Terry also touched home plate. Bagley also had two RBI, while Ravin finished with one.

End of the line

For Cheverus, DiStasio bowed out with the loss and dropped to 5-3. He allowed seven runs (four earned) on just four hits in 6.2 innings. DiStasio walked two, threw a wild pitch, hit a batter and struck out seven.

On the offensive side, DiStasio had the lone extra base hit, Ridge was a repeat hitter, DiStasio, Fitzpatrick, Flaherty, Melville and Ridge all scored runs, while Casale and Ridge both drove in a pair, with DiStasio adding one RBI.

Cheverus was stunned in the aftermath.

"It was obviously back and forth," said Stags coach Mac McKew. "It would have been nice to be the home team in this one and get last at-bat. There were two incredible competitors, Cronin and DiStasio, going at it. You probably expected a 2-1 game, but it was a 7-5 game. Two major, intensely competitive pitchers. We never quit. They had the last at-bat. Cronin had the big hit. That's how I look at that one."

McKew made sure to pay tribute to his seniors.

"The seven seniors on this team got rings last year," he said. " They're all gutsy kids. I can't say enough about the seniors. They had great careers here. They've been part probably of the best chapter in Cheverus history. They have no shame. They're disappointed right now, I'm disappointed, but in a couple days when we have our banquet, we'll have things to celebrate."

The Stags might not be heavy favorites in 2013, but they'll battle throughout once again.

"I'm hoping we reload," McKew said. "It'll be with juniors next year. Mitchell Powers, Tinsman and those kids."

History awaits

Scarborough won't have long to bask in the glow. The Red Storm return to Standish to take on a Messalonskee team that rose from the No. 4 seed in Eastern A to knock off Oxford Hills, Hampden Academy and defending regional champion Lewiston (13-2 Tuesday) to advance.

Scarborough (which could throw either Cronin or Greenberg, who blanked Windham in the semifinals) and the Eagles have no history, but are about to make some.

The Red Storm's only prior baseball state championship came in 1986, when it was known as the Redskins and still played in Class B.

This year's team is eager and confident it can finish the job.

"We worked hard in practice every day because we knew it would come down to the end of the season," Bagley said. "The hard work paid off. We haven't seen (Messalonskee). We don't know what to expect. We'll go at them, expecting them to be a good team, and we'll bring our best."

"The kids know it, they keep saying, 'One more,'" said Coutts. "We know it'll be a battle. Our sights have been on June 16 all year. I'll call some coaches and see what I can find out, but what it comes down to is taking care of ourselves, playing our game, getting some hits. We have to go play. It's nice going in knowing we've got Cronin and we've got Greenberg."

Tuesday's hero had the final word.

"We're just going to play the way we play," Cronin said. "We might have to feel them out, but we'll go out there and battle. I'd love the ball, but Greenberg's more than capable. He was absolutely dealing against Windham. I'm confident either way. I can't wait for Saturday. It's going to be awesome."

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Photo: Mike Strout / For The Forecaster

Cheverus senior Louie DiStasio throws a pitch during Tuesday's game. DiStasio pitched valiantly, but took the loss in his swan song.

Photo: Mike Strout / For The Forecaster

Scarborough senior catcher Conor McCann swings at a pitch.

Photo: Mike Strout / For The Forecaster

Cheverus senior Nick Melville forces Scarborough junior Aaron Ravin and throws to first to complete a double play.

Photo: Mike Strout / For The Forecaster

Scarborough senior Nick Bagley shouts wish joy as he rounds the bases following his tie-breaking sixth inning home run (Cheverus second baseman Nick Melville bows his head dejectedly).

Photo: Mike Strout / For The Forecaster

Senior Ben Wessel welcomes Joe Cronin after his game-winning home run as the regional championship celebration begins.