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Portland can't solve Windham ace in frustrating loss

Sports

Portland can't solve Windham ace in frustrating loss

PORTLAND—No matter how well a baseball team is playing, it's just one hot opposing pitcher away from disappointment.

The Portland Bulldogs ran into such a pitcher Thursday evening at Hadlock Field and went down to defeat for just the second time this spring.

Portland got a solid effort from its starter, senior Nate Smart, but Smart allowed a run in the third inning and one more in the seventh and that was more than enough for Windham senior Nate Boyle, who hurled a gem.

Boyle worked around early trouble and never let the Bulldogs get comfortable in a five-hit, seven-strikeout effort.

Portland did have its chances, but left the bases loaded in the first, two men on in the third and even put the tying runs in scoring position in the bottom of the seventh, but Boyle struck out senior Nick Volger to end it and the Bulldogs fell to 4-2 with a 2-0 setback, the surprising Eagles' fifth triumph in six outings.

"We had chances early and late, we just didn't capitalize," lamented Portland coach Tony DiBiase. "Give their pitcher credit. He pitched a great game. We couldn't come up with a key hit. I was happy with how we competed. It was just a really good, well played game."

Two hot teams

Windham entered the game coming off an 11-0 (five inning) victory over Cheverus Tuesday. It was the Eagles' fourth win in a row. Windham lost its opener, 2-1, to visiting Marshwood, then downed host Biddeford (9-1), visiting Massabesic (5-3), host Sanford (5-4) and the Stags.

The Bulldogs opened by rolling, 12-4, at Sanford. They then held off host Kennebunk, 4-3, before letting a 3-0 lead slip away in an 8-4 loss at Gorham. Portland got back on track by blanking visiting Noble, 7-0, then earned even more confidence with a 6-3 home victory over Jeff Gelinas and Thornton Academy Tuesday.

Last year, Windham won, 8-3, at Hadlock Field.

Thursday, it was clear early that a pitcher's duel was in store and that offense would be at a premium.

In the top of the first, Smart retired the first two Eagles before junior catcher Jack Herzig singled up the middle. Smart then retired senior first baseman Joe Francoeur on a fly ball to left.

In the bottom half, Volger got things started with a single up the middle and one out later, senior centerfielder Tim Rovnak with his blazing speed, beat out an infield hit. After senior first baseman Kyle Reichert grounded out to third on a check swing, with the runners moving up a base, senior designated hitter Caleb Fraser was walked intentionally, loading the bases. That strategic move paid off as a sharp grounder from senior rightfielder Chip Webber was hit right at Windham sophomore shortstop Tanner Laberge, who threw to junior second baseman Spencer Hodge for an inning ending put-out.

Both pitchers were strong in the second as Smart worked around a two-out error and Boyle set the Bulldogs down in order.

Windham then broke through in the third.

Laberge led off with an infield single to the hole between short and third and stole second. After Smart struck out junior third baseman Zack Conley, a wild pitch moved Laberge to third. Smart got Hodge to line to Webber in right for the second out with Laberge holding, but just when it appeared Portland would escape the inning unscathed, on an 0-2 pitch, sophomore catcher Ryan Ruhlin couldn't handle the pitch and the passed ball scored Laberge for a 1-0 Eagles' lead.

Portland looked to answer in its half, when senior leftfielder Joe Apon hit a one out double to right-center. Apon moved to third on a fly to center by Rovnak, but after Reichert drew a walk, Fraser grounded out to third to strand two more runners.

In the top of the fourth, senior centerfielder Calvin Field had a one out single and stole second and senior designated hitter Shawn Francoeur walked, but Boyle grounded out Volger to junior second baseman Evan Gallant. On the play, Gallant was bowled over by Francoeur and runner interference was called and Boyle was ruled out as well ending the frame.

Boyle set the Bulldogs down in order in their half, thanks in part to nice running catch from junior rightfielder Ethan Petty, who tracked down a deep fly ball off the bat of Smart for the second out. Boyle then struck out Gallant swinging.

"(Boyle) had a good breaking ball," DiBiase said. "He threw hard. The guys were surprised because his ball was moving a lot. We couldn't get baserunners on to put pressure on him."

In the fifth, junior leftfielder Andrew Whiting led off with a bloop single and stole second, but Smart battled back to strike out Laberge looking and Conley swinging before Hodge hit a sinking line drive to right which Webber snared with a beautiful dive to retire the side.

Portland hoped to ride that momentum to an offensive uprising, but Boyle had other ideas, catching senior third baseman Mike Scala looking at strike three, inducing a ground out to second off the bat of Volger and getting Apon to fly harmlessly to left.

Windham coach Brody Artes had a reliever warming up the inning before, but he would never see action.

In the sixth, Smart had his best inning, setting the Eagles down 1-2-3 and the Bulldogs made some two out noise in their half when Fraser singled to left. He was replaced for senior pinch-runner Andrew Ahonen, but Ahonen was thrown out by Herzig attempting to steal for out number three.

Smart took the hill for the seventh, hoping to keep the deficit at one run, but Shawn Francoeur led off with a walk, senior pinch-runner Jake Mello moved to second when Boyle singled to left and both runners stole their way 90 feet closer to home. After Smart struck out Whiting swinging, Laberge came through again with a single to the hole, scoring Mello with a critical insurance run, making it 2-0.

That was it for Smart, who was pulled for junior Ryan Dixon.

Before Dixon could battle Conley, he picked Laberge off (Gallant applied the tag), but controversy then ensued when a balk was ruled instead, allowing Boyle to scamper home with an apparent third run.

Not so fast.

After DiBiase discussed matters with the umpires, they reversed the balk ruling and went back to the original call of the pickoff being the second out and Boyle was sent back to third base.

"I'm not quite sure (what happened), "said Artes. "It was unique to me."

"(Dixon) did the fake to third, lifted his leg up and put it down and stepped off," DiBiase said. "He wasn't making a move to the plate. That's all I said. It saved us a run and kept us in the game, gave us a shot."

Dixon then got Conley to ground out to short, sending the game to the bottom of the seventh.

There, Portland almost got to Boyle, but he managed to slam the door.

Webber got the inning started by beating out a ball hit off of Laberge at short. After Boyle caught Smart looking for strike three, junior pinch-hitter Travis Godbout drew a walk to put the tying runs on. Godbout was replaced by senior pinch-runner Tyler Strauss. Scala hoped to deliver the key hit, but he struck out. The runners did both move into scoring position on a wild pitch and Volger, who has had so many big moments in so many different sports, had a chance to even the game with a clutch hit.

It wasn't to be.

Boyle closed the game with a strikeout, the Bulldogs stranded their sixth and seventh runners and Windham escaped with the 2-0 victory.

"Volger will win more battles than he's going to lose," said DiBiase. "You have to tip your cap to the pitcher. We had a chance early to get some confidence going with the bases loaded. We just didn't get the one big hit."

Smart (1-2) was the hard-luck loser, allowing just one earned run in 6.1 innings. He gave up six hits, walked two and struck out seven, while also throwing a wild pitch.

"Nate Smart pitched really well," DiBiase said. "That was the key tonight. I'm excited because that gives us a 1-2 punch."

Windham's offense was sparked by Laberge, who had two hits, scored a run and also had an RBI. The Eagles also stole five bases.

"They run well," said DiBase. "They're a good team. They play good defense. They ran down some balls."

The real key to the victory, however, was Boyle, who improved to 3-0 with a five-hit, three-walk shutout effort. He struck out seven along the way.

"I wanted to work fastball, curveball," Boyle said. "(Portland's) a great hitting team. I just wanted to get ahead. I thought I had it from the start, but you never know. I can throw a great first inning and it can go downhill, but I felt it would be alright. I felt a little tired (at the end), but I had to pound through it and save the other pitchers. We just chipped away on offense. That was the game plan. We had a great team last year. We were kind of underestimated coming into this year, but we're winning games and beating good teams."

"(Nate) struggled a little bit early on, couldn't find the zone," said Artes. "He was missing up a lot, but he really came back and had a lot of confidence in his curveball. That was the difference for us. He pitched a hell of a game. We had a big win against Cheverus Tuesday and got another one today. Portland's a very good team. They'll be there at the end. They're well coached and have some very good players. It's good to get this win."

Another busy week

While Windham returns to action Tuesday at home against Thornton Academy, Portland will go to Marshwood. Next week also brings a trip to Bonny Eagle and a home game with Massabesic.

Showdowns with South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Cheverus, Deering and a rematch at Windham still loom as well.

"It's a very competitive league," said DiBiase. "There's not one dominant team. We're a solid baseball team. It's a process. We have to hit a little better to be competitive against good teams."

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