Midnight strikes for Cinderella Bulldogs
WESTBROOK—A few measly inches.
That unit of measurement was all it took to end the spirited playoff run of the Portland baseball team Monday afternoon in the Western Class A semifinals.
The Bulldogs, a team that few expected to make a run when the postseason began, had battled higher-seeded host Westbrook into the bottom of the seventh inning before the Blue Blazes took advantage of a series of breaks to score the winning run.
No. 8 Portland had forged a 1-1 tie on a booming second inning home run from senior designated hitter Kyle Reichert and behind its defense and senior starter Nate Smart, who surrendered a first inning run before working out of several jams, kept the game deadlocked.
But in the seventh, the trouble started when senior centerfielder Kyle Schumacher struck out, but Bulldogs sophomore catcher Ryan Ruhlin couldn't hold strike three, then failed to locate the ball in the dirt and Schmacher improbably reached base. Junior shortstop Collin Joyce followed with a perfectly placed bunt single and after a sacrifice, Blue Blazes junior catcher Kyle Heath was walked intentionally to load the bases and set up a force at home.
Portland had escaped a similar jam two innings earlier, thanks to senior shortstop Nick Volger, who twice threw out runners at the plate, but after Smart got to the brink of escaping the inning by fanning senior first baseman Keenen Lowe, senior third baseman Derek Bouchard lined a hit just over the head of senior third baseman Mike Scala and just inside the third base line to end it.
Westbrook eked out a 2-1 win, improved to 15-3 and advanced to face No. 2 Marshwood (16-2) Wednesday at 3 p.m., in the Western Class A FInal at St. Joseph's College in Standish and ended the Bulldogs' season at 10-9 in the process.
"We played well toward the end of the season," said Portland coach Tony DiBiase. "It's been a super group to coach. I think the kids enjoyed the season, even though we had ups and downs and in-betweens. This was a great game to end the season."
Best for last
Portland, which last made the playoffs in 2009, entered the year with high hopes and got off to a fast start. The season began with a 12-4 win at Sanford. After holding off host Kennebunk, 4-3, the Bulldogs watched 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 Thornton Academy. That proved to be the high point, however, as the Bulldogs lost at home to Windham, 2-0, at Marshwood (8-1) and after a 9-2 home win over Massabesic, dropped a 10-3 home decision to South Portland, fell at home to Scarborough, 9-2, and at Westbrook (4-3). After an 8-3 win at Bonny Eagle, another frustrating and agonizing loss followed, 7-6, in nine innings, at Cheverus. A 5-4 walkoff home win over Deering stemmed the tide before Portland lost at Windham, 3-0, and edged visiting Biddeford, 3-2, to finish 8-8 and grab the No. 8 seed.
Portland didn't enter the playoffs looking much like a team destined to stick around long, but the Bulldogs were at their best when it mattered most, putting up an eight-spot in the third inning of an 8-0 preliminary round win over No. 9 South Portland last Tuesday, then shocking top-ranked Scarborough, 5-4, in the quarterfinals Thursday.
Westbrook, meanwhile, has been a top contender for several seasons and posted a 13-3 mark this spring, losing only to the three teams which finished of it, Scarborough, Marshwood and Windham. With every loss coming at home, the Blue Blazes switched things up for the playoffs, wearing their road uniforms at home and whether it helped or not, Westbrook (which won the SMAA tournament just before the start of the playoffs) did rally for a 3-2 quarterfinal round win over No. 5 Cheverus Thursday.
The teams had met just three prior times in the playoffs (see sidebar, below), with Westbrook taking two of them.
The semifinal was scheduled for Saturday, but poor weather moved the game to Monday where the teams made the wait worthwhile.
Blue Blazes senior starter Zack Bean got some help from Heath to escape the top of the first.
Portland senior centerfielder Tim Rovnak led off with a single up the middle, but Heath managed to pull off the rarity of catching the speedster when he tried to steal second.
Volger and junior leftfielder Joe Apon then looked at strike three to end the frame.
In the bottom half, Westbrook quickly pushed across a run.
Joyce led off by going the other way, lining a double down the rightfield line. Junior rightfielder Ryan Gilligan moved Joyce up a base with a sacrifice bunt and Heath brought the run in with a ground ball to short.
The Bulldogs answered in the top of the second.
After senior rightfielder Caleb Fraser grounded out to shortstop, Reichert got a hold of a pitch and drove it over Schumacher's head and over the centerfield fence to make it 1-1.
It was Portland's first over the fence home run since the 2011 season.
Smart followed with a base hit to right and was sacrificed to second by junior first baseman Travis Godbout, but junior second baseman Evan Gallant flew out to center to end the rally.
In the bottom half, Smart retired the first two hitters, but junior designated hitter Austin Blake singled through the hole on the left side of the infield and junior leftfielder Kaleb Kent reached on an infield hit. Smart stymied the Blue Blazes, however, by getting Schumacher to ground to Volger, who threw to Gallant for the force out.
In the third, Scala led off with a base hit to right. Rovnak popped out to second and Volger lined out to right and with Apon at the plate, Scala became Heath's second victim, as he was caught stealing.
"Heath has a great arm and a quick release down to second," Volger said. "He slowed down our running game."
Smart had his best inning in the bottom half, getting Joyce swinging at strike three and Gilligan looking at strike three before inducing a groundout to short off the bat of Heath.
Bean had his first 1-2-3 inning in the top of the fourth, as Apon and Fraser struck out and Reichert popped out to short.
Smart had to work out of a jam in the bottom half, as with one out, he walked both Bouchard and Bean, but he got Blake to ground out to first and got Kent to ground to Scala, whose throw across the diamond was low, but Godbout made a nice scoop for out number three.
Gallant delivered a two-out single in the fifth, but Scala grounded out to first base.
In the bottom half, Portland improbably escaped a bases loaded, no out jam.
Schumacher started the trouble with a single over the third base bag. Joyce then bunted back to the mound, where Smart couldn't handle the ball and the error put runners at first and second. Gilligan lined a single to center to load the bases and the Bulldogs were on the verge of falling behind.
Enter Volger, the sparkplug and leader, who chose the optimal time to make one of the best defensive plays of the season.
With the infield in, Heath hit a sharp ground ball that appeared ticketed for centerfield, but Volger went down to get the ground ball, did a 180, then threw home just in time to force Schumacher.
Lowe then hit a routine ground ball to Volger, who again threw home for a force.
Joyce collided with Ruhlin on the play and DiBiase felt that runner's interference should have been called with the batter deemed out as well, but he wasn't able to sell his argument.
"I thought the runner interfered with the throw to first base," DiBiase said. "He jumped up. It's the same thing as a double play ball. You can't get in the way of the guy making the throw to first base. I thought he actually got in the way. If you do that at second base, that's a double play."
Smart then ended the threat by getting Bouchard to look at strike three.
Any momentum Portland might have had was quickly extinguished by Bean, who simply got stronger as the game went on. Bean struck out Rovnak, got Volger to fly to medium-deep center, then ended the inning by forcing Apon to squib a ball in front of the plate, where Heath pounced on it before throwing to first for out number three.
"I thought that momentum was flipped back over, but Bean shut us down," Volger said.
Westbrook went in order in its half, as Bean grounded to third (with Godbout making another nice scoop at first), Blake lined deep to center and Kent popped out to third.
In the top of the seventh, Fraser was due to lead off, but senior Chip Webber pinch-hit to allow Fraser, normally a starter (and ostensibly the pitcher to get the nod in the regional final), extra time to warm up in case he was needed in relief. Webber popped to first, Reichert struck out and Smart fanned as well to send the game to the fateful bottom of the seventh still tied at 1-1.
The first batter, Schumacher, swung and missed at strike three, but if strike three is in the dirt, the runner can reach first if the throw doesn't get there first and Schumacher alertly raced down the line as Ruhlin, futilely, searched for the ball that was at his feet.
"That killed us," DiBiase said. "It's just one of those weird things about baseball. Ryan's been an excellent defensive catcher all year long."
If that wasn't demoralizing enough for the Bulldogs, Joyce's bunt shook their confidence even more. Off the bat, it looked like Smart might be able to catch it in the air and perhaps start a double play, but it landed just to his left and by the time the pitcher got to the ball and first looked at second before turning to first, he had no time to throw out Joyce.
"We played well defensively, with the exception of the bunt defense," DiBiase said. "I thought (Smart) was going to catch it in the air. When he missed it, he got all confused. It's too bad, because he's an excellent fielder."
Gilligan then laid down a nice bunt in front of the plate and even though Ruhlin made the throw in time to first, runners were at second and third with one down.
Not surprisingly, Portland chose to walk Heath, giving Lowe a chance to play the hero.
Smart wasn't about to let that happen, however, and he fanned him swinging for the second out.
With the Blue Blazes on the verge of more frustration, Bouchard, who had twice struck out looking, came to the plate.
On the second pitch, he made contact and placed the ball perfectly. It landed fair, Schumacher raced home and bedlam ensued for the hosts.
"I didn't produce at all early in the game," Bouchard said. "Coach told me to sing a song in my head and I did. I just sat back and hit it down the line. The pressure was all on me, but I just got up and swung at my pitch. At first, I thought it would be fair, but down the line, I saw it was curving. It stayed fair. It felt awesome."
Joyce was the only player in the game to have multiple hits, including his team's lone extra base hit, a double. Joyce and Schumacher scored Westbrook's runs. Bouchard and Heath had RBI.
Bean continued his season-long excellence, improving to 5-0, after allowing just one run on five hits. He didn't walk a batter and struck out eight.
"Zack pitched a hell of a game," Bouchard said. "He always pitches great. He's clutch. He did it again."
"We ran into a good pitcher today," said Volger. "He had a good breaking ball. He spotted his fastball on the outside corner. We couldn't string hits together to get something going."
"Both pitchers today pitched great," DiBiase said. "After what we did against Scarborough, getting 11 hits off (Maine Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year Ben) Greenberg, I thought we could carry that on a bit, but Bean shut us down pretty well. It was our lack of getting people on base. Other than Kyle's home run, we didn't get a guy to third base."
The Westbrook-Marshwood winner will play either Oxford Hills or Messalonskee in the Class A state final Saturday at 2 p.m., in Augusta.
"Our confidence is really high right now," Bouchard said. "We've won six in a row. Winning (the league title) really boosted us. We lost to Marshwood, but we handed them the game earlier in the year."
Heads held high
For Portland, Reichert accounted for the run. Smart, the hard-luck loser, fell to 4-4 after giving up two runs on seven hits and three walks. He struck out seven in his swan song.
"I give credit to Nate," DiBiase said. "He pitched tremendous. I thought he lost it a bit in the sixth, but he gutted his way through. I thought he was going to get out of that last inning. The (last) fastball was supposed to be outside and it kind of ran inside and hit off the handle. That's the way it goes."
The Bulldogs rode a roller-coaster ride this spring, but played their best when it mattered most.
"I thought the kids played well," said DiBiase. "They put it all together toward the end. It was a great game today, I thought."
"The last week has been fun," Volger said. "We haven't played baseball at this level with this many people around. It's fun to be a part of. We brought Portland High baseball back where we should be, competing for championships. We'll go off with our heads held high."
The Bulldogs lose the likes of Fraser, Reichert, Rovnak, Scala, Smart and Volger, but several other key players (Apon, Gallant, Godbout and Ruhlin lead the way) will be back, looking to build on this year's success.
"We have a good nucleus coming back," DiBiase said. "We have a good JV group, 55 kids in the program playing baseball. It hurts now because it meant so much to these kids. The one thing they've done is they put Portland baseball back on the map."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous Portland-Westbrook playoff results
2008 Western A quarterfinals
Westbrook 13 Portland 0 (5)
2005 Western A Final
Westbrook 13 Portland 3 (6)
2002 Divisional Quarterfinals
Portland 6 Westbrook 2