Beat goes on for Bulldogs
PORTLAND—The Portland High School baseball team discovered a year ago just how difficult it is to win when you don't hit or cross home plate.
This spring, the Bulldogs are doing plenty of hitting and scoring.
And by extension, winning.
Tuesday afternoon at Hadlock Field, amid nearly perfect conditions for the last day of April, Portland continued its renaissance with an impressive win over dangerous Thornton Academy and its senior ace, Jeff Gelinas.
The Bulldogs broke a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the fifth when junior leftfieler Joe Apon singled home senior third baseman Mike Scala with the go-ahead run. Senior centerfielder Tim Rovnak then provided some breathing room with something Portland fans last saw in 2011, a home run.
Even better, it was of the palpitating inside-the-park variety, pushing the lead to 4-2.
After senior starting pitcher Caleb Fraser had to leave the game with a blister. in the top of the sixth, the Golden Trojans got a run back, but senior Nate Smart escaped the jam and Portland tacked on two more runs in the bottom half.
Smart escaped one final jam in the seventh and the Bulldogs prevailed, 6-3, to improve to 4-1, dropping Thornton Academy to 1-4 in the process.
"The three years this group's been together, I think it's the best win we've had against a quality pitcher," said Portland coach Tony DiBiase. "Tacking on runs, playing good defense, getting out of jams. (Gelinas) a very good pitcher. We were excited to play him. I was excited to see how we'd do against a quality pitcher like that and I thought we did pretty well."
Living up to billing
Despite missing the playoffs last year with a 5-11 record, Portland was viewed as a team to beat entering the 2013 campaign and minus a few rough innings last week, has made the pundits look prescient.
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 Saturday by blanking visiting Noble, 7-0.
Thornton Academy started with losses at Scarborough (3-0) and at home versus Deering (6-1), then downed visiting South Portland in a slugfest, 13-8. The Golden Trojans were poised to even their record Saturday at Cheverus, but couldn't hold a 5-2 lead and lost in eight innings, 6-5.
Last year, Thornton Academy eked out a 6-5 win over the Bulldogs in Saco. The last time Portland beat the Golden Trojans was May 23, 2009 (3-2 a home triumph).
Tuesday, the Bulldogs continued to do the little things (and one big thing) that spell victory.
Both pitchers were on their game early.
Fraser fanned Thornton Academy senior centerfielder Dylan Morton leading off, got junior shortstop Ryder Kennedy to ground out to shortstop, then induced a foul pop off the bat of Gelinas, which senior first baseman Kyle Reichert ranged well down the rightfield line to catch to end the frame.
In the bottom of the first, Gelinas was equally effective, getting senior shortstop Nick Volger to fly out to center, Apon to sky to left and Rovnak to do the same.
The second inning would be a different story as junior second baseman Alex Fallon led off with a sharp ground ball down the third base line. Scala made a nice diving stop to save an extra base hit, but Fallon was aboard with an infield single. He promptly stole second to get in scoring position, but Fraser bore down, got senior first baseman Cameron Jackman to fly out to center and induced a deep fly by junior third baseman Drew Lavigne to right (Fallon moved to third), before junior rightfielder Matt Rutherford came through with a clutch single through the hole between third and short to score Fallon for a 1-0 lead.
In the bottom of the second, Gelinas struck out the side, working around a two-out walk to senior rightfielder Chip Webber, who was stranded at second after a steal.
In the third, Fraser returned to form, catching junior designated hitter Drew Gelinas and Morton looking at strike three, then getting Kenney to ground weakly to short.
Junior second baseman Evan Gallant led off the bottom of the third for the Bulldogs and went down swinging, but Scala walked, stole second and moved to third on a sinking line drive single to right by Volger. Volger promptly stole second and when Apon grounded out to second, Scala came home to tie the score and Volger moved to third. Rovnak then delivered a clutch single to center to plate Volger with the go-ahead run. Rovnak kept the running parade going by stealing second. Reichert then walked, but Fraser grounded out short to second to end the inning.
Jeff Gelinas helped himself to start the top of the fourth, skying a double over the head of Apon in left (the ball just kept carrying), which one-hopped the Maine Monster. Fallon then beat out an infield single to put runners at the corners. Fraser got Jackman to fly out to shallow center, with the runners holding, but after Fallon stole second, Lavigne lined deep enough to left to allow Gelinas to score the tying run. Fallon moved to third when a Fraser pickoff throw went awry, but Rutherford grounded out to Scala and the game remained tied, 2-2.
In the bottom of the fourth, Gelinas got Webber to pop to first, fanned Smart swinging and got Gallant to ground sharply to short.
Thornton Academy went meekly in the top of the fifth, setting the stage for Portland to take the lead in its half.
The rally started when Scala, the No. 9 hitter, walked on five pitches. On the first pitch to Volger, Scala stole second. He moved to third when Volger flew to right and Apon drove him home with a sharp single to right-center for a 3-2 advantage. Apon was picked off, but that transgression was immediately forgotten when Rovnak ripped a shot to right-center. Morton couldn't reach the ball and it rolled all the way to the wall. In the meantime, Rovnak blew around second, hit third and didn't stop. The throw came in, but by the time the relay reached senior catcher Josh Coffin, Rovnak dove in and touched the plate for an inside-the-park home run, making the score 4-2.
After the Bulldogs failed to launch a single home run in 2012 and hadn't gone deep this spring (the last came April 22, 2011 vs. Gorham, when Reichert hit one), Rovnak came through at the perfect time.
"I was just thinking to get two, but it got by the outfielder, so I was just digging the rest of the way," Rovnak said. "I was a little surprised. I didn't think my coach would send me, but he did and I just tried to get there. I got my hand in."
Thornton Academy threatened in the top of the sixth, as Kenney walked to start the frame and Gelinas did the same to put the tying runs on.
Fraser then had to leave the game.
"He had a blister on his thumb," DiBiase said. "It was bad in the fifth inning and he lost a little bit and tried to go back in the sixth and didn't have anything left."
Fallon greeted Fraser's replacement, Smart, by grounding sharply to Scala, who stepped on third for one out and threw across the diamond to complete a pivotal double play.
"I was thinking if it came to me to just tag the bag and get one to begin with, then two," said Scala. "It's something we practice all the time."
Jackman followed with a single to left-center to score Gelinas, but that only brought the score to 4-3. Lavigne then flew out to center as Smart preserved the lead.
Fraser sparked another rally in the bottom half, drawing a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Webber then placed a nice bunt down the first base line which Gelinas bobbled, then threw away, putting runners at the corners. A wild pitch scored Fraser and moved Webber to third. Junior pinch-hitter Travis Godbout struck out, but Gallant delivered in the clutch with a deep fly ball to right-center, which allowed Webber to score easily to stretch the lead to 6-3.
Smart made things interesting in the seventh.
After Rutherford flew out to center, junior leftfielder Evan Wright singled to left. Smart struck out freshman pinch-hitter Ben Lambert for out number two, but he hit Morton, bringing Kenney up as the tying run. On the verge of walking Kenney to bring Gelinas up with a chance to tie the game or put the Golden Trojans ahead, Smart made one final big pitch, getting Kenney to pop out to Reichert to end it.
"Nate's a starter, not a reliever, but he got through it," DiBiase said. "We were worried with that last at-bat because on deck was Gelinas. We had to get that last out. We didn't want Gelinas up with the bases loaded.
Portland only mustered four hits, but seven stolen bases (three by Scala, two by Webber and one each from Rovnak and Volger) helped spark the offense.
"We saw (Gelinas) had a slow delivery and the catcher doesn't have the greatest arm," Scala said. "We wanted to take as many bags as possible and we did."
Scala scored twice, while Fraser, Rovnak, Volger and Webber each touched home once. Apon and Rovnak each drove in two runs, while Gallant had one RBI.
"Our team seems much more laid back about our plate approach this season," Rovnak said. "I think it makes a huge difference. Today was a challenge for us with a great pitcher. We saw where we truly are as a team. We found out today."
DiBiase singled out Scala for praise.
"He played big for us," DiBiase said. "He's a solid No. 9 hitter. He got on three times, stole three bases and scored two runs. That's pretty good for a No. 9 guy."
Fraser improved to 2-0 after allowing three runs on four hits and two walks in five-plus innings. He had four strikeouts.
"It's a very good win," Fraser said. "I just challenged the hitters and threw strikes. I've had a little trouble with my control, so I just let them hit it. It worked out pretty well. My curveball worked today. My fastball was on-point. I had good velocity. (The blister) was very frustrating. I thought I was cruising along, but Smart came in and picked me up."
Smart earned the save with two shutout innings. He allowed two hits and hit a batter while fanning one.
Thornton Academy was led by Fallon, who was the game's lone repeat hitter and stole two bases. Gelinas scored twice and Fallon also scored a run. Jackman, Levigne and Rutherford all had RBIs.
Gelinas fell to 1-2 after allowing six runs (four earned) on six hits and six walks. he fanned six and threw a wild pitch.
"You have to stay off the high fastball with him, because he throws hard up," DiBiase said. "I thought we had great at-bats and put good swings on him. Overall this year, I think we've swung the bats well. Everyone has good at-bats, 1 through 9. That's an important part of the team this year."
While Thornton Academy returns to action Thursday at home versus Bonny Eagle, Portland will be back at Hadlock to take on Windham.
The Bulldogs still have an abundance of tests remaining, including May showdowns with fellow league favorites Scarborough, Westbrook and Cheverus.
Portland is poised to end its three-year postseason drought and post a winning record for the first time since 2009, but for this squad, the sky's the limit.
The last time the Bulldogs played in a state final was 2006 and the last time they won it all was way back in 1998.
Portland isn't content just being competitive again, it wants to play into the middle of June and has a team that could do that very thing.
"Hopefully we can keep it up and have a good season the rest of the way," said Scala. "A good start was important. The past couple years, we got off to a slow start and the season went down the drain. I don't think that's going to happen this time. We have solid pitching, so we have to play solid defense. We need to keep hitting hard balls. As a team, we have a much better approach as the plate."
"We've had expectations the past couple years and it didn't go the way we wanted, but I really think we've turned the corner this year," Fraser said. "We've been together for awhile now. I think it's our year."
"Hopefully it will continue," DiBiase added. "Our pitching is starting to come around. I think we're going to be OK. Team chemistry is really about winning. We've had three years of a growing process. It's good to see them win. It snowballs."