Portland's big inning spells prelim win over SP
PORTLAND—It's not often that a snowman is a welcome sight in the month of June, but the Portland baseball team, desperate for an offensive explosion, produced one Tuesday afternoon in a Western Class A preliminary round game versus South Portland.
In the bottom of the third inning, the Bulldogs rode seven hits to an eight-run (the number eight representing the snowman) uprising and never looked back as they handled the Red Riots, 8-0.
Senior shortstop Nick Volger got the rally started with a single, scored the first run, then capped the explosion with a two-run single.
Senior pitcher Nate Smart only needed one of the runs, as he threw a three-hit gem and Portland improved to 9-8, ended South Portland's season at 6-11 and advanced to meet top-ranked, defending regional champion Scarborough (14-2) in the quarterfinals Thursday at a time to be announced.
"This means a lot," said Smart. "We have high hopes every year and something had gone wrong every year. We finally put a good game together. Hopefully we'll have momentum going for the playoffs."
Portland and South Portland have played baseball against each other seemingly forever and have produced their share of playoff thrillers. Entering play Tuesday, the Bulldogs had won five of the previous seven meetings (dating to 1980), including regional final victories in 1980 and 1987 (the Red Riots turned the tables in that round in 1991). The past two postseason encounters went extra innings, with Portland prevailing, 5-4, in 11 innings, in the 2004 semifinals and 6-5, in eight innings, in the 2005 quarterfinals. Five of the seven postseason games had been won by one or two runs.
Based on the teams' up-and-down play in 2013, another tight battle was expected.
South Portland, ousted by Biddeford in last year's preliminary round, started hot this spring, avenging the playoff loss with a 6-0 home win over Biddeford in its opener, then defeating visiting Noble, 6-5. After falling, 13-8, in a slugfest at Thornton Academy, the Red Riots eked out a 4-3 victory at Massabesic and downed visiting Sanford, 10-3. South Portland then went the other way, dropping nine of 10, starting with a 12-7 home loss to Scarborough. Losses at Gorham (2-1, in eight innings), Windham (6-2) and Marshwood (4-3) followed before the Red Riots broke through with a 10-3 victory at Portland. South Portland then fell at home to Kennebunk (6-1), at Bonny Eagle (3-2), at home to Deering (6-1), at home to Westbrook (2-1) and at Scarborough (2-0), before salvaging a playoff spot with a surprising 9-6 home victory over Cheverus, which capped a 6-10 campaign and gave the Red Riots the No. 9 seed.
Portland, which last made the playoffs in 2009, entered the year with high hopes and like South Portland, 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.
Tuesday, Portland only scored in one inning, but it was a crooked number to remember.
Smart made quick work of the Red Riots in the first, getting junior leftfielder Joe DiBiase to ground back to the mound on the first pitch, junior second baseman Jon Vickers to pop out foul to third and inducing a ground out to second off the bat of senior Nick Whitten, needing just eight pitches to retire the side.
Portland threatened in its half, but wound up frustrated.
Senior centerfielder Tim Rovnak led off by beating out a ground ball to the hole, but he was erased when Volger bounced into a double play. Junior leftfielder Joe Apon was then hit by a pitch and senior rightfielder Caleb Fraser singled to left, but senior designated hitter Kyle Reichert went down swinging to end it.
Smart started the second by getting senior catcher Adam Helmke to pop out foul to first and junior third baseman Robert Graff to ground back to the mound, but junior rightfielder Chris Foley drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch and Marles ripped a base hit to right-center, where Rovnak made a stellar slide to hold Marles at first and prevent Foley (who took third) from coming around to score. Smart then escaped the jam by catching senior first baseman Dillon Burns looking at strike three.
In the bottom half, Smart got an apparent rally started by battling back from a 1-2 count to earn a walk. With junior first baseman Travis Godbout at the plate, Marles wild pitched Smart to second. He bounced back to fan Godbout and after junior second baseman Evan Gallant grounded out to second, moving Smart to third, senior third baseman Mike Scala chased the first pitch and skied out to Graff to keep the game scoreless.
Junior shortstop Cosmo Romano led off the top of the third with a flare that Rovnak raced in to catch. DiBiase then beat out a routine grounder to short for an infield hit. DiBiase stole second and Vickers drew a walk, bringing up Whitten, who lined out to Rovnak. Helmke then ripped a shot to left, but the wind held it up and Apon made the catch to retire the side.
In the bottom half, Portland broke through with a vengeance.
Rovnak flew out to left for an inauspicious beginning to the frame, but Volger blooped a hit to rightfield that Vickers couldn't quite reach and promptly stole second. Apon drew a four-pitch walk and Fraser (the team leader in RBI during the regular season) came through, ripping a double over DiBiase's head, scoring Volger to break the ice. The Red Riots had a shot at catching Apon straying too far off third, but he got back safely. Reichert then walked to load the bases and Smart helped himself by serving a single over Romano to score Apon for a 2-0 lead. Godbout followed by blooping a single to right-center (Foley got to the ball, but couldn't corral it) and Fraser trotted home. Marles got the second out when Gallant lined to third, but he never got the third as Scala followed with a single to center, scoring Reichert.
South Portland coach Mike Owens came out to pull Marles in favor of sophomore Henry Curran, who was immediately greeted by a Rovnak single, which scored both Smart and Godbout and moved to Scala to third, as Rovnak raced to second on the throw. Volger, who started all the trouble, then ripped a single up the middle, easily scoring Scala and there was no way anyone was stopping Rovnak, who followed close behind to cap the eight-run uprising.
"It's nice to put together a game like this at the end of the season for playoff time," Volger said. "We had better at-bats. We saw a lot of pitches. We were more selective, looking for our pitches, balls we could drive. We got guys on base and moved them around. We had to be patient. We knew we had guys on in the early innings and we'd get them around. Hitting's contagious. One good at-bat leads to another."
Volger stole second, but Curran finally ended the inning by getting Apon to ground to third.
"In the top of the inning, we had a good chance, but we couldn't get a two-out hit with our best hitter up," Owens said. "Then, the floodgates opened. It happened quick. I wanted to get to Whitten, but he was in the field and we couldn't get him loose. We tried to piece it together to get out of the inning. Portland had good swings. They hit the ball hard, the other way, up the middle. Even the outs were loud."
The Red Riots hoped to get something going in the fourth when Graff led off and reached on an error, but Foley struck out looking, sophomore Matt Beecher (hitting for Marles) lined out to center and Burns struck out swinging.
Whitten came on to pitch in the bottom half, with Foley moving to center, and Foley was tested immediately when Fraser lined out to him. Foley then made a tremendous running, sprawling catch on a Reichert line drive for the second out. Portland refused to go in order, however, as Smart lined a single up the middle. Senior Andrew Ahonen came on to pinch-run and Godbout followed with a sharp single to right, but Gallant grounded out to shortstop to end the frame.
Scala made a solid defensive play to start the top of the fifth, racing in to collect Romano's slow roller and throwing him out on the run for the first out. DiBiase grounded back to the mound, but Vickers hit a shot over the senior Chip Webber's head in right for a double before Smart ended the frame catching Whitten looking at strike three.
The Bulldogs went in order for the first time in the bottom half, as Scala flew out to left, Rovnak lined out to center and Volger hit a fly ball to right.
Smart fanned Helmke and Graff looking to start the sixth and after walking sophomore pinch-hitter Anthony Degifico, Smart got Beecher to ground out to Volger at short, who stepped on second for the force.
Portland's final at-bat consisted of senior Ted Hamilton pinch-hitting for Apon and lining softly to short, Webber grounding to Vickers, who made a nice play going to his right, and senior pinch-hitter Adam Berg dribbling a ball in front of the plate, which Helmke gobbled up and threw to first to retire the side.
Smart slammed the door quickly in the top of the seventh, getting Burns to fly to right, sophomore pinch-hitter Sam Solomon to strike out swinging and pinch-hitter Brad Sowerby to hit a slow ground ball back to him and Smart threw to first to end it.
"All year, we couldn't put up runs, but today, we had some clutch hits," Smart said. "We've been together for years now and we've come up short. This is huge for our confidence."
Portland's offense showed great balance as Fraser (who had the team's lone extra base hit), Godbout, Rovnak, Smart and Volger all had two hits, eight different players scored and six had RBI (Rovnak and Volger both drove in two). Volger also stole two bases.
"I thought we hit the ball hard all game," Bulldogs coach Tony DiBiase said. "We were right on it all game and had really good at-bats. That was good to see. Marles has pitched well all year. We hit well against quality pitching. We relaxed a little bit and got some runs. It reminds me of summertime, when we play relaxed."
Smart was solid from the first pitch to the last (both of which were grounded back to him), throwing seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks. He struck out seven batters and threw one wild pitch as he improved to 4-3.
"The last couple starts, I've been figuring it out," Smart said. "Today, I went out there and threw strikes and kept the ball down and my fielders made plays. I really only threw my fastball and slider. My slider had good, late bite down and away."
"We challenged him with him being a senior," DiBiase said. "We told him we'd give him the first shot and he obviously pitched great. I thought he threw the ball exceptionally well."
South Portland got a double from Vickers and a steal from DiBiase, but not much else. Marles fell to 2-5 after allowing seven earned runs on seven hits and three walks in 2.2 innings. He fanned two, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch. Curran got just one out and allowed a run on two hits. Whitten threw three effective shutout innings in relief, only giving up two hits.
"We hoped for a little more this year," Owens said. "I thought it would be a struggle early and that we'd get better as the season went on. We didn't hit as well as I hoped in a stretch which hurt our record, but we were in every game. We lost by a run five times.
"We need to get a little bigger and a little stronger. We are pretty young. We have three seniors who played a key role, but we have a lot of guys who got valuable experience this year. We expect big things in the future."
Portland was no match for Scarborough in the regular season meeting May 16, but that doesn't matter now. The Bulldogs (who beat the Red Storm in the teams' lone prior playoff meeting, 5-4, in nine innings, in the 2008 preliminary round) are ready to be the decided underdog as they'll have to face Gatorade Player of the Year Ben Greenberg (Fraser will get the nod for Portland).
The Bulldogs will go in with nothing to lose as they look to pull a stunning upset.
"We got one out of the way and now it feels like summer baseball where we've played well," Smart said. "No one expects anything of us next game. They beat us badly last time with me on the mound. Caleb Fraser's been dominant this year. He'll come out and give us a great game. I know he will."
"(Scarborough) beat us here handily, but this is a good bounce-back for us," Volger said. "It's a great feeling to get a win in the last game we'll probably play on this field. It's a tall task, but why not us? Greenberg is obviously top-notch. We'll have to keep the same approach and try to battle. Hopefully it carries over."
"There was pressure on this group to make the playoffs and once we did, you could feel the pressure come off," DiBiase added. "These guys have never experienced the playoffs. They had questions about what happens. It's good to get them relaxed. We tend to play better when the weather gets better. We'll go with Fraser and see what happens. We certainly have the players who can do it."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Portland-South Portland playoff history
2005 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 6 South Portland 5 (8)
2004 Western A semifinals
Portland 5 South Portland 4 (11)
2002 Western A division semifinals
Portland 4 South Portland 3
2001 Western A semifinals
South Portland 5 Portland 2
1995 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 7 South Portland 2
1991 Western A Final
South Portland 18 Portland 4
1987 Western A Final
Portland 7 South Portland 4
1986 Western A semifinals
Portland 8 South Portland 7
1980 Western A Final
Portland 7 South Portland 5