Portland blanks SP in softball prelim

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Portland senior pitcher Jess Brown is congratulated by sophomore catcher Laini Legere after the Bulldogs’ 2-0 win over South Portland in Tuesday’s Class A South preliminary round. Brown threw a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts. Portland advanced to meet defending champion Scarborough in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 2 South Portland 0

SP- 000 000 0- 0 4 0
P- 000 011 x- 2 4 1

Bottom 5th
Bryant reached on infield single, Fiore scored.

Bottom 6th
Legere tripled to center, Brown scored.

Runs:
P- Brown, Fiore 

RBI:
P- Bryant, Legere

Doubles:
SP- Aceto
P- Brown

Triples:
P- Fiore, Legere

Stolen bases:
SP- Sherburne
P- Bryant

Left on base:
SP- 4
P- 4

Tetzlaff and Aceto; Brown and Legere

SP:
Tetzlaff (L, 5-5) 6 IP 4 H 2 R 2 ER 2 BB 8 K 

P:
Brown (W, 10-6) 7 IP 4 H 0 R 0 BB 11 K 

Time: 1:34

PORTLAND—When she’s not busy posing for photos with Patrick Dempsey, or preparing her valedictorian’s address, Portland senior Jess Brown is pretty impressive with a softball in her hand.

Tuesday afternoon at Payson Park, in a Class A South preliminary round contest against South Portland, Brown took the ball for what could have been her final high school start, but thanks to her determination and Houdini-like ability to work out of late inning jams, combined with some clutch hitting from her underclassmen teammates, Brown and her teammates will play at least once more.

Eighth-ranked Portland could do nothing with Red Riots sophomore starter Hattie Tetzlaff in the first four innings, failing to muster a single hit, but Brown was equally effective holding No. 9 South Portland at bay.

With light rain beginning to fall, each team had a chance to go on top in the fifth inning, but it would only be the hosts who managed to do so.

Brown worked around a leadoff double by Red Riots sophomore catcher Ashlee Aceto in the top half, stranding two runners in scoring position by fanning Tetzlaff.

In the bottom half, with one out, sophomore rightfielder Alexis Fiore jump-started the Bulldogs’ offense by tripling and one out later, freshman second baseman Mackenzie Bryant came up with a clutch RBI single to break the tie.

South Portland had a great chance to answer in the sixth, as junior centerfielder Grace Rende reached second on an error and moved up when junior third baseman Meghan Livingston beat out a bunt single, but again, Brown escaped, as Livingston was called out for leaving the base early and a strike out and pop out preserved the lead.

Portland got an insurance run in the bottom half, on a double from Brown and a triple from sophomore catcher Laini Legere and unlike the teams’ regular season meeting four weeks ago, Brown wasn’t about to let a seventh inning lead slip away, as she slammed the door with a 1-2-3 frame, posting her 11th strikeout of the contest to end it, and the Bulldogs prevailed, 2-0.

Portland improved to 10-7, ended the Red Riots’ season at 8-9 and advanced to play at top-ranked Scarborough (16-0), the defending Class A champion, in the Class A South quarterfinals Thursday at 4 p.m.

“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” said Brown, following the win and prior to putting the finishing touches on her speech in advance of Wednesday morning’s graduation ceremony. “We didn’t come in as highly ranked as last year. It’s big to get this win out of the way, beating a team we should have beaten in the regular season.”

Dark horses

Both teams had their fits and starts this spring, but hoped to save their best for last.

Portland, a regional finalist in 2017, in a season which saw Brown named Maine’s Gatorade Softball Player of the Year, was 6-7 at one point this spring, but won its final three games to earn the No. 8 seed and the right to host a playoff game for the third year in a row (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories).

South Portland, which welcomed back Ralph Aceto as coach, gave Aceto his 100th career coaching win earlier in the spring and won its final two games to go 8-8 and ninth in Class A South.

On May 7, the host Red Riots rallied for a 4-3, eight-inning win over the Bulldogs, tying the game with two unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh.

Prior to Tuesday, the teams had played five times in the postseason, dating to 1985 (see sidebar, below), with Portland holding a 3-2 lead, by virtue of last year’s 6-0 quarterfinal round triumph.

This time around, on a day that felt more like April 5 than June 5 (51 degrees at first pitch with increasingly drizzly conditions), the Bulldogs did just enough to extend their season and win a playoff game for the third consecutive year.

Brown, who was honored as a scholar-athlete at Sunday’s Maine Sports Hall of Fame banquet, where she rubbed elbows with Dempsey, aka “McDreamy” from Grey’s Anatomy, made quick work of South Portland in the top of the first, getting Rende to ground out to third, catching Livingston looking at a full count pitch and getting freshman second baseman Chloe Grant to strike out swinging on a 3-2 offering.

After Tetzlaff started the bottom half by getting senior shortstop Sydney Gilbert to ground out to third, she walked senior centerfielder Kit Rosmus, but Brown struck out swinging (Ashlee Aceto did a nice job hanging on to a foul tip on strike three) and Legere bounced out to third.

Senior leftfielder Maeve Kelley led off the second with a pop fly behind short which dropped in for a single, but after Aceto’s sacrifice bunt moved the runner into scoring position, Brown caught sophomore rightfielder Maria Buck looking at strike three and got out of the jam by fanning junior first baseman Syndey Sherburne.

Portland could do nothing with Tetzlaff in the bottom half, as sophomore first baseman Callie Watson grounded out to short and both junior leftfielder Annie Martin and Fiore looked at strike three.

Brown set the visitors down in order in the top of the third, getting junior shortstop Kaylee Whitten to pop out to second, Tetzlaff to look at strike three and Rende to ground to short.

In the bottom half, junior designated player Amanda Moffo flew to left and Bryant was robbed of extra bases by a tremendous diving catch by Rende, who ranged into left-center before going all out to snare the ball. Gilbert walked on a 3-2 pitch, but Rosmus looked at a strike on a full count pitch to retire the side.

Brown started the top of the fourth by getting sophomore Sarah Folan to look at strike three. Grant then popped out to second and Kelley popped to short.

The rain became more noticeable in the bottom of the fourth and Portland’s bats continued to slumber, as Brown grounded out to second, Legere hit a sharp grounder to Whitten at short, who bobbled the ball, but recovered and threw on to first for the out, and Watson struck out swinging.

The Red Riots then squandered a great chance to go on top in the top of the fifth.

Leading off, Aceto waited on an off-speed pitch and lined it into right-center for a double. She was replaced by junior Gracie Kierstead, who stayed put when Buck struck out, but Sherburne beat out a bunt hit to put runners at the corners. Whitten couldn’t deliver the run, as she popped out foul to Watson at first and after Sherburne stole second, Brown struck out Tetzlaff to keep the game scoreless.

It wouldn’t stay that way for long.

In the bottom of the fifth, Martin tried to bunt her way on, but she bunted right to Sherburne at first, who applied the tag for the first out. Fiore then solved Tetzlaff by ripping a shot to left-center. Rende raced over but couldn’t quite get to the ball and Fiore didn’t stop until she slid safely into third base with a triple, Portland’s first hit.

“I wanted to make contact,” Fiore said. “The last time we played South Portland, I hit well off their pitcher. I was looking for the right pitch. I thought (Grace) might catch it, then she didn’t and I was very happy with that.”

The Bulldogs appeared bound for a squander of their own when Moffo fanned on a 2-2 pitch, but Bryant came through in the clutch hitting a line drive just to the right of a lunging Whitten at short for an RBI infield single to score Fiore for a 1-0 lead.

“I felt that would start us off and we’d keep the momentum,” Fiore said. 

“The underclassmen killed it,” Brown said. “Alexis and Mackenzie had big hits.”

“It was big that (South Portland) didn’t score first,” added Portland coach Robbie Ferrante.

Bryant stole second, but was stranded when Tetzlaff battled back from 3-0 before catching Gilbert looking at strike three on a full count pitch.

The Red Riots then got a gift to start the sixth, as Rende hit a fly ball to left, which Martin dropped for a two-base error. When Livingston followed with a bunt single to put runners at the corners, it appeared as if South Portland would, at the very least tie the score, but with Grant up, Livingston was called out for leaving first base early. Brown then got Grant to chase a high pitch and strike out and Kelley hit a grounder to first that Watson handled easily and stepped on the bag to retire the side.

“It was definitely much more pressure on Laini and I,” Brown said. “She knew she couldn’t let anything get by and I knew I had to keep everything within her reach. I had the mentality of I wasn’t going to let them reach home.”

After Rosmus led off the bottom of the sixth with a ground out to short, Portland’s battery produced an insurance run.

Brown ripped a double to left-center and Legere followed with a booming drive to center that got over Rende’s head an rolled all the way to the fence. Brown scored easily and Legere barely beat the throw into third for an RBI triple and a 2-0 advantage.

“I was just looking to make solid contact,” Legere said. “I hadn’t gotten that the first two at-bats. I was thinking (Grace) might catch it, but I was happy it got over (her glove). On my turn, I saw the ball not hit the cutoff and I knew I had to run.”

“(Laini’s) a strong kid and it was her third time up seeing her,” Ferrante said.

Junior Grace Stacey, who has been hindered by a hand injury most of the season, came on as the courtesy runner, but was stranded as Watson popped out to the mound and Martin looked at strike three.

Brown wasn’t about to let history repeat itself and permit South Portland to rally in the top of the seventh.

Instead, she brought a quick end to the festivities, striking out Aceto swinging, getting freshman pinch-hitter Samantha Hillier to pop out to first, then fanning freshman pinch-hitter Chloe MacVane to end it in a tidy 94 minutes, giving Portland a 2-0 victory.

“The last game with them was a nightmare game,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to think about that, but I couldn’t help it. I’m glad it turned out differently.”

“I think this proves that maybe some of our losses didn’t reflect how good we are as a team,” Legere said. 

“The girls wanted this one because we gave them one the last time we played them,” Ferrante added.

Brown improved to 10-6 after throwing a four-hit shutout with no walks and 11 strikeouts, giving her 199 for the season.

“I felt strong out there,” said Brown. “Sometimes I do better in the cold than in the heat. It was lucky for me to have this sort of a day.”

“We hit the inside corner well,” Legere said. “The ump gave us inside calls. I was able to frame it to get that strike call.”

“Jess is an all-star pitcher and she knows when she has to reach back,” Ferrante added. “She was big. We put the ball in her hands and she had a big hit herself.”

The Bulldogs only mustered two runs on four hits, but three of those hits were for extra bases. Brown and Fiore scored the runs and Bryant and Legere had RBI.

Portland stranded four runners.

Wait til’ next year

South Portland only managed four hits and left four runners on base. 

Tetzlaff dropped to 5-5 after giving up two earned runs on four hits in six innings. She walked two and struck out eight.

“We had our chances, but we had a couple of blunders,” Ralph Aceto said. “We’ll get rid of those next year when we’re a year older. Hattie pitched fantastic. I talked to her yesterday and I said, ‘I need your best tomorrow.’ It was one of her best games all year. She’s a sophomore who got no innings last year.”

The Red Riots made nice strides during the season and will return everyone but Kelley next spring.

Don’t be surprised if this program soon finds itself once again as a top contender. 

“It took the girls most of the season to get used to me,” Aceto said. “We got to this point which was more than most people thought we could do. I’m pretty pleased with the season. We just ran out of opportunities. They fought all year. It’s a great group of girls. We only lose one senior and I plan on sticking around. We’ll just work a little bit harder. My battery is sophomores and my infield is juniors and a freshman. Next year, we won’t be satisfied. There’s only one place to be and that’s on top.”

On to Scarborough

The daunting task of meeting the defending Class A champion Red Storm who went 16-0 this spring for the fifth year in a row and have won 89 straight regular season games is what’s next for the Bulldogs.

On May 10, Portland lost at home, 11-0, to the Red Storm. The teams have played four prior playoff games with Scarborough’s 8-3 victory in last year’s Class A South Final giving it a 3-1 advantage.

No one will give the Bulldogs a chance, but they like it that way.

“We’ve got to hit,” Legere said. “They have really good pitching. We can’t let them get easy runs.”

“We’re always the underdog (against Scarborough),” Brown said. “In last year’s game, if you take away one lucky hit, it’s a tie game. If we have the same defense we had today and generate offense and not give them extra outs, we have a shot.”

“Someone has to play them,” Ferrante added. “We’ve seen them enough. We’ll go after them. We just have to hit the ball. Who knows?”

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

Portland senior pitcher Jess Brown throws a strike.

South Portland starting pitcher and hard-luck loser Hattie Tetzlaff throws an off-speed pitch.

South Portland junior first baseman Sydney Sherburne tags out Portland junior Annie Martin.

Portland sophomore Alexis Fiore slides into third base with a fifth inning triple, the Bulldogs’ first hit of the game. Fiore would later score the game’s first run.

South Portland junior shortstop Kaylee Whitten reaches in vain for Portland freshman Mackenzie Bryant’s hit in the fifth inning, which scored the game’s first run.

South Portland junior Grace Rende takes a lead down the third base line in the sixth inning. Rende would be stranded.

South Portland junior Meghan Livingston lays down a bunt single as Portland junior third baseman Casey Harmon charges during the sixth inning.

Portland sophomore catcher Laini Legere crushes a sixth inning RBI triple off South Portland sophomore pitcher Hattie Tetzlaff, as sophomore catcher Ashlee Aceto looks on.

Previous Portland stories

Gorham 2 Portland 1

Thornton Academy 10 Portland 6 (8)

Previous Portland-South Portland playoff results 

2017 Class A South quarterfinals
@ Portland 6 South Portland 0

2003 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 5 @ Portland 3

2002 Western A divisional semifinals
South Portland 2 @ Portland 0

1994 Western A semifinals
@ Portland 9 South Portland 4

1985 Western A quarterfinals
@ Portland 7 South Portland 4

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.