Portland hands Cheverus first setback

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Portland sophomore rightfielder Donnie Tocci smacks an RBI triple in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 3-1 home win over previously undefeated Cheverus.

Chris Lambert photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 3 Cheverus 1

C- 000 001 0- 1 4 3
P- 000 030 x- 3 7 0

Bottom 5th
Donnie Tocci tripled to right, Snyder scored. Ruotolo reached on infield single, Tocci scored. Ruotolo scored on error.

Top 6th
J. Casale doubled to right, Watson scored.

Repeat hitters:
P- King, Snyder

Runs:
C- Watson
P- Ruotolo, Snyder, Donnie Tocci

RBI:
C- J. Casale
P-Ruotolo, Donnie Tocci

Doubles:
C- Brooks, J. Casale

Triple:
P- Donnie Tocci

Stolen bases:
P- Brooks, Ruotolo

Left on base:
C- 4
P- 5

Brooks and McCarthy; Ruotolo and King

C:
Brooks (L, 3-1) 6 IP 7 H 3 R 2 ER 1 BB 7 K 2 HBP

P:
Ruotolo (W, 5-0) 7 IP 4 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 6 K

Time: 1:29

PORTLAND—Coming into Saturday afternoon’s showdown at Hadlock Field, there was plenty of buzz around the undefeated Cheverus baseball team.

The Portland Bulldogs, who have come of age faster than anyone expected this spring, took note and went out and promptly knocked the Stags from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Portland, behind senior ace Gio Ruotolo, played a flawless defensive game and after four scoreless innings, finally solved standout Cheverus senior pitcher Jared Brooks in the bottom of the fifth.

After junior third baseman Will Snyder beat out an infield hit and moved to second base on an error, sophomore rightfielder Donnie Tocci put the Bulldogs ahead to stay by smacking a triple down the rightfield line. Tocci came on an infield hit by Ruotolo and Ruotolo scored the inning’s third run on a throwing error.

The Stags tried to rally in the sixth, getting a run when senior first baseman Jack Casale doubled home junior shortstop Griffin Watson, but Ruotolo fanned Brooks in a big spot and didn’t allow another run and after slamming the door in the seventh, Portland was able to celebrate a Heal Points-rich 3-1 victory over its rival.

Ruotolo went the distance for his fifth win, Tocci tripled, had an RBI and scored a run and the Bulldogs won their seventh game in a row, improved to 9-2 and dropped Cheverus to 11-1 in the process.

“They went into the game thinking they were going to come out on top and I went in thinking I’d come out on top,” Ruotolo said. “I knew I was undefeated on the mound and I knew I had a great defense. I knew someone would leave today no longer undefeated and I think I wanted it a little bit more than they did.”

Saturday afternoon showcase

Hadlock Field was the place to be Saturday, as in the morning, South Portland knocked off Deering, 2-1, and in the afternoon, Portland welcomed Cheverus to the biggest stage in Maine baseball.

Both teams had enjoyed ample success this spring, so something had to give.

The Bulldogs opened with a 5-3 loss at Biddeford, then downed visiting Scarborough (3-2) and Massabesic (10-2). After falling at Sanford (5-4), Portland hit its stride, downing visiting Bonny Eagle (9-4), host Marshwood (14-13), host South Portland (5-2), visiting Windham (5-0), host Bonny Eagle (5-2) and host Westbrook Wednesday (8-1).

“We were 2-2 at one time,” said Portland coach Mike Rutherford. “After a really tough loss against Sanford when we played bad baseball, it turned around in the Marshwood game that we made six errors and won, 14-13. If we’ve made one error since then, I think that’s it.”

The Stags started out with shutout wins over visiting Noble (6-0) and host Gorham (3-0), Cheverus then beat visiting Bonny Eagle (9-1) and eked out wins at Thornton Academy (3-2) and visiting Westbrook (10-9). After a 4-0 blanking of host Marshwood and a a 5-3 home victory over Windham, the Stags enjoyed a 4-0 shutout win at South Portland, in a game which saw Brooks toss a one-hitter. After blanking visiting Deering, 7-0, Cheverus then surrendered a couple runs, but beat host Noble, 6-2, giving coach Mac McKew his 100th victory with the program, and Thursday, mercy ruled host Sanford (11-1, in five-innings).

When Cheverus and Portland meet, intensity is always high and recent meetings have gone the Bulldogs’ way, as they won the past three outings (see sidebar, below), including an 8-1 road victory a year ago.

Saturday, on a terrific day for baseball (64 degrees with a nine-mile-per-hour wind), Portland made a powerful statement.

The first two Stags’ batters hit the ball hard, but they had nothing to show for it, as Watson lined out to center, where sophomore Ben Stasium made the catch, and Jack Casale lined out to left, where junior Vinnie Pasquali made a nice running catch on a ball tailing away from him. Ruotolo then got Brooks to pop out to second for the third out.

Stasium led off the bottom half by working a walk on a full count pitch, but he tried to steal second and Cheverus senior catcher Logan McCarthy threw him out. Brooks then got senior second baseman Dom Tocci to look at strike three and senior shortstop Jake Knop to swing and miss at strike three.

Ruotolo had a solid top of the second as well, getting junior designated hitter Maxx St. John to ground back to the mound, McCarthy to bounce out to third and senior centerfielder Dom Casale to chase strike three.

In the bottom half, Portland threatened, but ultimately ran itself out of the inning.

After Brooks caught senior first baseman Thomas Joyce looking at strike three, senior designated hitter Nick Archambault singled through the hole between short and third. Snyder was hit by a pitch, but Donnie Tocci lined out to senior rightfielder Rylan Benedict and Benedict threw to Watson to double off Archambault to end the frame.

Ruotolo started the top of the third by catching sophomore second baseman Justin Ray looking at strike three. Benedict then started at strike three as well and on a full count pitch, junior leftfielder Cam Dube lined the ball to left-center, but Stasium ran it down to retire the side.

In the bottom half, Brooks got Ruotolo to ground out to third and after junior catcher Cam King blooped a single over Watson at short, Brooks picked him off, with Jack Casale throwing to Watson for the put out. Stasium reached on an error, when Watson threw high to Casale at first, but Brooks picked him off too and Casale threw to Watson for the tag to end the inning.

Cheverus then had a great opportunity to strike first in the top of the fourth, but couldn’t convert.

After Ruotolo got Watson to strike out swinging, the 10th straight batter he retired to start the contest, Jack Casale drew a walk on a full count pitch and Brooks crushed an offering the other way, over the head of Donnie Tocci in right, for a double, but Casale was held at third. With the infield playing in, Ruotolo got St. John to ground to Joyce at first, who tagged the bag with the runners holding, before getting McCarthy to ground out to Knop at short to end the threat.

In the bottom half, Dom Tocci struck out swinging, but Brooks hit Knop with an off-speed pitch. Brooks then got Joyce to look at strike three and after a long at-bat, Archambault lined the ball to center, which Dom Casale almost over-ran, before lunging to record the out that retired the side.

In the fifth, Dom Casale led off with a towering drive to deep left which Pasquali caught. Ray followed with a seeing-eye single up the middle and with Benedict at the plate, Ray moved to second on a passed ball. Benedict then chased a high fastball and struck out and Dube hit the ball hard, but it was right at Stasium in center, who caught it to end the frame.

Portland finally snapped the tie, with a little help, in the bottom of the inning.

Snyder led off with a sharp ground ball to the hole. Watson made a nice diving stop, but his throw to first was in the dirt and got past Casale. The hit-and-error put the go-ahead run at second with no one out. Donnie Tocci then produced the game’s biggest hit, a line triple down the rightfield line, to easily score Snyder with the tiebreaking run.

“I was just trying to pull the ball with a man on second,” Tocci said. “It felt good off the bat. I was just trying to run as fast as I could.”

“It was just a matter of putting the ball in play and making them make mistakes,” Ruotolo said. “Donnie being a lefty and being a spray hitter, he does really well and hits the ball hard.”

“(Donnie’s) only hitting about .240 or .250, but he should be hitting around .500,” Rutherford added. “He’s hit the ball on the money all season, but nothing’s been falling him. That was a big hit today. That’s why he got the game ball.”

The Bulldogs weren’t done.

With the infield in, Ruotolo hit a ball to Watson’s right and it bounced off the shortstop for an RBI single.

“We can’t sit around and go base-to-base on offense,” Rutherford said. “We had to put pressure on them. We were aggressive and stole a couple runs.”

King then bunted the ball in the air in front of the mound. Brooks dove to catch it, but couldn’t do so and King reached safely on an infield hit. With Stasium at the plate, Ruotolo took off for third, then hesitated and when McCarthy’s throw back to second got away, Ruotolo continued on to third and came all the way home with the game’s third run.

Stasium then bunted to the mound, but Brooks’ throw to second was too late to force King. Dom Tocci also bunted back to Brooks, but this time, Brooks was able to throw to third for the force out. He then got Knop to sky to Watson and Joyce to strike out, but Portland had a 3-0 lead with just six outs to go.

Cheverus got a run back in the top of the sixth, but Ruotolo prevented it from being more.

Watson led off with an infield single up the middle and Jack Casale drove a pitch over Donnie Tocci’s head in right. McKew tried to stop Watson at third, but he barreled through the stop sign and beat the throw home for Cheverus’ first run, as Casale stopped at second with a double.

Then, after getting a visit from his pitching coach, Ruotolo got the dangerous Brooks to strike out looking.

“Mentally, I think I was a little stronger than him in that at-bat,” Ruotolo said. “I knew I was ahead in the count and I knew where I wanted to put that pitch. I knew he’s the biggest bat in their lineup, so that deflated them.”

“The play of the game was that strikeout with Brooks up and a man at second and nobody out,” Rutherford said. “They had momentum and felt great and then they went out, out, out. They were deflated when they couldn’t get another run across. It looked like 3-1 was 9-1.”

After St. John grounded out to Joyce unassisted, with Casale taking third, McCarthy popped foul wide of first and Joyce did a nice job running it down for the final out to keep the score 3-1.

Brooks did his job in the bottom half, keeping the Stags in the game. After Archambault was out on a bang-bang play on a grounder to third, Snyder singled to right and was replaced by pinch-runner Cameron Brooks. After barely missing another extra base hit on a deep fly ball down the rightfield line, Donnie Tocci struck out and after Brooks stole second, Ruotolo grounded to short, with Watson tagging the runner going by to retire the side.

Ruotolo came out to finish it up and didn’t waste any time doing so. After Dom Casale flew out to left, Ray grounded out to third. That left it up to junior pinch-hitter Tyler Turner, who swung at the first pitch he saw and popped up to Knop just behind second base to end the game in a tidy 89 minutes, giving Portland an inspirational 3-1 victory.

“As Portland kids, we don’t really like Cheverus and I don’t think they like us either,” Donnie Tocci said. “The rivalry is huge. We flew under the radar and came in and won.”

“It’s a great win,” Rutherford said. “If they hit the ball, we fielded it. That’s our strength.”

Ruotolo improved to 5-0 after giving up just one run on four hits in seven innings. He walked two and struck out six.

“I felt good from the start,” Ruotolo said. “It was a nice day. I have full trust in every fielder. I wanted to close it out. It felt great.”

“When Gio pitches, we know he’ll get us ground balls and pop flies,” said Donnie Tocci, an ace in his own right. “We rely on him to get us through the game. He pretty much controls the game when he’s out there.”

“Gio throws strikes, but he won’t strike a lot of guys out,” Rutherford added. “Gio beat South Portland, one of the favorites, and today, he beat an undefeated team. He doesn’t have an 85-mile-per-hour fastball, but he pitches. He throws a change-up, a curveball. If you think fastball, he throws curve. If you think curveball, he throws fastball. He doesn’t walk anybody. He’s only walked a couple guys all season. He pitches to contact and he knows we have a great defense behind him. Why walk a guy? Let them hit it and we have a very good chance to make a play. He pitched like a number one and he’s been pitching like one of the best pitchers in the state.”

Offensively, King and Snyder had multiple hits, Ruotolo, Snyder and Donnie Tocci scored runs and Ruotolo and Donnie Tocci had RBI. Brooks and Ruotolo stole bases.

The Bulldogs stranded five base runners.

Cheverus got an RBI double from Jack Casale (Brooks also doubled). Watson scored the run. The Stags left four runners on.

Brooks fell to 3-1 after giving up three runs (two earned) on seven hits in six innings. He walked one, hit two batters and struck out seven.

“‘Brooksie’ was fairly solid,” said McKew. “There were a couple hard-hit balls and we unraveled a bit defensively. He gave us a chance to get back in the game. We hit a lot of balls hard and they were positioned properly. That’s playoff-type baseball. That’s what we’ll face down the road. We might as well get used to it now and get ready to make those plays.”

Eying a bye

The top four teams in Class A South earn a bye into the quarterfinals, allowing for an optimal pitching situation. Both Cheverus and Portland are in the mix for that coveted opportunity.

The Stags (second to Falmouth in the Class A South Heal Points standings at press time) are back at it Tuesday at Westbrook. After hosting Scarborough Thursday and Massabesic Saturday, Cheverus finishes at Biddeford May 29.

“If you told me we’d be 11-1 after 12 games, I’d sign up for that every time,” McKew said. “We have to collect ourselves and move on. We still have big games to come. Our goal is still to finish in the top four and not play a prelim. We have to forget about this and move on.”

The Bulldogs (now fourth in Class A South) welcome Biddeford Tuesday and Thornton Academy Thursday, play at Gorham Saturday, then close with a home game versus Noble and a battle with Deering at Hadlock Field May 31.

“We have to keep pitching well, swinging the bats and keep up the defense,” Donnie Tocci said. “Everyone on the team likes each other. We’ve all been friends and have played since we were little. The older kids are the leaders. They set a great example.”

“We’re mentally tough and physically, we’re talented,” Ruotolo said. “We just have to keep going with our heads held high. We have a lot of young guys with a ton of talent. We just have to keep working and winning games.”

“Without a number one pitcher and holes in the lineup, I thought nine wins would be great and right now, we have nine,” Rutherford added. “If we play like this and keep pitching like this, we can beat anybody. We’re Cheverus fans the rest of the way. We hope they go 15-1 and we can get their Heal Points. We want to stay out of a prelim. With two non-strikeout starters, why play one more game? These guys are coming together. The chemistry is fantastic.”

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

Portland senior starter Gio Ruotolo was superb, going the distance and allowing just one run on four hits in earning his fifth victory of the spring.

Cheverus senior starter Jared Brooks suffered his first loss of the season.

Cheverus junior Griffin Watson tags out Portland sophomore centerfielder Ben Stasium on a first inning steal attempt.

Portland senior Nick Archambault can’t get back to second base in time as Cheverus junior shortstop Griffin Watson holds the bag to record a double play in the second inning.

Cheverus senior centerfielder Dom Casale makes contact.

Portland junior catcher Cam King is out on a force play at third as Cheverus senior third baseman Chandler Hartigan handles the throw.

Recent Cheverus-Portland results

2016
Portland 8 @ Cheverus 1

2015

@ Portland 7 Cheverus 6

2014
@ Portland 9 Cheverus 8 

2013
@ Cheverus 7 Portland 6 (9)

2012
@ Cheverus 3 Portland 2

2011
Cheverus 8 Portland 0 (played in OOB)

2010
Cheverus 12 @ Portland 0

2009
Cheverus 7 @ Portland 2

2008
Portland 4 @ Cheverus 0

2007
Cheverus 4 @ Portland 3

2006
Portland 7 @ Cheverus 4

2005
@ Portland 11 Cheverus 2
Portland 13 @ Cheverus 5

2004
Portland 24 @ Cheverus 1
@ Portland 11 Cheverus 1

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