Portland rallies to beat SP in fireworks-filled thriller

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Portland senior Joe Fusco (25) is congratulated by seniors John Williams, left, and Zach Fortin and junior Dom Tocci after Fusco comes home with the third run of Saturday’s regional final rematch versus South Portland. Fusco later drove in the tying run in the eighth and the Bulldogs added one more to prevail in breathtaking fashion, 5-4.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 5 South Portland 4 (8 innings)

SP- 100 011 01- 4 7 5
P- 000 300 02- 5 9 2
* One out when winning run scored

Top 1st
Crockett singled to right, Conti scored.

Bottom 4th
Nichols singled to right-center, Dom Tocci and Williams scored. Fusco scored on error.

Top 5th
Conti scored on wild pitch.

Top 6th
Johnson scored on error.

Top 8th
Radziucz singled to right-center, Johnson scored.

Bottom 8th
Fusco singled to center, Archambault scored. Nichols hit sacrifice fly to right, Stasium scored.

Repeat hitters:
SP- Johnson 3
P- Archambault 3, Dom Tocci, Williams

Runs:
SP- Conti, Johnson 2
P- Archambault, Fusco, Stasium, Dom Tocci, Williams

RBI:
SP- Crockett, Radziucz
P- Nichols 3, Fusco

Doubles:
SP- Abramson, Johnson
P- Archambault

Stolen bases:
SP- Conti, Johnson
P- Williams

Left on base:
SP- 8
P- 6

Kelley and N. Troiano; Marzilli, Donato Tocci (5), Ruotolo (8) and King

SP:
Kelley (L, 5-1) 7.1 IP 9 H 5 R 4 ER 2 BB 7 K 1 WP

P:
Marzilli 4+ IP 3 H 1 R 1 ER 6 BB 5 K
Donato Tocci 3.1 IP 4 H 3 R 1 ER 0 BB 2 K 2 WP
Ruotolo (W, 1-0) 0.2 IP 0 H 0 R 0 BB 0 K
* Marzilli pitched to two batters in the 5th.

Time: 2:15

PORTLAND—This one had it all.

Squanders.

Clutch hits.

Ejections.

Twists, turns and thrills galore.

In other words, it was just another Portland-South Portland baseball showdown.

Saturday morning/afternoon at Hadlock Field, in the latest chapter of arguably the best baseball rivalry going right now, seven innings weren’t enough to contain the drama and zaniness and with revenge, Heal Points and playoff  positioning on the line, two of the top contenders in Class A South put on an unforgettable show.

The contest started calmly enough as the red-hot Red Riots grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, thanks to a clutch two-out RBI single by junior first baseman Matt Crockett off Bulldogs senior starter Dan Marzilli.

South Portland senior ace Griffin Kelley kept Portland off the board until the fourth inning, when senior third baseman Jack Nichols delivered a bases loaded two-run single and a third run scored on an error.

The Red Riots weren’t about to go quietly, however, and after pulling within 3-2 on a wild pitch in the fifth, they drew even in the sixth when sophomore rightfielder Zack Johnson doubled off the leftfield wall against freshman reliever Donato Tocci and scored from second when sophomore leftfielder Riley Hasson beat out an infield hit.

After loading the bases with none out, then failing to score a single run in the bottom of the sixth, the Bulldogs almost self-disintegrated in the seventh, when junior shortstop Jake Knop, junior second baseman Dom Tocci and coach Mike Rutherford were all ejected.

South Portland then went ahead in the top of the eighth, as Johnson doubled again and senior designated hitter Aaron Radziucz came through with an RBI single.

A cornered Bulldog is the most dangerous Bulldog, however, and proud Portland dug deep one final time into its reservoir of late-inning magic to pull out an improbable victory.

Junior centerfielder Nick Archambault led off the bottom of the eighth with a double and senior designated hitter Joe Fusco brought him in with an RBI single to tie the game. Fusco moved to third on an error and after he was replaced by senior pinch-runner Nick Stasium, Nichols brought the curtain down on the 2-hour, 15-minute epic with a sacrifice fly to deep right and the Bulldogs had a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 5-4 victory.

Nichols drove in three runs, Archambault had two hits and Portland snapped a two-game skid, improved to 10-2, ended South Portland’s win streak at seven games and dropped the Red Riots to 11-2 in the process.

“We leave it all on the field,” said Rutherford. “After everything that happened, the team could have died and blamed the umpires, but Archambault and Fusco have come up big all year. This is a character win. We needed it.”

Twists and turns

As expected, the Bulldogs and Red Riots have been top contenders this spring.

South Portland, despite graduating standout ace Henry Curran, has continued to excel. The Red Riots opened with a 3-0 victory at Bonny Eagle, then downed visiting Sanford (7-1), host Westbrook (5-0) and visiting Noble (8-5). After a 4-0 loss at Thornton Academy and its ace, Ben Lambert, South Portland beat visiting Gorham (7-1), host Cheverus (1-0, in eight-innings), host Massabesic (16-4, in six innings), visiting Deering, 4-3, visiting Scarborough (5-1), host Noble (7-1) and visiting Marshwood (6-4).

Portland looked invincible much of the year, then hit a rough spell. The Bulldogs rallied to edge visiting Biddeford, 4-3, then downed visiting Westbrook (6-2) and Gorham (14-8), won at Massabesic (6-3), Windham (3-2) and Noble (10-3), topped visiting Sanford, 7-1, and Marshwood (3-0), then won at Cheverus, 8-1. A 9-2 loss at Bonny Eagle last Saturday was followed by a tough 5-4, nine-inning defeat at Thornton Academy Tuesday, in a game which saw Portland let a 4-2 seventh inning lead slip away.

The teams played two memorable games a year ago (see sidebar, below).

The first saw Curran completely flummox the Bulldogs, striking out 14 and taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning, where Knop broke it up with his team’s only hit of the day.

The rematch came in a regional final instant classic. South Portland got a run in the first and added another in the top of the seventh, but Portland finally solved Curran in the bottom half, scoring a run and putting the tying and winning runs in scoring position for Knop, who hit a line drive, but it went right at the Red Riots’ first baseman, Anthony Degifico, and South Portland, not Portland, went on to the state final.

Saturday, in the only guaranteed meeting this spring between the rivals, although a second one would make for great playoff theater, fans on hand on a beautiful 75-degree day bore witness to a game that they won’t soon forget.

The Red Riots got the jump in the top of the first.

Junior centerfielder Sam Troiano chased a 3-1 pitch and grounded out to second leading off, but senior second baseman Ben Conti drew a walk and after senior shortstop Drew Abramson lined out to right, senior catcher Nick Troiano drew a walk on a full count pitch and that set the stage for junior first baseman Matt Crockett, who lined a single to right to score Conti. Troiano took third on the throw, but Johnson struck out swinging to keep the score 1-0.

In the bottom half, Kelley made quick work of the Bulldogs, getting Knop to look at strike three, Dom Tocci to fly to right and senior first baseman John Williams to take strike three to end it.

Marzilli settled down in the top of the second, getting Radziucz to chase strike three, senior third baseman Alex Livingston to fan as well and after Hasson walked, he picked him off.

In the bottom half, Archambault led off with a single through the hole between third and short, but Fusco’s deep fly to center was caught by Sam Troiano. With Nichols at the plate, Archambault was gunned down stealing by Nick Troiano and Nichols struck out to end the threat.

Sam Troiano led off the third with a slow roller to short on which Knop made a nice play to throw to first for the out. Conti popped to first, but Abramson made solid contact, doubling to the wall in left-center. Nick Troiano had a chance to extend the lead, but he grounded out to third.

Portland threatened to pull even in the bottom half, but fell short.

Senior leftfielder Zach Fortin led off with a grounder to third and the ball got past Livingston for an error. Sophomore catcher Cam King flew to right and senior rightfielder Joe Clayton sacrificed Fortin to second with a bunt to third. Crockett then caught Fortin off second and threw to Abramson, but Fortin was able to reach third safely when Abramson’s throw was off-target. That gave Knop an opportunity to tie the score, but for the second time, he looked at strike three.

After Marzilli fanned Crockett on a check swing to start the fourth, Johnson lined a single to left. With Radziucz at the plate, Johnson stole second. Radzuicz then battled back from down 1-2 and walked on a full count pitch. But Marzilli got out the jam by catching Livingston looking at strike three and after walking Hasson on four pitches, getting Sam Troiano to fly to right with the bases loaded.

The Bulldogs broke through in their half of the fourth, with a little help.

Tocci led off with a line single down the rightfield line and after moving up on a wild pitch, took third when Williams dropped a single to left. Archambault struck out, but Williams stole second on the play. Fusco was walked intentionally and Nichols made South Portland play with a line single over Conti’s glove to score Tocci and Williams for the lead. When Nick Troiano tried to catch Fusco going to third and threw high for an error, Fusco scored as well to make it 3-1. Kelley escaped further damage by getting Fortin to ground out to second (with Conti making a nice stab going to his right) and King to fly to right.

South Portland started to rally in the fifth.

Conti led off and reached on a Knop error. Abramson followed with a walk. That was it for Marzilli, who was replaced by Donato Tocci.

Tocci and the Bulldogs appeared primed to escape the jam when Nick Troiano grounded sharply to Knop right by the second base bag and Knop stepped on second for one out and threw on to first for the double play, but a wild pitch brought home Conti to cut the deficit to 3-2. Crockett then flew out to center to end it.

In the bottom half, Clayton lined out to center, Knop reached on an Abramson throwing error, but Dom Tocci’s sharp grounder to short resulted in another 6-3 double play to end the frame.

The Red Riots drew even in the sixth.

Johnson led off with a blast to left that would have exited any other Maine high school park, but at Hadlock Field, the ball only bounced off the Maine Monster, just over the scoreboard, for a double. Tocci appeared primed to hold the lead when he battled from a 3-0 count to fan Radziucz and subsequently get Livingston to line to center, but Hasson’s ground ball up the middle was nicely stabbed by Knop, but the throw to first wasn’t handled cleanly by Williams. Hasson reached on the infield single and Johnson didn’t stop as he rounded third and he raced home to tie the game. Sam Troiano lined softly to Nichols at third to end it, but the score was now, 3-3.

Portland then tried to dip into its reservoir of late inning magic in the bottom half, but wound up frustrated.

Williams singled up the middle leading off and Archambault’s chopper bounced over Abramson’s glove at short for another single. Kelley got ahead of Fusco, but walked him on a full count.

That set the stage again for Nichols, who got ahead 2-0 and after a conference at the mound, just missed lining a hit down the rightfield line. After two more foul balls, Nichols looked at strike three. Junior pinch-hitter extraordinaire Tommy Joyce popped out to short and senior Charles Barnard pinch-hit for King, but couldn’t deliver either, grounding out to second, where Conti made a nice play on a tough hop before throwing on to first to extinguish the threat.

Conti led off the seventh with a deep fly to center, but Archambault ran it down. Abramson then flew out to center as well and Nick Troiano lined out to Knop to give Portland a chance to win it.

Clayton led off the bottom half with a grounder to Abramson, but Abramson’s throw was wide and Clayton reached on the error. Stasium came on to run and was immediately picked off by Kelley. Knop then struck out looking for the third time. Knop appealed the third strike call and was ejected and Rutherford came out and was tossed as well, with assistant Mike Fullerton taking over on the bench.

“Knop argued balls and strikes, which you can’t do,” Rutherford said. “He’s a competitor and a fiery kid. I had to go out and protect my player. I can get ejected because I don’t play. The team can live without me. Sometimes as a coach you do that to fire the team up.”

Dom Tocci kept the inning going with a bloop single to left, but Williams’ sharp grounder to third was deftly handled by Livingston, who threw to second for the force out, where Tocci was ejected as well for a hard slide.

“I don’t know if Tocci deserved ejection,” Rutherford said. “Emotions were high and we were playing old-fashioned Portland baseball, but that hurt the team. We have to play under control, but sometimes those things happen.”

Per Maine Principals’ Association rule, Rutherford, Knop and Tocci will all have to miss Monday’s game vs. rival Deering.

In the eighth, junior Giovanni Ruotolo went to second and sophomore William Snyder replaced Knop at short.

South Portland then got the go-ahead run.

Donato Tocci fanned Crockett leading off, but Johnson followed with his second double of the game, a blooper to right-center. Radziucz then came through with the clutch RBI single to right-center to score Johnson for a 4-3 lead.

That ended Tocci’s afternoon, as he and Ruotolo switched spots. Ruotolo got Livingston to pop foul by the third base line, but King couldn’t make the catch. Livingston then popped foul to Williams at first and Hasson ended the inning by grounding to Snyder, who stepped on second.

But just when it appeared the Red Riots were going to get out of town with a victory, Portland came back and stole it.

Kelley remained in the game and Archambault started the bottom of the eighth with a deep fly ball to left-center that appeared catchable off the bat, but landed for a double. Fusco then ripped a single to center and there was no was stopping Archambault, as he scored easily. Sam Troiano’s throw came home to Nick Troiano, who tried to gun down Fusco taking second, but his throw was well off the mark and Fusco huffed and puffed his way into third.

“Coach Fullerton told me to hit a home run, but I took what I got,” said Fusco. “It was a curveball that hung and I kept running.”

Stasium came back into the game as a pinch-runner and two pitches later, ended the game when Nichols’ fly to right was caught by Johnson, but it was easily deep enough for a game-winning sacrifice fly and at 1:14 p.m., at last, the Bulldogs stormed out of the dugout and celebrated their epic 5-4 victory.

“I wanted to pump up the team and put the team on my back,” said Nichols. “I live for those situations. I tried to get it to the opposite field and we scored the winning run. It worked out well.

“We came in knowing it would be a big game. It was a playoff atmosphere. We knew we had to get it done and we did. We played a great all-around game. (The ejections) affected us, but we got our heads straight and decided to play ball. We played 16 guys. We don’t win with nine. We win with the whole team and today we needed everyone. It’s an awesome win. I think it’ll motivate us for the rest of the season.”

“We’re like termites,” Fusco said. “You can stomp on us, but we’ll keep coming back. We keep fighting. It got a little hectic, but we came together. We got angry and played angry baseball and pulled it out. They beat us last year and we beat them today.”

“We knew we had two big Heal Points games that we circled, Thornton and South Portland, so we had to split to stay out of a prelim,” Rutherford added. “We had the game won against Thornton and we gave it away. Things weren’t going our way today. Bases loaded, nobody out. Jack Nichols, one of our hottest hitters, didn’t get it done. Tom Joyce, our hottest pinch-hitter, didn’t get it done. We got behind a run after all the ejections and came back behind character guys. Someone had to make a play and we did.”

Portland had nine hits on the day, with three players producing multiple hits. Archambault had three and Dom Tocci and Williams each finished with two. Archambault, Fusco, Stasium, Dom Tocci and Williams all scored. Nichols had three RBI and Fusco finished with one. Williams had a stolen base.

The Bulldogs left six runners on base.

Marzilli got a no-decision after allowing one earned run on three hits and six walks in four-plus innings (he faced two batters in the fifth). Marzilli fanned five.

“Danny didn’t have it,” Rutherford said. “He walked six guys, but he could have gotten out of it with one run.”

Donato Tocci was terrific in his relief stint, allowing three runs (but just one earned) on four hits in 3.1 innings. He didn’t walk a batter, fanned two and threw a pair of wild pitches.

“Donnie did well,” Nichols said. “That wasn’t the first time he’s come in like that. For a freshman, he has some guts. He gets the job done.”

“Donnie did a nice job keeping us in the game,’ Rutherford said.

Ruotolo got the win (his first decision of the season) by retiring two batters.

“Ruotolo, it was his first time pitching,” Rutherford said. “He was supposed to be one of our top pitchers, but he broke his arm during hockey. I give (pitching coach Ian) Boyle credit to bring him in in that situation.”

Tough decision

South Portland got three hits and two runs from Johnson, two runs from Conti and RBI from Crockett and Radziucz. Conti and Johnson stole bases, but the Red Riots stranded eight runners.

Kelley fell to 5-1 after giving up five runs (four earned) on nine hits in 7.1 innings. He walked two, struck out seven and threw a wild pitch.

“Griff’s our ace and he’s our ace for a reason,” said South Portland coach Mike Owens. “He wanted the ball. I don’t think it was anything he did that lost the game for us. He could have given up fewer runs. His pitch count was still at a good number. He’s a strong kid. He got out of some jams.”

South Portland’s toughest loss of the season was largely self-inflicted.

“We made too many mistakes today,” Owens said. “We’ve been a very good defensive team all year. They run well and put pressure on us and we gave them too many opportunities. We made too many errors. We haven’t done it all year and it came back to bite us.

“I was very proud of the way we competed and they did the exact same. That’s what you’d expect with two great baseball teams. They had a big inning, but we chipped away. We overcame adversity. It just stinks to come out on the bad end of it.”

This rivalry just keeps on getting better and better.

“Right now, we’re two good ballclubs at the top,” Owens said. “They’re our neighbors. Our kids know their kids and vice versa. That’s a really good team over there. In a rivalry game, you saw the emotions flow a little bit today. It’s unfortunate it took away from a great baseball game.”

“This is a great rivalry now,” Rutherford said. “Mike and I are good friends. He does a great job. He has them playing well.”

Every game is huge

With Heal Points and playoff positioning on the line, both teams feel like they have to win out.

South Portland (now third in Class A South) is back in action Tuesday at home versus Biddeford. The Red Riots have their home finale Saturday versus Westbrook, then close at Windham a week from Tuesday.

“We’ll forget this one, but we’ll learn from the mistakes we made,” Owens said. “We’ll collect ourselves and see if we can get some momentum going for the playoffs.”

Portland (which moved up to fourth in Class A South) hosts rival Deering Monday, closes the home portion of its schedule Thursday versus Massabesic, then goes to Gorham Saturday and finishes at Scarborough on Memorial Day.

“This gets us back on track,” Nichols said. “It’s a huge win. I’m proud of everyone. It’s awesome.”

“We want to keep playing good baseball,” Fusco said. “We’ll build on this. Even two guys down against Deering, we’ll be up for them and we’ll play our best.”

“I don’t think we’re playing great baseball,” Rutherford added. “Defensively, we’re not playing our best. We’re 10-2, but we’re not playing our best baseball yet. It’s easier (to play shorthanded Monday) coming off a win. Coming off a loss, we’d be looking at a four-game losing streak. Beating South Portland is huge. They’ll finish with 13 or 14 wins.”

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

South Portland senior pitcher Griffin Kelley delivers to the plate. Kelley went the distance, but suffered his first defeat.

Portland senior starter Dan Marzilli throws a strike. Marzilli only lasted four-plus innings and didn’t get a decision.

South Portland sophomore leftfielder Riley Hasson is picked off first base in the second inning.

Portland junior shortstop Jake Knop makes a throw across the diamond.

South Portland senior third baseman Alex Livingston prepares to throw to first.

South Portland sophomore rightfielder Zach Johnson connects for one of his three hits.

Portland senior third baseman Jack Nichols lines a two-run single in the fourth inning.

South Portland senior Ben Conti is congratulated by junior Matt Crockett after scoring to cut the deficit to 3-2 in the fifth inning.

Recent South Portland-Portland results

2015
@ South Portland 2 Portland 0
Western A Final
South Portland 2 Portland 1 

2014
Portland 3 @ South Portland 0

2013
South Portland 10 @ Portland 3
Western A preliminary round
@ Portland 8 South Portland 0

2012
Portland 6 @ South Portland 1

2011
South Portland 7 @ Portland 0

2010
@ South Portland 2 Portland 0

2009
@ South Portland 6 Portland 5
@ Portland 2 South Portland 1

2008
@ Portland 6 South Portland 2

2007
Portland 7 @ South Portland 4

2006
@ Portland 11 South Portland 0 (5)

2005
@ Portland 7 South Portland 0
Western A quarterfinals
@ Portland 6 South Portland 5

2004
South Portland 7 @ Portland 2
@ South Portland 8 Portland 3
Western A semifinals
Portland 5 @ South Portland 4 (11)

2003
@ Portland 4 South Portland 0
Portland 14 @ South Portland 2 (5)

2002
@ Portland 7 South Portland 1
@ South Portland 6 Portland 0
Western A semifinals
Portland 4 @ South Portland 3

1
Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.