PORTLAND—While the bottom of the fifth inning didn’t produce its usual magic for Portland’s baseball team Saturday afternoon at Hadlock Field, the bottom of the sixth worked quite nicely.
Facing fourth-ranked Falmouth in a taut Western Class A semifinal round showdown, the first ever countable contest between the schools, pitching carried the day most of the way as Yachtsmen sophomore lefthander Reece Armitage held the top-seeded Bulldogs in check, while Portland junior southpaw Dan Marzilli and later senior reliever Ryan Ruhlin stymied several Falmouth chances.
But as the game got late, the feeling was that the Bulldogs would, as they have all spring, find a way to prevail and that’s exactly what happened in the sixth inning.
Portland loaded the bases with one out behind singles from sophomore shortstop Jake Knop and junior first baseman John Williams and an intentional walk to Ruhlin. Sophomore centerfielder Nick Archambault then grounded to short for a fielder’s choice and Yachtsmen sophomore Robbie Armitage couldn’t record an out, allowing Knop to score the game’s first run. With two outs, junior third baseman Jack Nichols came up with the afternoon’s biggest hit, a two-run single to right, and junior leftfielder Zach Fortin drove in an insurance run to make it 4-0.
Ruhlin put yet another punctuation mark on his sensational season by working around three hits in the seventh, thanks in large part to yet another terrific defensive play from Knop, and the Bulldogs went on to a 4-0 victory.
Portland improved to 14-4, ended Falmouth’s season at 11-7 and advanced to its first Western Class A Final in eight seasons where it will battle third-ranked South Portland (14-4) Wednesday at 3 p.m. at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
“We couldn’t do it in the fifth inning this time, but waiting until the sixth inning made it even more dramatic,” said Bulldogs coach Mike Rutherford. “The guys just believe. We can get shut down for four or five innings, but we’ll eventually put a crooked number up.”
Falmouth and Portland had no diamond history prior to Saturday, although the teams will combine in American Legion ball this summer and the two coaches are well acquainted.
Both squads had question marks entering the spring, but both produced enough answers to make the regional final four.
Falmouth, which lost to Windham in last year’s semifinals, went 10-6 in its Western Maine Conference schedule, then moved up due to its enrollment number for the Western A playoffs and as the No. 4 seed, ousted upset-minded No. 12 Gorham in Thursday’s quarterfinals, 5-3.
Portland, of which so little was expected back in early April, got off to a great start by upsetting preseason favorite Marshwood in South Berwick, then closed with four successive victories to snag the top seed in Western A. Thursday, the Bulldogs pulled off the latest in a series of dramatic victories, 4-3, over rival No. 9 seed Deering, in the quarterfinals.
Saturday, Portland saved its best for last yet again.
Marzill retired the first two batters he faced with ease, getting junior centerfielder Connor Aube to fly to center and sophomore second baseman Colin Coyne to ground out to sophomore second baseman Dom Tocci, who made a nice play. Robbie Armitage singled to left, but freshman first baseman Colby Emmertz grounded out to short for out number three.
Reece Armitage was superb in the bottom half, striking out Knop, Tocci and Williams.
The top of the second was similar to the top of the first, as Marzilli got the first two hitters (senior catcher Connor MacDowell on a grounder to third and junior leftfielder Tyler Gee on a ground out to second, with Tocci making a nice backhanded stop), before senior third baseman Caleb Lydick singled and stole second only to have the inning end when Reece Armitage grounded out to second.
In the bottom half, Armitage recorded his fourth successive strikeout, getting Ruhlin to look at strike three, but Archambault followed with a sharp single to center and stole second. Armitage struck out junior rightfielder George Chaison-Lapine and with Nichols at the plate, Archambault tried to steal third, but MacDowell gunned him down.
Senior designated hitter Cal Inlow started the third by grounding out to short. Aube then hit the ball hard, but right at Archambault. Coyne ripped a single to left and Robbie Armitage singled to right, but Marzilli escaped by recording his first and only strikeout, getting Emmertz swinging.
In the bottom half, Armitage got Nichols to fly out to center, Fortin to line softly to short and senior designated hitter Dom DiMillo to fly to right.
Williams made a nice stretch at first to start the fourth, as he caught Knop’s wide throw and held the bag to retire MacDowell. After Gee flew out to center, Lydick grounded out to Knop and Marzilli had his first clean inning.
In the bottom half, Knop swung and missed at strike three and after the ball went in the dirt, MacDowell had to throw to first. His throw was low and Emmertz had to pick it up just in time to record the out. Armitage then walked Tocci and hit Williams. On a 3-2 pitch, Ruhlin chopped to Robbie Armitage, who threw high to Coyne, but Coyne managed to come down with the ball and record the second out. That left it up to Archambault. After pinch-runner Nick Stasium stole second, Armitage caught Archambault looking at the third strike and it was on to the fifth.
Reece Armitage led off with a ground out to Tocci. Inlow then grounded a single past Nichols. After Inlow stole second, Rutherford elected to walk Aube intentionally and it paid off as Marzilli got Coyne to line to center and Robbie Armitage to pop out to short.
In the bottom of the fifth, normally Portland’s magic inning, Chaison-Lapine lined a shot off Reece Armitage, but Robbie Armitage bailed his brother out by racing in to barehand the ball before throwing and getting Chaison-Lapine by a whisker. Nichols lined a single past Lydick at third and senior Marcus Cross-Robertson came on to run. After Fortin struck out looking, junior Joe Fusco came on to hit for DiMillo and after Cross-Robertson moved into scoring position on a wild pitch, Fusco drew a walk. That brought up Knop with a chance to be the hero, but he never swung the bat as a pitch got away from MacDowell, but the catcher pounced on the ball and threw out Cross-Robertson at third to end the threat.
Emmertz led off the sixth with a slow roller that Nichols snared to throw him out by a half-step (if that). MacDowell lined a single over Knop and that was it for Marzilli, who was replaced by Ruhlin with senior Patrick Sheils coming on to catch. Gee greeted Ruhlin with a bloop single to left, but Ruhlin caught Lydick looking at strike three and blew strike three past Reece Armitage to end the threat.
“Jack’s play on the leadoff hitter was a key play,” Rutherford said. “That changed the complexion of the inning.”
Then, in the bottom of the sixth,Portland’s bats finally got going.
Leading off, Knop lined a single to right. Tocci tried to bunt him over, but popped it up and MacDowell caught it for the first out. Williams then came through with a clutch single to center and when Armitage threw a wild pitch, both runners moved into scoring position. Ruhlin was walked intentionally and that set the stage for Archambault.
Archambault hit a ground ball to Robbie Armitage at short. Armitage tried to tag Williams going by, but couldn’t apply the tag and then he had no play on the speedy Archambault at first. Knop raced home and the Bulldogs were ahead to stay.
Armitage appeared primed to avoid further damage when he got Chaison-Lapine to pop out, but Nichols came through in a big way with a two-run single to rightfield, scoring both Williams and Ruhlin, and the lead was 3-0.
“That was a really good piece of two-strike hitting by Nichols,” Rutherford said. “Going up 3-0 (later 4-0) instead of just leading 1-0 was huge.”
Fortin then singled over Lydick’s head at third, bringing home Archambault for another run and while Armitage finally retired the side with a strikeout, the damage was done and Portland took a 4-0 lead to the seventh.
Ruhlin would close it out, but not without some anxious moments.
Lydick led off with a single, but the Bulldogs’ defense, most notably their finest defender, Knop, came up huge one more time.
Aube hit a sharp grounder up the middle, but Knop was in the right spot to field it, step on second for the force, then throw to first to double up one of the fastest players around.
“Aube is the last guy you expect to get doubled up, but Knop broke to the bag and the ball was right to him,” Yachtsmen coach Kevin Winship lamented. “Portland was so solid on defense. Knop was unbelievable at shortstop.”
Falmouth refused to say die, as Coyne doubled for the game’s lone extra base hit and Robbie Armitage singled for his third hit of the day, but Emmertz ended it with a fly ball to right and Portland had done it again, 4-0.
“That double play killed their rally,” Rutherford said. “Jake was the key defensively. He’s a Gold Glove shortstop in our league. Even them getting two singles after was OK because they weren’t going to piece together five straight hits on Ryan. He was just throwing strikes at that point, not trying to place strikes.
“It was a weird game. It was a great game against a good team on a good field, but there was no SMAA feel because we have no rivalry. Falmouth’s very good. They deserved to be in the top four.”
The Bulldogs only mustered six hits and four of those came in the fateful sixth inning. Nichols was the lone repeat hitter. Archambault, Knop, Ruhlin and Williams all scored runs. Nichols had two RBI, while Fortin added one. Portland stranded five runners.
Marzilli didn’t get a decision, despite pitching 5.1 innings of shutout ball. He surrendered six hits, walked a batter and struck out one.
“Danny threw great,” Rutherford said. “He kept the ball down. He only gave up two-out hits. That was good pitching.”
Ruhlin, who was honored for his play and sportsmanship by the league’s umpires prior to the game, got a win in relief for the second time in three days, improving to 6-2 after throwing 1.2 shutout innings. He worked around four hits and fanned two.
“The way Ryan’s pitching, I just want our starters to get us into the fifth inning,” Rutherford said. “He just gives us a spark. In our last eight wins, he has five wins and three saves. It will be the same game plan from here on. If we win a championship, Ryan will be the big reason why.”
Falmouth produced 10 hits, but couldn’t push a run across. Robbie Armitage had three hits and Coyne and Inlow each finished with a pair. The Yachtsmen stranded nine baserunners.
Armitage (3-1) was the hard-luck loser. Limited this spring due to injury, he saved his best for his final outing, giving up four runs on six hits and three walks in six innings. He struck out nine, threw two wild pitches and hit a batter.
Both coaches admired his effort.
“I was so impressed with how Reece pitched,” Winship said. “Coming off an injury, I wasn’t sure what we’d be getting, but he was dominant. Even in the sixth inning, they really only hit one ball well. It was such a gutsy performance. I felt bad that he didn’t get the win. He pitched unbelievably, but we just couldn’t score.”
“Reece Armitage is one of the best pitchers we’ve faced,” said Rutherford. “He gave us fits.”
Falmouth played very well in its first countable game at Hadlock Field, but fell just short.
“It was a great high school baseball game,” said Winship. “I really thought that the kids played great. We couldn’t get the momentum going. Everything we did came with two outs. We couldn’t get the big hit. If you’d told me before the game we’d get 10 hits and make no errors, I’d have said we were going to win. We just didn’t have enough to mount a comeback. Mike has his kids believing. When good things start happening to you, you believe you can win and you take advantage.”
The Yachtsmen faced a lot of uncertainty heading into the season, but once again turned heads.
“I had no clue how good we were going to be this year,” said Winship. “We had four sophomores and a freshman start (against Portland). To win 11 games and lose a great game in the Western Maine semifinals that could have gone either way was a great season for us.
“I look forward to next year. We have to replace Cal Inlow, Caleb Lydick and Connor MacDowell, but I have guys waiting who could have started this year and we get Jesse Melchiskey back, who was out with a knee injury. We’ll be starting from a good place.”
It’s unlikely that anyone anywhere prior to the season would have predicted a Portland-South Portland regional final, but that’s the delicious matchup that awaits Wednesday afternoon.
The game will feature arguably the state’s best pitcher, Red Riots senior southpaw Henry Curran, and will be played on the immaculate Larry Mahaney Diamond with likely a huge and avid throng on hand.
On May 21, in South Portland, Curran took a no-hitter into the seventh before Knop broke it up, but the Red Riots won, 4-0.
Portland has won six of eight previous playoff meetings, including an 8-0 triumph in the 2013 preliminary round.
Expect Wednesday’s affair to be much closer and while the Bulldogs had no luck against Curran last time, their particular brand of late inning magic gives them reason to believe they’ll find a way.
“With Henry on the mound, they’re the favorite, but he’s human,” said Rutherford. “Our guys have seen that he’s given up some hits since last time we played. If Gorham and Biddeford can hit him, then so can we. Looking back at the first time we played, if we don’t drop two fly balls, it’s a 0-0 game going to the seventh. Danny threw great in that game. I’m leaning toward doing the same thing, Danny, then Ryan. We’ll have to play really good defense.
“It’s our first trip there since 2007. We want to try to get to the game where everyone’s watching. You’ll always face a great pitcher. No one will give it to us, but it will be fun.”
Portland sophomore shortstop Jake Knop, who had another tremendous day in the field, makes a throw to first.
Portland junior starter Dan Marzilli didn’t allow a run in his 5.1-inning stint.
Falmouth sophomore starter Reece Armitage was superb for five innings Saturday before running into trouble in the sixth.
Portland sophomore Nick Archambault takes a swing.
Falmouth junior Connor Aube makes contact.
Falmouth sophomore Colin Coyne slides into second with a double.
Falmouth senior Cal Inlow lines a hit.
Portland sophomore Jake Knop makes contact.
Falmouth senior third baseman Caleb Lydick applies the tag on Portland sophomore Nick Archambault to end the fifth inning.
Falmouth sophomore shortstop Robbie Armitage makes a throw on the run.
Portland sophomore Jake Knop is congratulated by senior Patrick Sheils after scoring the game’s first run.
Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin raises his arm in celebration as he crosses home plate with the Bulldogs’ third run in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Portland sophomore Jake Knop (22) and senior Ryan Ruhlin embrace during the postgame celebration following the Bulldogs’ 4-0 win over Falmouth in Saturday’s Western A semifinal. Top-ranked Portland faces No. 3 South Portland in Wednesday’s regional final.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.