PORTLAND—If you blinked, you might have missed it.
The biggest and best comeback in a season chock full of them.
Portland’s baseball team has made a habit of rallying to produce victories this spring, often in the fifth inning, but Thursday evening, in front of a huge crowd at Hadlock Field, playing its fiercest rival in a Western Class A quarterfinal, with its postseason survival hanging in the balance, the Bulldogs won in the most improbable fashion yet and as a result, their fantasy season continues.
Ninth-ranked Deering, which was humbled by eight runs in the teams’ regular season meeting just two weeks ago, scored an unearned run in the second inning and tacked on two more in the third when junior second baseman Pat Viola was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and senior rightfielder Kevin Goldberg scored on a fielder’s choice, giving sophomore left-hander Colby Dame a seemingly safe 3-0 lead.
But top-ranked Portland is never out of a game and after sophomore centerfielder Nick Archambault made a highlight reel diving catch and senior Ryan Ruhlin replaced junior starter Charles Barnard and kept his team in the game, the Bulldogs erupted in their favorite inning.
In dizzying speed.
Junior leftfielder Zach Fortin started the comeback with a one-out single in the bottom of the fifth. Then, Portland’s least likely offensive weapon, senior designated hitter Dom DiMillo, who barely played in the regular season, came through with a single of his own. Sophomore shortstop Jake Knop brought home the first run with an RBI single. A passed ball scored the second and a gorgeous squeeze bunt from sophomore second baseman Dom Tocci brought home Knop to tie the score.
And the Bulldogs weren’t finished.
After junior first baseman John Williams reached on an error, Ruhlin ripped a single to center and after a misplay in the outfield, Williams stretched for third. The throw from the outfield got away and lo and behold, Williams came all the way around to score the go-ahead run.
Ruhlin wasn’t about to relinquish the lead, setting the Rams down in order in the sixth and seventh innings, and Portland held on for a memorable 4-3 triumph.
The Bulldogs improved to 13-4 with their fifth win in a row, ended Deering’s best season in four years at 11-7 and advanced to host fourth-ranked Falmouth (11-6) Saturday at 1 p.m. at Hadlock Field in the semifinals.
“We come from behind quite a bit,” said Ruhlin, who earned the win in relief. “We have a professionalism about it. We’re confident. We don’t lose motivation. We put pressure on them and they made mistakes. It was crazy.”
A gorgeous late spring evening at the state’s premier baseball setting was the background for the first Portland-Deering playoff meeting since 2009.
The Rams had won five of the previous eight postseason encounters (see sidebar, below), including a 10-0 six inning victory in that game six years ago, but the Bulldogs entered Thursday’s contest as the favorite after a terrific 12-4 regular season (which included a 12-4 win over Deering May 29) made them the top seed in a balanced Western Class A.
Portland, which welcomed back former playing legend and highly successful coach Mike Rutherford this spring, was at a crossroads after back-to-back losses to Biddeford and South Portland (in a game which saw the Bulldogs produce one hit) dropped it to 8-4, but a rally from a 6-0 deficit versus Cheverus set the stage for Portland to finish in a spot, first, which no one could have dreamed was possible back in late March.
“We were upset we weren’t in anyone’s top 10 in the preseason,” Williams said. “That motivated us. We talked in the preseason about doing this. It’s so different this year. We all get along. Coach Rutherford has changed the program around completely. We have a great coaching staff. When we beat (preseason favorite) Marshwood (in the opener), we knew we could be really good this year.”
“Coach brought energy and confidence in us,” Ruhlin said. “That’s really helped.”
“We’re a team that doesn’t say die,” Rutherford added. “We got down 6-0 to Cheverus and came back and won and wound up getting the number one seed.”
The Rams, who won only 10 combined games from 2012-14, had a breakthrough season this spring under new coach and former star player Josh Stowell, who guided Deering to a 10-6 mark, good for the No. 9 seed. Tuesday, the Rams went to Cheverus and won with surprising ease in the preliminary round, 12-2.
With the stakes high Thursday night, the teams produced a classic which awakened the echoes of Bulldogs-Rams showdowns of years gone by.
Barnard made quick work of the visitors in the top of the first, getting Goldberg to ground out in front of the plate (Ruhlin, who started the game as the catcher, threw him out), senior shortstop Nick Bevilacqua to fly to right and junior centerfielder Dominick Bernard to chase strike three.
Dame was strong as well in the bottom half, as he got Knop to fly out to center, Tocci to pop out to short and Williams to chase strike three.
Deering’s second inning started harmlessly as Viola grounded out to short and sophomore designated hitter Orey Dutton lined out to second, but sophomore third baseman James Sinclair got the game’s first hit, a single to left-center and when a fly ball off the bat of junior catcher Luciano Minervino was dropped by junior rightfielder George Chaison-Lapine after a long run, Sinclair came home for a 1-0 lead. Barnard escaped further damage by getting Todd to ground out.
Dame got a nice play from Bevilacqua to start the bottom of the second, as the shortstop leaped to deny a shot off the bat of Ruhlin. Archambault then flew out to center and Chaison-Lapine struck out swinging.
The Rams added to their lead in the third.
Junior leftfielder Ian Westphal led off with a single to left-center and Goldberg was hit by a pitch. After Bevilacqua sacrificed the runners up a base, Bernard was walked intentionally. Viola then took one for the team, literally, as he was hit by a pitch, scoring Westphal to make it 2-0. Dutton then hit into a fielder’s choice, with Goldberg coming home with the third run. Deering hoped for more, but Sinclair lined out to Archambault.
Junior first baseman Jack Nichols became Portland’s first base runner when he led off the bottom of the third by drawing a walk. Fortin then got the Bulldogs’ first hit, a single to center, but Dame struck out DiMillo and after Knop walked to load the bases, Tocci struck out swinging after getting ahead in the count 3-1 and Williams chopped a ball to Sinclair, who stepped on third base to allow Dame to escape the jam.
The Rams almost got another run in the fourth, but a momentum-turning defensive gem by Archambault snuffed out the opportunity.
Minervino was retired on a slow roller to short to start the inning. Todd then flew to right, but Westphal lined his second hit, a single to center. Goldberg then hit a tailing line drive toward left-center. Had it dropped, Westphal would have scored for a four-run lead, but Archambault sacrificed his body, dove and made a spectacular catch to retire the side.
“Archambault’s catch was tremendous,” Rutherford said. “Being down 4-0 might have been too much. Give him credit.”
Dame remained strong in the bottom half, getting Ruhlin to ground to short, striking out Archambault and retiring Chasion-Lapine on a routine fly ball to right.
After Bevilacqua popped to short to start the fifth, Bernard singled to right. Viola grounded to Knop, who forced Bernard, but he threw the ball away in an attempt to turn a double play and Viola went to second.
That was it for Barnard, who was replaced by Ruhlin.
Ruhlin made Rutherford look good by getting Dutton to line out softly to Williams and it was on to the fateful bottom of the fifth.
Nichols looked at strike three to start the frame, but Fortin ripped a single to center and DiMillo followed with a single to right-center. DiMillo was replaced by senior pinch-runner Marcus Cross-Robertson. Knop came through with a clutch single to left, plating Fortin with Portland’s first run and when Westphal didn’t handle the ball cleanly, the runners moved up to second and third. Cross-Robertson came home when Minervino couldn’t handle a pitch for a passed ball and Knop moved up to third.
Portland first base coach Mike Fullerton then called for a squeeze bunt and with Knop racing home, Tocci made contact, chopped the ball in front of the plate and while Tocci was thrown out at first by Minervino, Knop slid home to tie the score, 3-3.
“The fifth inning has been magic,” Rutherford said. “Give Zach Fortin the game ball. He got a base hit up the middle. Dom DiMillo’s only had four at-bats all year and came in and had a big hit. Knop had a big hit. Dom’s squeeze was huge. I’d like to take the credit, but Mike Fullerton, I give him 100 percent control of the running game. He called the squeeze. I would not have. He’s more daring than I am. I give him credit. Ian Boyle, the pitching coach, has done wonders with Barnard, Ruhlin and (junior lefty Dan) Marzilli. I run the defense. I think we have the best coaching staff around and I’m blessed.”
The inning should have been over when Williams grounded sharply to Viola, but the second baseman couldn’t come up with the ball and the error kept the frame alive. That set the stage for Ruhlin, who hit a line single to center. Williams turned second and would have held, only to see Bernard bobble the ball. Williams then took off for third and when Bernard’s throw to third base went awry, Williams was able to come all the way around to score the run which put the Bulldogs ahead, 4-3.
“We’re a comeback team,” Williams said. “We’ve done it all year. Usually in the fifth inning. Fortin started the rally and we all just got his back and we came through for each other. I was looking to be really aggressive. I was looking to steal, but I couldn’t get a good jump on the lefty. I saw Bernard make an error, which he doesn’t normally do. He’s a great centerfielder. I went to third and they luckily missed it and I scored. Coach Fullerton, our third base coach, was screaming at me to run.”
“Up and down the lineup, we swing the bats,” Ruhlin said. “It just took a couple innings to figure (Dame) out. We made good contact, but the balls weren’t falling. They eventually started falling. I was up in the count and I was looking for something to drive and got a hold of one.”
Ruhlin went to third in all the excitement and hoped to score an insurance run, but Archambault’s deep fly to center was run down by Bernard.
Still, the damage had been done, thanks in large part to four Deering errors in the inning.
Momentum had completely turned Portland’s way and Ruhlin made sure it remained in the Bulldogs’ corner by fanning Sinclair looking, striking out Minervino swinging, then getting Todd to fly to deep center.
Dame produced a 1-2-3 final inning, getting some help from Westphal, who dove to catch Chaison-Lapine’s line drive for the first out. Nichols then grounded out to second and Fortin grounded out to short.
All eyes were on Ruhlin in the seventh and he welcomed the pressure, getting Westphal to ground to third, Goldberg to ground back to the mound and at 8:32 p.m., after 87 entertaining minutes of play, retiring Bevilacqua on a high chopper back to the mound to put a punctuation mark on Portland’s riveting 4-3 triumph.
“Deering’s a great team and we have a lot of respect for those guys over there,” Williams said.
“We’ve grown up this season, we’re not young anymore,” Ruhlin said.
“We throw strikes and play good defense and get timely hitting,” Rutherford added. “They made some mistakes, but we’re the number one seed. We’re not babies anymore. We’re a good team.”
The Bulldogs only managed five hits, two from Fortin, but produced enough offense to survive. Cross-Robertson, Fortin, Knop and Williams all scored runs and Knop and Tocci had RBI.
Barnard got a no-decision after giving up three runs (two earned) on four hits in 4.2 innings of work. He walked one, struck out a batter and hit two.
“Barnard got us through for almost five innings and gave us a chance to win the game,” Rutherford said.
Ruhlin improved to 5-2 after throwing 2.1 perfect innings of relief with two strikeouts.
“I was trying to limit the damage,” Ruhlin said. “I had confidence we could come back if I held them. I threw strikes. I threw decent tonight. I hit my spots. That helped.”
“Ruhlin’s pitched beautifully all season,” Williams said. “He’s hit great and caught better than anyone I’ve seen this year.”
“He’s my MVP by far,” Rutherford added. “He catches, he hits. I’m not surprised he got that hit. He’s the leader, the captain, and he got it done. He closed it out. He was focused. He threw strikes. You have to get three singles to score against him. He won’t walk you.”
Portland public address announcer Peter Gribbin estimated the crowd at roughly 700 people and much of the lower bowl at Hadlock Field was full. It felt like a step back in time to the days of the Rutherford-coached Bulldogs going up against Mike D’Andrea’s Deering juggernauts a decade ago and was a memorable evening for fans of both teams and those who simply appreciate exciting baseball.
“Tonight reminded me of the Rutherford-D’Andrea days and I miss Mike and I don’t miss Mike,” Rutherford said, with a chuckle. “We had some battles.
“Give Josh credit. They had 11 wins. They were a play or two away from making the Final Four. He was definitely the right hire for that program. The past five, six years, Portland and Deering have been near the bottom, but this is how it should be.”
Deering got two hits from Westphal, runs from Goldberg, Sinclair and Westphal and RBI from Dutton and Viola, but left five runners on and was left lamenting what-if.
“It’s tough to stop that momentum when it turns,” Stowell said. “Next time we’ll put a bow on it for them. It was mental lapses. We had it. We hit the ball hard early and made plays defensively. They made some great plays and little things bounced their way. That’s how they’ve won all year long. Game in, game out, someone makes a mistake and they take advantage. We made mental mistakes. In a Portland-Deering game, anything can happen. I wasn’t comfortable with a three-run lead. If we’d pushed another run or two across, we might have hung on. Against Ruhlin, guys got a little tight at the plate and didn’t take the same approach we had the rest of the game. He’s a hittable guy, but he’s been effective up and down the league this year.”
Dame was the hard-luck loser, falling to 2-4 after giving up four runs (just one earned) on five hits in six innings. He walked two and fanned six.
“Colby did a good job early in the game shutting the door,” Stowell said.
While this loss will sting for a long time, the Rams put themselves back on the map this season and have reason to hold their heads high.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Stowell said. “I enjoyed the heck out of this season. I’m pleased with our season and happy with our effort today. My hopes were coming in to go .500 and make the playoffs and we did that and more. We capitalized this year. We had some come-from-behind wins and stayed tough all year. We exceeded my goal, but we left a few games on the table that we could have gotten.”
Deering will suffer a few key graduation losses, but look for this program to continue its ascension in 2016.
“We lose Goldberg and Bevilacqua from the everyday lineup and (Sam) Luebbert on the mound and a couple guys on the bench,” Stowell said. “Those are key pieces, but we have everyone else back.”
Portland and Falmouth (which survived 12th-ranked Gorham in its quarterfinal) have no history other than Yachtsmen coach Kevin Winship being a friend of Rutherford’s. The Bulldogs have scrimmaged Falmouth and like their chances Saturday.
The way this season has gone, who knows what thrills and unpredictability the next game will bring.
“We’re an underdog group, even though we’re number one, but the sky’s the limit,” Ruhlin said. “I expect a good game. They have good pitching.”
“We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Williams said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to come back again, but if we do, we know we can.”
“We scrimmaged Falmouth and they team up with us in (summer American) Legion,” Rutherford added. “Our kids know each other. Their lineup is familiar. They’re solid, we’re solid. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Portland junior Charles Barnard throws a pitch early in the game.
Deering sophomore Colby Dame delivers a pitch.
Deering junior Dominick Bernard dives back into first base.
Deering junior catcher Luciano Minervino makes contact.
Portland sophomore shortstop Jake Knop shows his athleticism as he leaps to avoid Deering junior Dominick Bernard.
Deering sophomore first baseman Spencer Todd stretches to record an out on Portland junior Zach Fortin.
Deering junior Ian Westphal lines one of his two hits.
Portland junior Zach Fortin, who started the Bulldogs’ winning rally, is congratulated by classmate George Chaison-Lapine after scoring his team’s first run.
Portland sophomore Dom Tocci tries to get out of the way of a bunt. Tocci’s fifth inning squeeze bunt tied the game, 3-3.
Portland junior John Williams exults after scoring the go-ahead run in the fifth inning.
Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin fires a strike as he closes out the victory.
2009 Western A quarterfinals
@ Deering 10 Portland 0 (six innings)
2007 Western A Final
Deering 2 Portland 1 (eight innings)
2006 Western A semifinals
@ Portland 6 Deering 0
2005 Western A semifinals
Portland 9 @ Deering 6
2004 Western A Final
Deering 12 Portland 0 (five innings)
2000 Western A Final
Deering 8 Portland 3
1992 Western A semifinals
@ Deering 3 Portland 2
1981 Western A Final
Portland 8 Deering 3
Portland junior John Williams (center) is mobbed by junior George Chaison-Lapine (left) and junior Zach Fortin after scoring the go-ahead run during the Bulldogs’ 4-3 win over rival Deering in Thursday’s palpitating Western Class A quarterfinal. Portland advanced to meet Falmouth in Saturday’s semifinals.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.