Portland's title hopes dashed by Windham

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PORTLAND—In a Western Class A baseball season more wide open than any in recent memory, the Portland Bulldogs knew they could make a run at a state title or be quickly sent packing from the postseason.

Tuesday afternoon at Hadlock Field, it turned out to be the latter.

The sixth-ranked Bulldogs met the one team they haven’t been able to solve in recent years, No. 11 Windham, in a Western Class A preliminary round contest and dug a quick 4-0 hole, as the Eagles produced timely offense and rode the strong pitching of senior Spencer Hodge.

While Portland had ample opportunities to rally, it couldn’t do so and went down to a 6-1 defeat.

Windham ended the Bulldogs’ season at 10-7, improved to 8-9 and set up a quarterfinal round showdown at No. 3 Biddeford (14-2) Thursday.

“We had our chances, but you have to give credit to Windham, they played very well today,” Portland coach Tony DiBiase said. “We just don’t seem to play well against Windham. Maybe that’s matchups. If you compare scores against other teams, we beat teams they lost to, but we just don’t bring our good game against them, it seems like.”

Not this time

Portland went on a memorable playoff run a year ago, beating South Portland in a prelim, then upsetting top-ranked Scarborough in the quarterfinals before ultimately falling by a run against eventual state champion Westbrook in the semifinals.

Windham was up-and-down, but had its moments during the regular season. After opening with a 3-0 victory at Sanford, the Eagles lost at home to Thornton Academy (5-3). After beating host Gorham (6-4) and visiting Noble (5-4), Windham fell at home to Biddeford (7-2) and at Marshwood (10-0). A 4 -2 triumph at Bonny Eagle was followed by a 5-4 home loss to Scarborough, a 3-1 home loss to South Portland and a 9-4 setback at Cheverus. After rebounding with a 1-0 home win over Deering, the Eagles won at Portland, 11-2. A 5-0 setback at Massabesic followed. Windham then beat visiting Westbrook (6-3), but closed with a 7-1 home loss to Sanford and a 4-0 setback at Thornton Academy to fall to the No. 11 seed.

The Bulldogs opened up with a 1-0 home loss to Sanford, then avenged a playoff setback with a 2-1 victory at Westbrook and downed visiting Gorham as well, 7-3. A 5-4 loss at Thornton Academy was followed by a 5-4 home win over Marshwood. Portland’s up-and-down play continued with a 4-2 win at Noble, a 6-4 setback at Biddeford, an 8-0 home win over Bonny Eagle and a 9-8 home triumph over Cheverus. After losing at Scarborough, 7-5, the Bulldogs registered an impressive 3-0 win at South Portland before falling at home to Windham, 11-2, in an error-plagued affair. Portland rebounded with a 10-1 win over Deering, a 1-0 (14 inning) home victory over Massabesic and after falling at home to Westbrook (5-2), closed with a 10-1 win at Sanford to wind up sixth in Western A.

The teams came into play Tuesday having never met in the playoffs.

Windham has owned Portland of late, as last month’s win made it six straight victories over five years.

This time, on the big stage, the Bulldogs hoped to beat the Eagles for the first time since May 9, 2009, but Windham ended their season instead.

For the second time this spring, the Eagles got the jump on Portland, taking advantage of some early wildness from Bulldogs’ senior starting pitcher Travis Godbout.

Senior third baseman Zach Conley led off with a single to left and moved to second on a wild pitch. Senior centerfielder Andrew Whiting sacrificed Conley to third and Conley scored on a second Godbout wild pitch. Junior second baseman Tanner Laberge singled to center, but junior catcher Zach Alpern grounded out slowly to short and Hodge grounded out to short to end the frame.

Portland had a chance to answer in the bottom half, but wound up stranding two runners.

Freshman shortstop Jake Knop ripped a ball to left leading off, but junior leftfielder Josh Dugas made the catch. Senior third baseman Dan Kane then singled to right and was tagged out by Laberge on a ground ball off the bat of senior centerfielder Joey Apon. Hodge then threw wildly on a pickoff throw to first and Apon raced all the way to third, but after junior catcher Ryan Ruhlin walked, Godbout ended the uprising by grounding out to second.

The Eagles returned to their scoring ways in the top of the second, but should have had more.

Senior rightfielder Ethan Petty singled up the middle leading off and took second when sophomore shortstop Tyler Johnson dropped a base hit down the leftfield line. Dugas then lined a shot that appeared headed for left-center, then blew back toward left so dramatically that senior leftfielder Bobby Lajoie-Eames overrran it and the ball dropped in for a single, scoring Petty. When Timmy Greenlaw walked to load the bases, it appeared Windham was on the verge of breaking the game open, but Godbout caught Conley looking at strike three and Whiting grounded sharply to Knop at shortstop, who stepped on second, then threw to first to complete a timely inning-ending double play.

Portland wasn’t able to translate that momentum into offense, however.

Sophomore designated hitter Joe Fusco struck out looking and after senior second baseman Evan Gallant went the other way and lined a single to left, sophomore first baseman John Williams struck out swinging and senior rightfielder Justin Zukowski lined to right.

Godbout got in more trouble in the third and this time, couldn’t escape.

He hit Laberge leading off, then walked Alpern on a 3-2 pitch and DiBiase came out to make a change, moving Godbout to first and bringing in senior Nick DiPalma to pitch.

DiPalma was greeted by Hodge, who grounded into a third-to-second force out. After Hodge stole second, Portland brought the infield in, but it made no difference, as Petty ripped a shot deep to right-center, which scored Laberge and Hodge for a 4-0 lead. Johnson bunted Petty to third and Dugas fanned to end it, but the Eagles were in control.

The Bulldogs made solid contact in the bottom half, but had nothing to show for it, as Knop grounded sharply back to Hodge, Kane ripped a shot that appeared ticketed for right-center only to have Laberge make a leaping catch, and Apon flew out to left.

In the top of the fourth, DiPalma caught Greenlaw looking at strike three and Gallant made a sweet stab of a sharply struck ball off the bat of Conley before throwing him out, but Whiting singled to center. Laberge then lined a shot to deep center, but Apon ran it down.

In the bottom half, Ruhlin struck out, but Godbout reached on an error by Johnson. Conley then had trouble with a ground ball off the bat of Fusco, but recovered to record the out at first, with Godbout taking second. Gallant again went the other way, this time lining a shot deep to left, over Dugas’ head for a double which chased home Godbout with Portland’s first run. The Bulldogs could draw no closer, however, as DiPalma grounded out to Greenlaw at first.

In the fifth, DiPalma made quick work of the Eagles, geting Alpern to pop back to the mound, fanning Hodge swinging and striking out Petty looking.

In the bottom half, Portland had a great opportunity to pull closer, but ultimately was left frustrated.

Zukowski led off by grounding slowly up the middle, but Johnson made a nice play going to his left and threw out the speedy batter by a step. Knop then struck out, but strike three was wild and Knop reached. Kane then singled to right and both runners moved up on the throw. That set the table for Apon, the No. 3 hitter, but his fly ball to center died in the wind and wasn’t deep enough for Knop to tag. Ruhlin battled back from down 1-2 to draw a walk, but Godbout’s liner to right-center was knocked down by the wind and caught by Whiting to end the threat.

Johnson grounded out to short to start the top of the sixth, but Dugas grounded a single down the rightfield line. Greenlaw struck out, but Dugas stole second on strike three and when Conley’s slow roller was thrown wildly by Knop, Dugas scored an insurance run, making it 5-1. Conley stole second, but Knop redeemed himself, making a nice throw on the run to get Whiting.

In the bottom half, Hodge made quick work of the Bulldogs, getting Apon on a slow roller to third, Gallant to fly to left and DiPalma to ground out to second.

Laberge led off the top of the seventh with a solid double to left which rolled all the way to the wall. Alpern struck out, but Hodge doubled down the leftfield line, scoring Laberge for a 6-1 lead and chasing DiPalma in favor of senior Owen Pence. Pence got Petty to ground back to the mound and Johnson to pop out to third.

Then, in the bottom half, Portland had one final glimmer of hope snuffed out.

Zukowski, in his final act as a transcendent Bulldogs athlete, drew a leadoff walk. Knop then singled to right and Kane appeared primed to really make things interesting with a deep drive to center, but Whiting ran it down for out number one. Apon was next and he lined to center. Whiting made another nice catch, this one while diving, and he threw to second to double up Zukowski and that ended it.

Windham 6 Portland 1.

The Eagles had a solid offensive day, producing 10 hits, two apiece from Dugas, Laberge and Petty. Hodge, Laberge and Petty all doubled. Laberge also scored twice, while Conley, Dugas, Hodge and Petty each touched home plate once. Petty drove in two runs, while Dugas and Hodge each had one RBI. Conley, Dugas and Hodge each registered a stolen base.

On the mound, Hodge improved to 4-3 by allowing just one unearned run on five hits and two walks in seven innings. He struck out four.

“Spencer pitched a hell of a game,” Windham coach Brody Artes said. “When he’s on, he pitched really well. He’s had some outings where he had a hard time throwing strikes, but when he has a great curveball, he’s tough and he’s confident. It was on today. He did a great job spotting it out of the zone and in the zone. I thought he had some zip on his fastball. His pitch count was somewhat low. We wanted him to finish it off.

“We got out of some jams. Credit Spencer and our defense for that. Portland is a team that can sneak up on you. They could have scored some runs and made a different game out of it. We’re young and we’ve had our ups and downs for sure. We’ve been inconsistent at the plate and with pitching, but our defense has been pretty steady even though we had a couple errors today. They didn’t really cost us.”

Windham lost at home to Biddeford during the regular season, but that was way back on May 6. These Eagles are dangerous and believe they can keep soaring.

“Hopefully we’re playing our best baseball now and hopefully this is the start of a good stretch for us,” Artes said. “We have good pitching and defense and have timely hitting at times. We had a good matchup today and we’ll have a good matchup Thursday. We face the Pitcher of the Year (Nate Huot), but to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

Not meant to be

Portland got two hits apiece from Gallant and Kane in their swan songs, but only one other Bulldog managed a hit (Knop, in the seventh). Gallant had the lone extra base hit (a double). Godbout scored the only run and Gallant had the lone RBI.

Godbout fell to 2-1 on the season after giving up four earned runs on five hits and two walks in two-plus innings of work. He fanned one, but threw three wild pitches and hit a batter.

DiPalma kept Portland alive with 4.1 solid innings. He gave up two runs (one earned) on five hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out six. Pence set down both batters he faced in the seventh.

“DiPalma pitched very, very well,” DiBiase said. “We had him slotted to go Thursday if we won. We had to use him in the third inning. Godbout had been pitching well, but give Windham credit. They hit him pretty good and he was a little wild. Nicky gave us a chance to get back in the game, but we couldn’t come up with that big hit.”

While Portland finished 10-7 and its season ended sooner than hoped, the Bulldogs have a lot to be proud of.

Again.

“The seniors brought Portland baseball back,” said DiBiase. “We hadn’t had double digit wins in the regular season for a long time. These kids got the program back heading in the right direction. Last year was a great tournament run. This year, it ended quickly. In this league, every team is equal. We could have won the whole thing or gotten knocked out in the first round. South Portland and Marshwood might be the favorites and we beat both of them.”

While the loss of the likes of Apon, DiPalma, Dixon, Gallant, Godbout, Kane, Pence and Zukowski will be felt, the Bulldogs have the pieces in place to be a contender again in 2015.

Fusco and Williams saw ample time this spring and they’ll be joined by a solid core of newcomers.

“We return a lot and we have a good group on the freshman level and the JV levels,” DiBiase said. “It’s a good group coming through. We have good pitching and good young kids. I think we’ll keep heading in the right direction.”

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

Portland senior Nick DiPalma delivers a pitch. DiPalma threw 4.1 effective innings of relief.

Portland senior second baseman Evan Gallant digs out a throw as Windham senior Zach Conley steals a base.

Portland senior Dan Kane takes a swing. Kane had two hits in the loss.

Portland freshman shortstop Jake Knop fields a ground ball.

Portland senior leftfielder Bobby Lajoie-Earnes runs down a hit.

Portland junior catcher Ryan Ruhlin tags out Windham senior Spencer Hodge after a strikeout.

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Portland senior Joey Apon takes a swing during the Bulldogs’ 6-1 home loss to Windham in Tuesday’s Western Class A preliminary round.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Windham 6 Portland 1

W- 112 001 1- 6 10 2
P- 000 100 0- 1 5 1

Top 1st
Conley scored on wild pitch.

Top 2nd
Dugas singled to left, Petty scored.

Top 3rd
Petty doubled to right-center, Laberge and Hodge scored.

Bottom 4th
Gallant doubled to left, Godbout scored.

Top 6th
Dugas scored on error.

Top 7th
Hodge doubled to left, Laberge scored.

Repeat hitters:
W- Dugas, Laberge, Petty
P- Gallant, Kane

Runs:
W- Laberge 2, Conley, Dugas, Hodge, Petty
P- Godbout

RBI:
W- Petty 2, Dugas, Hodge
P- Gallant

Doubles:
W-Hodge, Laberge, Petty
P- Gallant

Stolen bases:
W- Conley, Dugas, Hodge

Hodge and Alpern; Godbout, DiPalma (3), Pence (7), and Ruhlin

W:
Hodge (W, 4-3) 7 IP 5 H 1 R 0 ER 2 BB 4 K

P:
Godbout (L, 2-1) 2 IP 5 H 4 R 4 ER 2 BB 1 K 3 WP 1 HBP
DiPalma 4.1 IP 5 H 2 R 1 ER 0 BB 6 K
Pence 0.2 IP 0 H 0 R 0 BB 0 K

Time- 2:02

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