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The game of inches giveth and the game of inches taketh away.
Last week, South Portland’s baseball team ran the gamut of emotions on last at-bat line drives, as one produced a happy ending in the regional final, but a second derailed what was almost another scintillating comeback win in the state game.
South Portland, which started the year 10-1, then lost three of its last five regular season games to slip to the No. 3 seed, had to go eight innings to survive No. 11 Biddeford in the quarterfinals, 4-3, then rallied for eight runs in the top of the seventh, only to have to hold on for dear life to survive second-ranked preseason favorite Marshwood in the semifinals, 9-8.
Last Wednesday’s Western A Final against top-ranked Portland was just as riveting.
South Portland grabbed a first inning run, when Matt Beecher scored on a throwing error, and ace lefthander Henry Curran, who one-hit the Bulldogs in the regular season, worked out of trouble through six innings to preserve the lead. The Red Riots finally got an insurance run in the seventh, as Curran and Sam Troiano both doubled to left to make it 2-0, but the bottom of the frame would be harrowing.
“It felt a little more secure at 2-0, but I knew Portland would put something together,” Curran said.
The Bulldogs got two on with one out and finally broke through with a bloop single. Curran got a second out, but Portland had runners at second and third for shortstop Jake Knop and on an 0-2 pitch, Knop hit a liner that appeared to be ticketed for rightfield, but first baseman Anthony Degifico was in the right place to snare it and end the game and give South Portland a 2-1 win.
“I saw it hit the bat and I quickly turned my head to look, but it was well hit and I thought it was over (Anthony’s) head,” Curran said. “Thankfully, he made a great play. At that point, my velocity was slowing down, so I was just trying to throw strikes where they’d hit it to my fielders and let them do the job.”
“It happened so quickly,” said Red Riots coach Mike Owens. “He hit it so hard. I didn’t have time to think anything. Anthony was back in a good position. He’s a very good defensive first baseman.
“That’s three straight one-run games. All three we’ve looked down the barrel of a gun. One hit, one play and our season would be over, but it’s continually worked out. It’s a credit to the kids. We get in these situations and you can fold, but it’s almost like they get stronger. As a coach, it’s killing me, but they’ve been great.”
Not surprisingly, Saturday’s state final, South Portland’s first since 1991 and first ever against defending champion Bangor, also went down to the final pitch.
The Red Riots took a 1-0 lead in the first inning as Beecher walked and with Beecher stealing, Degifico singled to put runners at the corner. Nick Troiano’s sacrifice fly gave South Portland the jump. With Curran unavailable due to Maine Principals’ Association pitching rules, Sam Troiano took the hill and surrendered the tying run in the bottom half.
In the fourth, the Red Riots retook the lead, as Ben Conti tripled in a run and Drew Abramson had an RBI single, but again, South Portland couldn’t hold it. In the bottom half, the Rams scored four times, thanks to two errors, two wild pitches, a bases loaded walk and a two-run single to go on top, 5-3.
It stayed that way into the seventh, where the Red Riots produced one final rally.
Sam Troiano hit a one-out single, Beecher was hit by a pitch and Degifico reached on an error to score Troiano and put the tying and go-ahead runs on. Degifico was replaced by pinch-runner Hayden Owen and both runners moved up on a passed ball. Nick Troiano was walked intentionally to bring Jacob Brown to the plate.
Like Knop three days prior, Brown would make contact, but while the previous game had a happy ending, this one ended in agony, as the ball was hit directly to the Bangor shortstop, who caught it, then doubled Owen off second to end the game, 5-4, and South Portland’s season at 15-5.
“Unfortunately, it went the other way this time,” Owens said. “We couldn’t get the big hit. I thought off the bat, that it was a hit, but after we were inches away from losing against Biddeford, Marshwood and Portland, it’s ironic that it turned out this way.
“We weren’t satisfied with the Western Maine title. Our ultimate goal was the state championship. We got there because of our pitching and defense, but we had our worst defensive game of the year. Between errors and walks, they had 11 free runners. They only had three hits and only one of those left the infield.”
Despite the disappointment of the loss, Owens said that he and his team wouldn’t trade this season for anything.
“It was a nice run,” Owens said. “We did something that no South Portland team had done since 1991. Reflecting back on the season, I’m really pleased with the way we performed. I thought we’d be pretty good, but it was nice to see how much the younger guys and the seniors who hadn’t played much step up. We played much better as the season went on. It was a talented group. A hardworking group. They were close friends. They made it fun to come to practice. It’s hard to see it end.”
The Red Riots lose five starters, including the incomparable Curran, but hope to be right back in this spot next spring and finish the job.
“We have some holes to fill, but our JV team was 13-3, the freshman team was 12-4 and our Junior Legion team was state runner-up last year,” Owens said. “The program is deep. We filled holes this year We have guys who are capable of stepping in. Henry’s a once-in-a-lifetime player, but hopefully our younger guys will keep developing.”
Bangor Daily News staff writer Ernie Clark contributed to this story.
South Portland’s Matt Beecher scores a first inning run during Saturday’s Class A Final. The Red Riots fell one run shy in their first championship game appearance since 1991.
Bangor celebrates and South Portland’s Hayden Owen reacts in dismay after Owen is doubled off second base to end Saturday’s Class A Final. The Rams held on for a 5-4 victory.