By Eric Carson
STANDISH- It was by all accounts the pitching matchup of the season.
From Higgins Beach to the top of the Hill, every local baseball fan had a theory on how the 2009 Western Class A regional final would go down.
Scarborough folk of course, had plenty of reasons to believe in senior Chris Bernard, the Red Storm’s hard-throwing righthander who steamrolled through the regular season with .088 ERA and 67 strikeouts in just 48 innings pitched. They waxed poetic about Bernard’s latest heroics with that “just you wait” twinkle in their eye gained from a season’s worth of faith-building strikeout after strikeout from the Orono-bound senior.
All the while, North Deering loyalists claimed history and tradition, harboring little doubt if any in left-handed senior Taylor Candage.
And with good cause.
During the Rams’ current back-to-back state championship run, Candage has been just as dominant as any pitcher who has ever toed the rubber for the Purple-and-White, posting a perfect 17-0 record in his three years on the bump.
It was Bernard, this year’s Maine Gatorade Player of the Year, facing Candage, last year’s Mr. Maine Baseball and the Forecaster Sports Spring Male Athlete of the Year. And everybody had an opinion, but no matter where one stood along party lines, there was one thing that everyone agreed upon. This was destined to be a low-scoring game, decided by one key hit, a great defensive play, or perhaps a costly late inning blunder.
But that, as they say, is why you play the game.
That ballyhooed pitching matchup never materialized, falling victim to a tight strike zone and a sudden outbreak of the longball. In its place emerged a homer-happy slugfest with a combined 20 hits, 16 walks and get this: 26 total runs.
Against the top-ranked Rams, Scarborough needed to play a near perfect game, and in just about every way they did. Junior Jake Rutt blasted two home runs and went 4-for-5 with a double and three RBI. Bernard got his Jacoby Ellsbury on with a straight steal of home to give the Red Storm a two run lead at the time, and the fourth-ranked Red Storm banged out 11 hits and scored 10 runs in the game.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Deering shook off a tough start by Candage and came from behind on two different occasions to fend off a hard-nosed Red Storm team and capture their third-straight regional title (and eighth in 11 years) with a 16-10 win on a sunny and warm afternoon at Larry Mahaney Diamond in the woods behind St. Joseph’s College.
“This team handles itself with maturity and class,” said first-year Scarborough coach Jim Cronin. “This is the best group of guys I’ve ever been around. I’m proud of how they played today. We just got outslugged. These guys wanted it bad. They worked hard. And look at where it got them. Bernard had a great year. We buckled down and got hot at the right time. We reached all of the goals we set for this season. We wanted to lose four or less games and we wanted to win a playoff game.”
Candage made up for his largely ineffective pitching effort with a monstrous three-run homer that landed in dead-center on the softball field behind the diamond, erasing a two run Scarborough (14-5) lead in the bottom of the fourth inning to power the Rams nine-hit, 16-run attack.
The Rams (19-0) are set to faceoff against the Eastern Maine champion Cony Rams on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., at the University of Maine in Orono, searching for their third straight Class A state championship.
In the regional final, Bernard (8-2) had trouble locating his fastball and was tagged with a season-high 12 runs, 10 of them earned. The league’s stingiest pitcher walked six, struck out three and scattered six hits before making an early exit after Candage and senior Marc Ouimet (three RBI) went deep with only one-away in the Rams’ five-run bottom of the fourth.
“We definitely expected a low-scoring game,” Bernard said. “We battled out there but it was not our day. We went further than any Scarborough team had ever gone. In that aspect the season was a success. We never want to leave the field on the losing side but we set a foundation this team can build on.”
At least on the hill, Candage didn’t fare much better for Deering, surrendering two home runs to Rutt, a solo shot with one out in the top of the first, and a two-run jack over the right-field fence in the second inning. Candage (5-0) strapped on the catchers gear after only 3 1/3 innings following a two-run triple by Scarborough junior Brendan Sullivan that scored senior Jimmy Rouse and Rutt and tied the game at 7-7.
“In my first at-bat it looked like Taylor was struggling with his control,” Rutt said. “He got behind in the count and I was sitting dead-red and got it. I was able to get it elevated and it was a good start for us. I have to give my dad credit. He tweaked my swing a little, adjusted my hands, and I felt good. That’s the best we’ve ever hit as a team and we still lost by six. This was a great year. The underclassmen contributed and we should be strong again next year. Bernard did so much for this team. His numbers are unbelievable.”
Candage was replaced by the eventual winner, sophomore Jamie Ross, who promptly walked Bernard (two walks), threw a high fastball that tipped off Candage’s glove and allowed Sullivan to score from third to put the Red Storm on top 8-7 with still just the one out in the top of the fourth.
Bernard went to third on the passed ball that scored Sullivan, and then surprised the Deering battery with a straight steal of home for a 9-7 lead for Scarborough.
Returning to the mound for the bottom half of the frame, Bernard had a two-run cushion after his crowd-pleasing steal of home plate, but he couldn’t preserve the lead.
Deering senior Matt Powers singled to center, senior Regan Flaherty walked for the third time, and the left-handed hitting Candage gave Deering the lead for good with a tape-measure shot over the high part of the fence in right-center for a 10-9 lead. Deering senior Jack Heary followed with a slicing triple down the line in rightfield that skipped off the wall, and Ouimet, also a left-handed hitter, ended Bernard’s day on the hill when he got extended on a fastball and drove it over the fence in right for a 12-9 Deering lead.
“Scarborough battled like crazy,” said Deering coach Mike Coutts. “All season this team has found a way to answer after the other team gets a couple of runs. You saw that again from us today. Coming into the game everyone was talking about how we had to face Bernard, but I was saying they have to face Taylor Candage. I never thought it would be a game like this. It wasn’t pretty. Give Taylor credit, he was down in the dumps there and he comes back with a big hit.”
The Red Storm handed the ball to Ben Wessel, a freshman, who more than held his own in a big spot, surrounding a walk with a strikeout and a pop-up to escape the fourth unblemished. Wessel, a righthander, allowed four runs, two of them earned, on two hits, three walks, two strikeouts and one hit batsmen over the final 1 2/3 innings.
Deering padded its lead with a four-run bottom of the sixth inning on an RBI double off the wall in right from senior Luke Hammond that scored Heary (three runs). Sophomore Nick Colucci grounded off the second basemen’s leg to score Ouimet, who had walked, and move Hammond to third. Wessel caught Hammond in a rundown after fielding a hard-hit grounder by Deering sophomore Sam Balzano (three runs) for the second out. Colucci went to third in the ensuing confusion and scored on a passed ball for the Rams’ final run.
Flaherty (6-0) replaced Ross on the hill with one out in the top of the sixth and stranded a pair of base runners to escape the jam. The lefthander went back out for the seventh but coughed up three-straight hits and was replaced by Powers. A righthander, Powers hit Bernard to force in the Red Storm’s 10th run, but whiffed a batter and induced a groundball to junior Jake Nichols at third for the final out.
Deering will seek its 50th consecutive countable win in the same game they could complete the trilogy of state championships (something it also did from 1999 through 2001).
The Rams enjoyed a convincing 11-4 win over the Bangor Rams in the 2007 state final. Last year, the unbeaten Rams trailed by two runs twice heading into their last at-bat, but rallied on the strength of a dramatic, game-tying two-run homer from Candage in the bottom of the eighth inning in their 8-7 instant-classic win over Brewer in Standish.
Deering has never lost in Class A state championship play since the current format was established in 1970, boasting a Maine-best 11 state championships, winning seven of the last 10 state title games under former coach Mike D’Andrea.