WESTBROOK—Sitting on the playoff bubble among the jumbled middle of the pack in the wake of a lackluster five-run loss at Scarborough in late May, the South Portland Red Riots baseball team had only three chances left to rescue its season and rise above the middling log jam of teams all huddled within percentage points here or there of each other with the regional tournament on the near horizon.
In dire need of a swift reversal in fortune, the Red Riots got exactly that the next time out when they capitalized on the one distinct opportunity left on the schedule to make a difference with a monstrous 2-0 victory just two days later at home over the highly-touted Westbrook Blue Blazes.
Galvanized by a big win over an elite team, the Red Riots picked up a full head of steam down the homestretch and closed out with a pair of convincing wins to emerge as one of those teams most would just as soon avoid come playoff time.
Go ahead and count the Blue Blazes in as one of those teams not exactly clamoring for one more crack at South Portland anytime soon. After being eliminated by the Red Riots last season in the first round of the playoffs, then dropping this year’s regular season game, Westbrook would have been fine trying its hand against just about anyone else.
Yet again, there was one issue that lingered out there tempering the Red Riots crucial 2-0 win this season. It came against the Blue Blazes second best pitcher in right-handed junior Matt Weimer. Actually, that’s not quite the issue. Far more to the point, South Portland missed the turn of Westbrook’s top ace and the league’s most valuable player, hard-throwing left-handed junior Scott Heath. As it turns out, that little tidbit was kind of a big deal, something South Portland learned under not-so pleasant circumstances two weeks later almost to the day.
With full command of three plus-plus pitches he can locate to both sides of the plate, Heath took the ball and spun a dandy on Friday afternoon, striking out eight in a complete-game, three-hit shutout. The lefthander held South Portland hitless over the last five innings and without a base runner the last four, fanning the side in the third and final innings, including a game-ending called third strike for some added style points.
And that’s just on the mound.
At the plate, Heath broke open a scoreless tie with a two-out, two-run double in the home half of the third that proved to be the game-winner, almost single-handedly willing fourth-ranked Westbrook (12-5) to a 4-0 victory over No. 5 South Portland (11-6) in a Western Class A quarterfinal at Olmsted Field.
The loss wraps up the 2010 season for the Red Riots and sets up a doozy of a showdown on Saturday when the Blue Blazes travel to Hadlock Field to face the top-ranked Deering Rams (13-4). It also means Westbrook will be without Heath’s services on the rubber for the most highly anticipated baseball game of the season.
For South Portland, finding out that payback is a “you know what” could have waited for another time and place. After an up-and-down, and then up again season, the Red Riots overdosed on Heath in the first round and will have to wait for the proverbial next year.
In a showcase of aces on Friday, with Heath paired up against South Portland junior righthander Andrew Richards (5-3, 0.86 ERA), the season and this game was ultimately decided in the third inning.
In the top of the third, Heath wiggled out of his one major jam of the game, and then made Richards one inning of trouble stick in the home half of the frame when he helped himself with a two-out double to knock in a pair.
In the third, South Portland had by far the best chance it would have all game when it loaded the bases with one out and had a pair of big sticks due to follow. Junior third basemen Evan Indorf drew a leadoff walk, and Heath struck out the next batter for the first out. Junior shortstop Paul Reny at the top of the Red Riots’ order reached on a throwing error by the Westbrook catcher after his swinging bunt stayed fair down the line and forced a hurried throw.
It looked like South Portland had a little something cooking when senior Matt Lee bounced to short for what appeared to be a tailor-made double play that would have ended the inning, but after fielding the ground ball cleanly on the move a few steps toward the second base bag, Westbrook junior shortstop Zach Gardiner bobbled the transfer to his throwing hand and everybody was safe.
Now with the bases loaded and still one down, the Red Riots had their three and four hitters lined up in a big spot with the chance to drive in runs. But that just wasn’t going to happen on this day, as Heath knuckled up and shut down the South Portland offense the rest of the way.
With the sacks soaked Heath made quick work of Red Riots senior Ryan Curit, climbing the ladder for a three-pitch strikeout and the second out. For an encore, Heath set down South Portland senior Jon DiBiase with a blistering fastball on the inner half for a called third strike to leave them loaded.
The Red Riots touched Heath (6-1 on the year with an 0.96 earned run average) for a base hit in the top of the first and then got back-to-back, two-out singles in the second from junior Zach Horton and senior Mike Foley. But like he did all game, Heath found a little something extra when he needed it most and struck out sophomore Brendan Horton to end the inning.
For the Red Riots, Richards breezed through his first two innings of work setting the side down in order both times, and seemed ready to do the same in third after retiring the first two batters on groundballs to the left side.
But with two away, Westbrook’s leadoff batter sophomore Joe Quinlan grounded sharply through the hole into left, and freshman Sam Stauble’s chopper to third took an in-between hop that Indorf had to wait for. Stauble beat the long throw easily as Quinlan hustled into third to put runners on the corners.
This brought Heath to the plate with the chance to benefit his own cause. The league MVP dug in from the left side, and the Red Riots outfield shifted that way to play Heath as dead-pull hitter despite Richards’ intentions to stay away on the outer half. After falling behind 1-2, Heath battled back full and eventually got Richards to leave one up that caught just a little too much white on the outer half. Heath got his hands in and sliced a line drive to the opposite field that got down in left and skipped away toward foul territory. Quinlan scored the game’s first run and Stauble made a great read on the play and came around to score all the way from first with Heath standing on second with a two-out double and a two-run lead.
“That was the game right there,” said South Portland coach Tony DiBiase. “We had to score some runs in that situation. We had our chances early. You’re not going to get many opportunities to put runs up on Heath. When you don’t come through you might not get another one. We didn’t get the big hit when we needed it and they did. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The Red Riots elected to intentionally walk one of the league’s top hitters in junior Zach Collett with first base open and two away. This brought Westbrook junior Sean Murphy to the plate and some bad luck South Portland’s way. Murphy got out in front of a breaking ball from Richards and sent a wobbling knuckler off the end of his bat directly at Brendan Horton in centerfield. What looked like the third out played tricks on Horton, bottoming out at the last second and getting away to allow Heath to score from second and give the Blue Blazes a 3-0 lead after three complete.
“The game was decided right there in the third inning,” said Westbrook coach Mike Rutherford. “They had the bases loaded, one out and their best hitter up, but Heath came through with two big-time strikeouts. That was it. We come back in and he shows why he the MVP with a big double.”
Richards was his typical self on the mound for South Portland, living on the corners with his fastball and dropping in a big hook to righthanders as his out-pitch. After Heath touched him for a pair of runs and Murphy’s lame duck cost him another, Richards retired the side in order in the fourth before running into trouble again briefly in the fifth.
Richards fanned Quinlan to start the inning, but consecutive singles to Stauble and Heath would mark the end of his day on the hill, exited after 4 1/3 innings of five-hit ball in a 3-0 game.
DiBiase summoned submarine-like lefthander Jon Medici, who got Collett to bounce to short for a double-play to end the fifth and escape further damage.
Westbrook would add a single run in the bottom of the sixth for the 4-0 final with Rutherford wiping the old sleeve on consecutive batters to push a run across with some small-ball. Junior Jake Gardiner moved the runners along with a nice bunt toward third, and junior Tom Lemay picked up an RBI with a well-placed bunt down the first baseline on squeeze-play.
With a 4-0 lead and just three outs to put this one away, Heath came back out with a live fastball and mowed down the Red Riots in order to earn the win and set the table for Saturday’s semifinal with the Rams.
While Westbrook moves on, the Red Riots will clean out their lockers after another strong season ended with a trip to the playoffs. Although South Portland managed 11 wins and earned the fifth-seed for the regional tournament, things went nothing the way DiBiase had envisioned before the season. This year, it was supposed to the offense that carried the load with a dangerous collection of veteran hitters. Instead, the pitching of Richards and the strength of its defense were largely responsible for the Red Riots success.
“We were one of the better the teams in the league,” said DiBiase. “But it’s funny. I thought it would be our hitting that carried us. That was never really the case. It was our pitching and defense that ended up being the difference. We pitched outstanding and the defense was great but the offense never really got going. But we had a successful and have a great program. We’ll keep knocking on the door.”
The Red Riots will lose seven seniors to graduation, including four mainstays of the program. Gone will be Curit’s big bat in the three-hole, along with Lee’s team-high .404 batting average. The solid left arm of Medici will be tough to replace in the later innings and other specialized situations. DiBiase and Mike Foley will leave holes in the field and at the plate the Red Riots will hope to fill with younger players ready to contribute.
South Portland does return four starters next year at key positions. Most notably, Richards will look to somehow improve on a terrific season on the mound as a senior. And if its true good baseball teams are built up the middle, South Portland’s in great shape with catcher Connor Vincent back, Reny returning at short and Brendan Horton back for his junior season in centerfield. The big bopper, first basemen Zach Horton, will return to bat cleanup and provide power from the left side of the plate.