STANDISH—The old adage about baseball being a game of inches never rang more true than Wednesday afternoon at Mahaney Diamond on the campus of St. Joseph’s College in the Western Class A Final.
For the top-ranked Portland Bulldogs, who have enjoyed comeback magic all spring, another in a line of unthinkable victories appeared imminent when sophomore shortstop Jake Knop lined a pitch the other way off South Portland senior ace Henry Curran with two outs and the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the seven inning.
For the third-ranked Red Riots, their quest for a first regional title since 1991 appeared to be ending in agony as Knop’s ball sailed toward rightfield, but in a catch that was shades of Bobby Richardson robbing Willie McCovey to end the 1962 World Series, senior first baseman Anthony Degifico was in the right place at the right time to save the day.
From the first pitch, it was clear that there would be little separation between the teams and the game would come down to the final pitch.
The Red Riots got the jump when senior third baseman Matt Beecher scored on a throwing error in the top of the first inning. Portland junior starting pitcher Dan Marzilli prevented South Portland from extending its lead, but the Red Riots, behind Curran, carried a 1-0 lead to the seventh inning.
Curran led off the seventh with a double and scored on sophomore centerfielder Sam Troiano’s RBI double for a ltitle breathing room and that run loomed large when the Bulldogs rallied in the bottom half.
After Portland junior leftfielder Zach Fortin blooped a single to score junior rightfielder George Chaison-Lapine with one out, the Bulldogs put the tying run at third and the winning run at second with two down, giving Knop a chance to win it.
And Knop nearly did, but Degifico got in the way and instead of losing a heartbreaker, the Red Riots held on by the skin of their teeth to prevail, 2-1.
Curran went the distance and threw a four-hitter, fanning eight, to allow South Portland to improve to 15-4, end the Bulldogs’ sensational season at 14-5, win its first regional title since George H.W. Bush was in office and Michael Jordan was celebrating his first NBA championship and advance to meet defending state champion Bangor (17-2) in the Class A state final Saturday at 3 p.m., at Morton Field in Augusta.
“That’s three straight one-run games,” said Red Riots coach Mike Owens. “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.”
In a year which saw unprecedented balance in Western Class A, it was no surprise that the postseason has produced so many games that have come down to the wire.
Portland, which wasn’t even expected to contend this spring, welcomed back Mike Rutherford as coach and won its final four regular season games to somehow earn the top seed, then rallied from a three-run deficit to down rival No. 9 seed Deering in the quarterfinals, 4-3, and scored four times in the sixth inning Saturday to oust fourth-ranked Falmouth, 4-0, in the semifinals.
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 Saturday’s semifinals, 9-8.
On May 21, in the lone regular season meeting, Curran took a no-hitter to the seventh, gave up a hit to Knop and nothing else and blanked the Bulldogs, 4-0, behind a one-hit gem.
Entering Wednesday’s contest, Portland had won eight of 10 previous postseason meetings, including an 8-0 preliminary round triumph two years ago.
But this time, in front of a raucous crowd on a gorgeous 74-degree day, South Portland turned the tables, barely, and managed to beat the Bulldogs in the playoffs for the first time since a 5-2 triumph in the 2001 semifinals.
The Red Riots got a break in the first inning and took advantage.
After Marzilli retired Troiano on a ground ball to short, Beecher drew a walk. Degifico grounded to Knop at short, but Knop’s throw was wild past first and Beecher raced all around the bases for a 1-0 lead. South Portland had a chance to add to its lead when Degifico moved up a wild pitch, junior catcher Nick Troiano walked and senior rightfielder Jacob Brown grounded out to put runners at second and third, but Marzilli escaped by fanning junior designated hitter Ben Conti.
Curran, who was close to unhittable in the teams’ first meeting, was mortal in the bottom half, but Portland couldn’t take advantage.
Curran struck Knop out for the first out, but he walked sophomore second baseman Dom Tocci and junior first baseman John Williams smacked a single to left. A wild pitch put both runners in scoring position, but Curran got senior catcher Ryan Ruhlin to chase strike three and caught sophomore centerfielder Nick Archambault looking at strike three to end the threat.
Marzilli made quick work of the Red Riots in the second, getting junior shortstop Drew Abramson to ground to short, senior second baseman Sam Solomon to fly to center and Curran to watch strike three.
Curran sandwiched strikeouts of Chaison-Lapine and Fortin around a deep fly to the edge of the warning track in left off the bat of junior third baseman Jack Nichols to put a quick end to the bottom half.
Sam Troiano led off the third with a single to center, but Marzilli picked him off. Marzilli then got Beecher to ground out to second and Degifico to bounce out to second.
Curran fanned junior designated hitter Joey Fusco and Knop to start the bottom half. Tocci drew a walk, but Williams bounced to third to keep it 1-0.
After Nick Troiano struck out to start the fourth, South Portland threatened again, as Brown lined a single to center and stole second and Conti walked, but Abramson struck out and Solomon grounded out to second.
“I was worried after we left some key runners on base,” Curran said. “It would have been nice to score more, but I was confident I’d do my part and I was very confident with the team behind me.”
Curran walked Ruhlin on a full count pitch to start the bottom of the fourth, but Archambault hit the ball right to Solomon at second and Solomon stepped on the second base bag for one out and threw on to first for a double play. Chaison-Lapine then doubled to right-center, but Nichols flew out to right to keep the score 1-0.
Curran struck out leading off the fifth and Sam Troiano lined out to third, but Beecher drew a four-pitch walk. Degifico grounded to Tocci and Williams made a nice stretch on the throw to get Marzilli out of the inning.
Portland went quickly in the bottom half, as Fortin popped to first on the first pitch he saw and Fusco grounded to second on the first pitch of his at-bat. Knop saw three pitches and on the third, he lined to center.
South Portland hoped to add to its lead in the sixth, but was left frustrated.
Nick Troiano singled leading off and senior pinch-runner Hayden Owen stole second. Brown then beat out an infield hit, but Conti hit in to a fielder’s choice and after Ruhlin replaced Marzilli, Abramson hit into a fielder’s choice and Solomon flew to center to end it.
Curran had another quick inning in the bottom half, as he fanned Tocci, got Williams to pop out foul to first and induced Ruhlin to ground out to second.
The Red Riots finally got an insurance run in the seventh.
Curran, for the second straight game against the Bulldogs, had a key extra base hit, in this case leading off the frame with a double to left, as he went the other way with a Ruhlin pitch.
“He threw it just a little outside and I was just hoping to put it in play somewhere,” Curran said. “Luckily, the third baseman was in and it got past him down the line.”
Sam Troiano then delivered a double to left and Curran scored to make it 2-0. Ruhlin prevented further damage by catching Beecher looking at strike three, getting Degifico to fly to center and after intentionally walking Nick Troiano, getting Brown to fly out to left.
South Portland had left the door open a crack.
“It felt a little more secure at 2-0, but I knew Portland would put something together,” Curran said.
“We got guys on, but we just couldn’t blow it open,” Owens said. “We had opportunities, but Marzilli and Ruhlin did an excellent job of battling and throwing pitches.”
Curran hoped to slam the door in the bottom half, but Bulldog Magic made one final appearance until it disappeared for good.
Curran got junior pinch-hitter Charles Barnard to ground to short to start the frame, but Chaison-Lapine walked and Nichols singled up the middle. Fortin then blooped a ball to left, which fell in front of diving senior leftfielder Silas Zechman to score Chaison-Lapine to cut the deficit to 2-1 and put runners at first and second. When Fusco grounded to Degifico unassisted, the runners moved up and the game came down to Knop.
Knop would make solid contact, but in a play Portland and its supporters will relive in their nightmares all offseason, Degifico made a quick lunge to his right to snare the line drive and suddenly, the ballgame was over.
The Bulldogs went from exhilaration to despair and disbelief in a heartbeat.
“We had one of our better hitters up and when he hit it, I thought for sure it was over the first baseman’s head,” Rutherford said. “Three inches to the right, left or higher and we go to the state championship game.”
South Portland wasn’t sure what happened at first.
“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,” Owens said. “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.”
After 116 nervewracking minutes, the Red Riots had their first Western A baseball championship since 1991, 2-1.
“I knew it would be a close game and that Portland would battle,” Curran said. “I was pumped when I realized we had won Western Maine. It’s the first time in a long time. We’re all fighters. We all grew up together. We know how to work together.”
“Portland’s a great team,” Owens said. “We knew they were capable late. All their playoff games, they’ve scored their runs in one inning. They’re well-coached, obviously. I feel fortunate to come away with a victory. The league’s wide open this year. What we’ve done consistently is pitch and play defense and done enough offensively to win. In playoff situations, even though they’re nail-biters, we haven’t made an error.
“It’s such a great group of kids. We’ve seen every possible scenario. We’ve been ahead and lost leads. We’ve been behind and gotten leads. We’ve been in three one-run games. Even in the regular season, we were in one-run, two-run games. The kids are prepared and continually come through.”
South Portland got two hits apiece from Brown and Sam Troiano. Beecher and Curran scored the runs. Sam Troiano had his team’s lone RBI. The Red Riots stranded 10 runners, but still held on.
Curran, who will pitch for the University of Southern Maine next year, wasn’t at his most dominant, but he still improved to 7-1 after allowing just one run on four hits and four walks in seven innings. He struck out eight and threw a wild pitch.
“I honestly wasn’t that nervous,” Curran said. “My pitches were working.”
“We hoped Henry would be good enough and he was excellent,” Owens said. “He missed a couple tough pitches that were close. He didn’t get himself in trouble. He got us here and he was going to get us to states. Early in the season, he threw really hard. Teams have adjusted. This is the most innings he’s ever thrown. He has a sense of calm and gives that to the whole team. The goal when he’s pitching is different than any other game. It’s score early and let him do what he does. He’s been amazing the last two years. He’s a luxury to learn back on. He’s at least Western Maine’s best pitcher, if not the state’s.”
Portland did a little better offensively than it did in the teams’ first meeting, but only managed one run, scored by Chaison-Lapine and driven in by Fortin. The Bulldogs left six runners on, including two in the fateful seventh. Marzilli fell to 4-2 after giving up one unearned run on four hits and four walks in 5.1 innings. He fanned five and threw a wild pitch.
“Dan gave me five solid innings and gave us a chance,” Rutherford said.
Ruhlin pitched 1.2 innings of relief, giving up a run on two hits. He walked a batter and struck out one.
Rutherford was thrilled with his team’s effort.
“The magic ended, but people saw what we’ve been about all year,” Rutherford said. “We didn’t do anything wrong today. We battled back. I thought it would happen in the fifth or sixth. I always believed we had a shot. The second run put us in a hole, but I thought we battled to the end. Hats off to South Portland, they’ve won three close games in a row. When Henry is on mound, they’re the best team. He’s the best pitcher in the state of Maine. He had his ‘A’ stuff today, but we had a chance.”
Portland has enjoyed many spectacular seasons in its history, but the 2015 squad will always be remembered fondly.
“As a coaching staff, we came into the season hoping to win a prelim and that would have been a nice season,” Rutherford said. “No one believed we would be one hit from the state championship game. I give the kids all the credit. It’s the most fun I’ve had in 17 years of varsity coaching. I wanted to get Portland back to what it was for years, a top team in the state every year. I thought it would take two or three years, but this was beyond what I expected.”
The Bulldogs only graduate one starter, but what a huge loss he will be.
“Ruhlin was the MVP of the team by far,” Rutherford said. “He’s a really good player. He went 7-2 with four saves and led the team in RBI. No one runs on him when he’s catching. He’s a great kid. A leader on and off the field. He’s irreplaceable.”
While Ruhlin will be missed, Portland returns the rest of its starting lineup, which will be a year older and driven to get back to this game and beyond.
“We have eight kids coming back, which is fantastic, and they’re hungry,” Rutherford said. “Next year’s goal will be a state championship. Everyone will be gunning for us. It will be a whole new mindset.”
Since losing, 7-1, to Cony in the 1991 state final, South Portland made the playoffs every year but two and has posted winning records 13 times, but wasn’t able to get back to the big stage.
Saturday, the Red Riots will be there, but facing Bangor is a mighty challenge, one compounded the absence of Curran, who won’t be eligible to pitch again, per Maine Principals’ Association rules.
Even without its star of stars on the mound, South Portland will take its chances and considering what a charmed life the Red Riots have lived, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against them making history.
“We lost to Bangor in states in Little League All-Stars and in Junior Legion and now we get one more chance at it,” Curran said. “We want to get this win badly. I’ll be in the outfield. I’ll my part out there. I’ll cheer on whoever is pitching.”
“I’m ecstatic to be in this situation,” Owens said. “Baseball’s a funny game. You never know in a single elimination tournament. We have a great team in Bangor that we have to face. I don’t know a ton about them. We’ll have to do research. We’ll have to bring our best effort.
“Now we have to win without Henry. We have everybody else on board. It will be Sam (Troiano), Brad (Sowerby), Griffin Kelley. We’ll see what we can do. I’m excited for the team and the community, who have been so supportive. I’m sure we’ll get a good following. We want the ultimate prize Saturday, but regardless of what happens, it’s such a great group of kids. I just don’t want it to end.”
South Portland senior ace Henry Curran gutted his way to a complete game victory.
Portland junior starter Dan Marzilli didn’t allow an earned run Wednesday.
Portland sophomore shortstop Jake Knop makes a throw across the diamond.
South Portland junior Ben Conti is forced out at second.
South Portland senior Hayden Owen steals second as Portland sophomore shortstop Jake Knop takes the throw.
Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin ducks out of the way of a pitch.
South Portland senior Sam Solomon makes contact.
Portland sophomore second baseman Dom Tocci makes a throw to first for an out.
South Portland senior Henry Curran takes a lead off second before scoring in the seventh inning.
Portland receives the runner-up trophy.
2013 Western A prelim
Portland 8 South Portland 0
2005 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 6 South Portland 5 (8)
2004 Western A semifinals
Portland 5 South Portland 4 (11)
2002 Western A division semifinals
Portland 4 South Portland 3
2001 Western A semifinals
South Portland 5 Portland 2
1995 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 7 South Portland 2
1991 Western A Final
South Portland 18 Portland 4
1987 Western A Final
Portland 7 South Portland 4
1986 Western A semifinals
Portland 8 South Portland 7
1980 Western A Final
Portland 7 South Portland 5
South Portland’s baseball team celebrates after winning its first regional title since 1991 after holding on to edge Portland Wednesday, 2-1, in the Western Class A Final.
More photos below.
SP- 100 000 1- 2 6 0
P- 000 000 1- 1 4 1
Beecher scored on error.
S. Troiano doubled to left, Curran scored.
Fortin singled to left, Chaison-Lapine scored.
SP- Brown, S. Troiano
SP- Beecher, Curran
SP- S. Troiano
SP- Curran, S. Troiano
SP- Brown, N. Troiano
Left on base:
Marzilli, Ruhlin (6) and Ruhlin, Sheils (6); Curran and N. Troiano
Curran (W, 7-1) 7 IP 4 H 0 R 4 BB 8 K 1 WP
Marzilli (L, 4-2) 5.1 IP 4 H 1 R 0 ER 4 BB 5 K 1 WP
Ruhlin 1.2 IP 2 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 1 K