PORTLAND—South Portland’s baseball team has found a way this spring to win by any means necessary and the Red Riots did it again on the big stage Saturday morning/afternoon.
Facing a Deering squad desperate for a victory, South Portland used its time-tested formula of great starting pitching, timely hitting and some key defensive plays as well to earn a victory at Hadlock Field.
For most of the day, the Red Riots weren’t able to shake the Rams, who finally pushed across a run Saturday after a long drought, and clung to a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning, but scored three times in that frame, then ended all doubt with a seven-run seventh to put the finishing touches on a 12-1 victory.
Senior Robert Graff stayed undefeated on the mound and drove in two runs, freshman Sam Troiano had three hits and the Red Riots improved to 10-2 on the year, dropping the Rams to 3-10 in the process.
“I’m very pleasantly surprised,” said South Portland coach Mike Owens. “I thought we’d be competitive, but I wasn’t sure how well we’d hit. We hit well early, then went into a funk, now we seem to be coming out of it. I thought coming into the year, we had good pitching and a veteran defensive lineup. I thought if everything came together, we’d be competitive, but I am pleasantly surprised.”
In a season where little makes sense in Western Class A, South Portland finds itself atop the heap, while Deering shows glimpses of excellence one day and struggles the next.
The Rams opened with a 5-1 home loss to Westbrook and an 11-6 setback at Massabesic before getting in the win column with a 9-1 home triumph over Thornton Academy. After getting doubled up at Sanford, 16-8, Deering came home and beat Noble, 4-2. Tough losses at Gorham (3-2) and Marshwood (13-11) and at home to Biddeford (7-4) followed, but last Thursday, the Rams appeared to turn the corner with a 4-3 home win over Scarborough, which allowed them to exceed last year’s win total. The good times didn’t last, however, as Deering fell at Cheverus (5-1), Bonny Eagle (1-0) and Windham (1-0, in nine innings), as its bats went ice cold.
The Red Riots, meanwhile, turned heads by winning their first six games: 6-3 at Thornton Academy, 10-0 over visiting Gorham, 11-10 at home over Marshwood, 10-1 at Noble, 8-6 over visiting Bonny Eagle and 10-0 at Biddeford, in five innings. After finally falling from the unbeaten ranks, 6-1, at Scarborough, South Portland downed visiting Cheverus (2-0) and host Windham (3-1), but Tuesday, the Red Riots were blanked at home by Portland (3-0). Thursday, they once again showed their mettle by bouncing right back to beat visiting Massabesic (6-0).
Entering play Saturday, Deering had beaten South Portland in 12 of the past 15 meetings dating back to 2002 (please see sidebar, below). The Rams took last year’s meeting on the road, 6-1.
This time around, the Red Riots did what they had to do to earn another victory.
South Portland got the quick jump as senior second baseman Jon Vickers lined a sharp single to right on the game’s first pitch. After senior shortstop Cosmo Romano popped out to right, Vickers stole second.
“We gave (Jon) a green light,” said Owens. “It’s his first game leading off. He does a good job. He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but he gets great jumps. He’s been a leader for us.”
Freshman leftfielder Sam Troiano then grounded to third, but the ball took a bad off senior Will Barlock for an infield hit and a passed ball moved both runners into scoring position. Graff then helped himself with a ground ball to short, which produced an out and a run. Junior rightfielder Jacob Brown grounded out to short, with junior Nick Bevilacqua making a nice backhanded play to end the frame.
Deering had a great chance to finally put a run on the board in the bottom half, but Graff escaped.
Leading off, senior leftfielder Mike Marzilli fought back from an 0-2 count to draw a walk, then stole second. Bevilacqua moved to Marzilli up a base with a grounder to second and Barlock reached on an infield single, but luck wasn’t on the Rams’ side, as junior centerfielder Kevin Goldberg lined a ball right at Sam Troiano, who was playing shallow, and Marzilli wasn’t able to score. Graff then closed the inning with a flourish, fanning sophomore second baseman Pat Viola.
“In tight situations, I rely on my curveball,” said Graff. “I’m just looking to get strikeouts. I could have located my fastball a little better.”
South Portland threatened again in the top of the second, but couldn’t add to its lead.
After Luebbert got senior centerfielder Chris Foley to chase strike three, he walked sophomore designated hitter Nick Troiano. Senior catcher Dylan Farrell-Reny then hit a sinking drive to third, which Barlock couldn’t field in the air. He recovered, however, and threw out Troiano at second. Junior first baseman Anthony Degifico then ripped a single to right-center and Farrell-Reny steamed his way to third. Luebbert escaped, however, as Vickers lined the ball right at Barlock to end it.
In the bottom half, sophomore designated hitter Dom Bernard popped to short and senior first baseman Ben Peterson looked at strike three, but sophomore catcher Luciano Minervino lined a first pitch single to right. Sophomore rightfielder Ian Westphal then ended the frame by lining to right.
In the top of the third, the Red Riots doubled their lead, courtesy a couple of booming hits.
After Romano bunted out back to Luebbert to start the frame, Sam Troiano crushed a triple to the gap in left-center. Graff was next and with the infield in, he slapped a double past Barlock and down the line to easily score Troiano. After Brown grounded out softly to second, Foley struck out, but strike three was in the dirt. Minervino had to throw to first to complete the out, but his throw was low, forcing Peterson to go to his knees to corral the ball and finally end the frame.
In the bottom half, Graff turned it up a notch, striking out Marzilli and Bevilacqua swinging, before getting Barlock to stare at strike three.
In the fourth, Nick Troiano led off by scalding a ball toward the left-center gap, but Goldberg got a good jump on it and ran it down. Farrell-Reny drew a walk, but Degifico hit a sharp grounder to Viola at second, who made a nice scoop to start a second-to-short-to-first double play.
In the bottom half, Goldberg led off with a single to center, but after Viola bunted him to second, Bernard struck out swinging and with Peterson at the plate, Graff picked off Goldberg with a perfectly timed and placed throw to Romano to end it.
Luebbert got out of a jam in the top of the fifth.
Vickers drew a walk to start and after Romano lined to right, Sam Troiano grounded one to the hole, which Barlock dove for and knocked down, but couldn’t make a play on, putting runners at the corners for Graff. Troiano stole second on the first pitch, but Leubbert got Graff to pop out to first in foul territory, then fanned Brown swinging.
Deering’s offensive futility finally ended (with some help) in the bottom half. Peterson led off with a first pitch single to center and was replaced by junior courtesy runner Brendan McNally. Minervino was hit by a pitch. Westphal couldn’t put down a sacrifice bunt, then looked at strike three. With Marzilli at the plate, a passed ball put the tying runs in scoring position and even after Marzilli couldn’t make contact on a squeeze bunt, a throwing error by Farrell-Reny allowed McNally to touch home for the Rams’ first run in nine days (their first since the fifth inning of a loss at Cheverus, 23 innings ago). Graff escaped further damage by striking out Marzilli swinging and getting Bevilacqua to line sharply to Foley in center.
Like great teams have a habit of doing, South Portland bounced right back and opened things up in the top of the sixth.
Foley led off with a walk on a full count pitch and Nick Troiano grounded a seeing eye single up the middle. Foley took third and on the throw, Troiano went to second. Farrell-Reny hit a fly ball deep enough to center to score Foley and a Degifico groundout to second moved Troiano to third.
The Red Riots then came up big with two outs, as Vickers grounded a seeing eye single up the middle to score Troiano and after Vickers stole second, Romano blooped a single to center to score the third run of the inning.
“We put good swings (on Luebbert) early, so we knew we’d get him eventually,” said Vickers.
Sam Troiano grounded out to second to end the inning, but South Portland was in command, up, 5-1.
In the bottom half, Graff ran into trouble again, but again, escaped.
Graff hit Barlock with a pitch leading off and after Goldberg lined to left, with Sam Troiano making a nice catch along the line, Viola beat out an infield hit and Romano threw the ball away, putting runners and second and third, but Graff struck out Bernard and after walking Peterson on a full count pitch to load the bases, he got Minervino to strike out on three pitches (his 10th and biggest K) to preserve the four-run lead.
The top of the seventh saw South Portland score seven times, in a variety of ways.
Graff led off with another seeing eye single to center. He took off for second with Brown at the plate and Brown looped a single to right, but Westphal delivered a perfect throw to third to nail Graff, with Brown taking second. Foley drew a walk and that did it for Luebbert, who was replaced by freshman Colby Dame.
Dame walked Nick Troiano to load the bases and Farrell-Reny singled to left-center on an 0-2 pitch to score Brown. Degifico then singled to left to bring in Foley. A force out off the bat of Vickers scored Troiano and the lead was up to 8-1. Romano kept the good times rolling with an RBI single to center and Farrell-Reny came home. After senior pinch-hitter Joe Gleason was hit by a pitch to reload the bases, senior pinch-hitter Austin Mills cleared them with a double to right-center, scoring three. Senior pinch-hitter Dan Dadmun ended the inning with a ground out to second, but South Portland had made it 12-1.
Gleason stayed in the game and replaced Graff on the mound in the bottom of the seventh and wasted no time finishing off the win, getting senior pinch-hitter Tophe Thorne to swing at strike three, Marzilli to ground out to third and Bevilacqua to ground out to short to end it.
“(Deering) hung around,” Graff said. “We adjusted our approach at the plate and got better hits.”
“We knew we had potential,” Vickers said. “Last year, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted. This year, we’re doing a lot better. We’re just trying to stay on top of the ball and hit line drives. It was everybody today. We knew Robert would pitch a great game. We thought two runs would do it, but we were more comfortable with 12.”
“We grinded it out,” Owens added. “We put good swings on the ball all game long. We just couldn’t get a big hit. (Luebbert) kept us off balance with off-speed stuff. We eventually wore him out. When we’re playing well, it’s a balanced lineup. Top to bottom, guys contribute.”
South Portland produced tremendous offensive balance, as Sam Troiano had three hits and Degifico, Graff, Romano and Vickers all delivered a pair. Graff and Mills had doubles and Sam Troiano tripled. Vickers scored three times, while Foley and Nick Troiano touched home twice. Five other players scored once. Mills had three RBI, while Farrell-Reny, Graff, Romano and Vickers each drove in two. Vickers also stole three bases, while Sam Troiano pilfered one.
Graff gave up just one unearned run in six innings as he improved to 3-0. He surrendered five hits and two walks and hit two batters, but struck out 10.
“Robert battled out of jams and kept them at bay,” said Owens. “His curveball was excellent. For the most part, we played fairly well behind him defensively.”
Gleason worked a perfect seventh with one strikeout.
For Deering, it managed an unearned run, but no more.
Luebbert fell to 2-4 after giving up seven earned runs on 11 hits and five walks in 5.1 innings while fanning three. Dame gave up the other five runs on four hits and a walk, while hitting one in his 0.2-inning stint.
“We scored a run and got five hits and we didn’t make any errors today,” said Deering coach Tim Eisenhart. “We’re just very young and injuries are hurting us. It shows when we get guys on base and can’t push them across. We don’t have enough guns to push runs across. That’s when our inexperience shows. Guys take hacks at curveballs. It’s very frustrating. Rob did a good job mixing up his pitches. His curveball has very good accuracy. (South Portland’s) a very good team. They’re healthy this year. They’re well-coached. They have a very good pitching coach. They’re in line to do big things in the playoffs.”
Deering doesn’t exactly get to enjoy a holiday weekend as it returns to action Monday night against Portland in the ancient rivals’ annual showdown at Hadlock Field. The Rams (who are 14th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings at press time, with just 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs) then host Massabesic Saturday and close the regular season at Westbrook June 3.
“We have to win two out of three,” Eisenhart said. “We need to beat Portland and Westbrook. We’ve been in every game. The guys are doing everything they possibly can.”
South Portland (now second to Falmouth in Western A) is eying the top seed for the playoffs and could get there if it closes strong. After going to Westbrook Tuesday, the Red Riots are home with Sanford Thursday and Thornton Academy Saturday before closing at Gorham June 3.
“We want homefield and that bye,” said Vickers. “I think we can make a run. We have to keep throwing strikes, keep the defense solid and if we keep on top of the ball, we should be all set. We have depth and I know we’ll keep going.”
“Everyone’s healthy and everyone’s pitching up to their potential,” Graff said. “The bats are coming around. We’ve got the momentum rolling. I think we can still get better. We knew we’d be good. We want to come out and keep proving ourselves.”
“We’re worrying about finishing strong,” Owens added. “The top four seeds are important because you get a bye. Ultimately, because of the depth of the tournament, we just want to play our best baseball at the end of the season. We want to peak going into the playoffs. We can come at people with three or four really good starters, but it will come down to how we hit. We’ve been shut down a few times by good arms. We need to beat the good pitchers.
“The league’s even and deep. You have to be ready every day. Because of our depth, we haven’t had to push our pitching staff as much. We’ve given them a full seven days rest. We’ve been able to withstand a few injuries. Guys just step in and play. A lot of these guys have played varsity for three years. The experience has paid off so far.”
South Portland senior Robert Graff throws a strike. Graff earned the victory with six strong innings.
Deering junior Nick Bevilacqua takes a swing.
South Portland senior Chris Foley slides safely into third base as Deering senior third baseman Will Barlock takes the throw.
South Portland senior Jon Vickers lines a hit.
Deering junior starter Sam Luebbert throws a pitch.
Deering junior Brendan McNally crosses home on a wild pitch for the Rams’ first run in 23 innings and their only run of the game.
South Portland senior Jon Vickers and Deering sophomore second baseman Pat Viola await the umpire’s call on Vickers’ steal attempt. Vickers was ruled safe and had three steals on the day.
South Portland senior catcher Dylan Farrell-Reny (18) congratulates sophomore Nick Troiano after Troiano scores a run late in the game.
Deering 6 @ South Portland 1
South Portland 5 @ Deering 1 (9)
Deering 4 @ South Portland 3
@ Deering 7 South Portland 3
@ Deering 4 South Portland 3
@ Deering 3 South Portland 1
Deering 10 @ South Portland 9
Western A quarterfinals
@ Deering 11 South Portland 3
@ Deering 9 South Portland 1
Western A quarterfinals
@ Deering 2 South Portland 1
@ South Portland 3 Deering 1
@ Deering 6 South Portland 0
Deering 13 @ South Portland 7
Deering 6 @ South Portland 0
South Portland 3 @ Deering 2
In a pivotal play at the time, Deering junior Kevin Goldberg is tagged out by South Portland senior Cosmo Romano on a pickoff play in the fourth inning. The Red Riots pulled away late to beat the Rams, 12-1.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
SP- 101 003 7- 12 15 2
D- 000 010 0- 1 5 0
Graff grounded to short, Vickers scored.
Graff doubled to left, S. Troiano scored.
McNally scored on error.
Farrell-Reny flew to center, Foley scored. Vickers singled to center, N. Troiano scored. Romano singled to center, Vickers scored.
Farrell-Reny singled to left, Brown scored. Degifico singled to left, Foley scored. Vickers grounded out to second, N. Troiano scored. Romano singled to center, Farrell-Reny scored. Mills doubled to right-center, Vickers, Romano and Gleason scored.
SP- S. Troiano 3, Degifico, Graff, Romano, Vickers
SP- Vickers 3, Foley, N. Troiano 2, Brown, Farrell-Reny, Gleason, Romano, S. Troiano
SP- Mills 3, Farrell-Reny, Graff, Romano, Vickers 2, Degifico
SP- Graff, Mills
SP- S. Troiano
SP- Vickers 3, S. Troiano
D- M. Marzilli
Graff, Gleason (7) and Farrell-Reny; Luebbert, Dame (7) and Minervino
Graff (W, 3-0) 6 IP 5 H 1 R 0 ER 2 BB 10 K 2 HBP
Gleason 1 IP 0 H 0 R 0 BB 1 K
Luebbert (L, 2-4) 6.1 11 H 7 R 7 ER 5 BB 3 K
Dame 0.2 IP 4 H 5 R 5 ER 1 BB 0 K 1 HBP