CUMBERLAND-A mid-May regular season baseball game doesn’t sound like such a big deal.
Don’t say that to the Yarmouth Clippers or Greely Rangers, though.
The neighboring rivals did battle Tuesday afternoon at Twin Brook Recreation Center in an epic and lengthy contest that featured numerous elements and plays not even found in a standard playoff game. At the end of the day, the Clippers held on for a 5-4 victory and the left the Rangers stunned.
As of May 18, Yarmouth was ranked No. 4 in the Western Class B Heal Points standings and Greely was No. 9.
Rangers coach Derek Soule said, “We approached it like a playoff game, because right now we are on the bubble. Yarmouth is worth a lot of Heal Points, so we certainly tried to approach it like it was a playoff game. It felt like a playoff game.”
With much at stake, both teams called upon their senior aces: Dan O’Brion for Greely and Nick Whittaker for Yarmouth.
It didn’t take long for the action to unfold, as both teams plated a run in the first inning. Yarmouth’s number two batter, senior Travis Merrill, drew a walk from O’Brion. Moments later, O’Brion spun and fired a pickoff attempt to senior first baseman Sam Thompson. Merrill was caught off guard and was undoubtedly was going to be out, but Thompson couldn’t handle the throw and Merrill scampered up to second base as the ball trickled away. With junior shortstop Luke Pierce at the plate, Greely’s sophomore catcher Pete Stauber had an O’Brion fastball get by him, allowing Merrill another base. A few pitches later, Pierce sliced a long double over the head of senior leftfielder Carter Cyr for the first run of the game.
O’Brion took matters into his own hands in an attempt to stop the potential rally. Armed with a scouting report about Yarmouth’s aggressive baserunning, he promptly tried another pickoff. This time, he did a slow leg lift and spin to catch Pierce leaning. O’Brion didn’t throw the ball, but instead went straight from the mound toward Pierce and applied the tag himself. After a walk to cleanup hitter Whittaker, O’Brion got junior Aidan Sullivan out on a weak comebacker and tossed it to first to end the half inning.
Greely answered right back in the bottom half when Stauber, who led off with an infield single and was bunted to second by senior Ben Shain, scored on groundout to second by senior Matt Labbe. The score remained 1-1 until the top of the third.
Merrill led off the third and fell into a 0-2 hole before blasting a triple into the right-center gap on a tough up-and-away fastball. Pierce, first pitch swinging, squeaked a soft grounder past the diving Thompson, who was playing in, to make it 2-1. O’Brion then tried another pickoff, but this time threw it in the dirt and allowed Pierce to move up to second. Whittaker moved the runner to third with a groundout to second. After a hit batter and a strikeout, junior Joey King smoked a ball back up the middle, plating Pierce for a 3-1 lead. Junior designated hitter Dustin McCrossin then promptly flared the first pitch into short centerfield to bring in Sullivan making it 4-1 Yarmouth. Senior Dan Kameisha flew out to right to end the rally.
Whittaker was cruising on the mound and kept his pitch count low while O’Brion had to work harder and accumulated 74 pitches through four frames.
“Normally I’m around 90-100 (pitches),” O’Brion said. “(Whittaker) is a great pitcher. He was throwing well. I was trying to match him every time.”
Greely finally got to Whittaker in fifth inning. Actually, it was more of a “falling off the tracks” situation. The tall righty got the first batter out, but then walked senior Luke Booth. Eight straight balls later, Stauber and Shain were aboard and the bases were loaded for Labbe.
“He hit about 65 (pitches) in the fifth inning and he just fell off the tracks,” Yarmouth coach Marc Halsted said. “That’s strange for him, and I expect him to bounce back and in his next start I’m sure he’ll be excellent.”
Things looked phenomenal for the Rangers, but after working a full count, Labbe walked back to the dugout shaking his head after watching a called third strike zip by his ankles for the second out. Greely coaches, players, and fans voiced their disgust with the questionable call, the first of multiple. With two outs, senior Ben Russell wasn’t about to let the umpire decide his fate. He promptly sent a 0-1 offering into centerfield, bringing in Stauber and Booth, cutting the score to 4-3.
“I can tell that (Russell) comes up clutch a lot of times,” Stauber said. “He’s done it before.”
Hoping to tack on more, Cyr was at the plate when a curveball came towards him struck his left arm. However, the umpire claimed Cyr did not make a noticeable enough effort to avoid the pitch, and sent the upset batter back to the plate. The Greely side was once again unhappy with the blue. Cyr then grounded out to the pitcher to end the frame.
O’Brion had found a groove. He retired the last 10 batters he faced in a row spanning from the fourth through sixth innings.
“It’s a good sign when you have a little adversity, and you’re able to zone in, settle in, and compete,” Soule said.
The Rangers rallied in an extremely unconventional manner in the sixth to tie the game. Senior Ben Walsh reached after being hit in the back. Junior Justin Moore came in to pinch run and stole second on a very close play. Pinch hitting senior Mark Dominick struck out and then sophomore Brad McKenny reached on an infield single which dribbled just behind the mound. With runners at the corners and one down, Booth drew a walk, which marked the end of the day for Whittaker. His line read 5.1 innings, three earned runs, just three hits, four strikeouts, five walks, and two hit batsmen. Junior Campbell Belisle-Haley came in from leftfield for relief.
It was Belisle-Haley’s first relief appearance of the year, as he normally is the number two starter in the rotation.
“He was supposed to start tomorrow, but we’re going to try to win every game, one game at a time,” Halsted said. “If we have to go to our starter for tomorrow to win this game, so be it.”
With bases loaded and one out, you’d never guess what Stauber did next.
On a 1-0 pitch, he laid down a squeeze bunt and the speedy Moore came flying in from third. Belisle-Haley fielded the bunt and flipped it home, but was just a fraction of a second too late. Gutsy Greely had come back to make it 4-4.
“We’re fortunate we had a lot of speed at third,” Soule said. “As you could see, even a bunt back to the pitcher with a force, he’s still beating that out. With bases loaded, I probably don’t do that unless I have good speed at third.”
“Derek Soule is what he is for a reason. I mean, he is a great coach,” said Halsted. “This is an excellent baseball team.”
“We had plenty of time to talk about the squeeze when they were making the pitching change,” Stauber said. “I knew what I had to do, and I had to focus, and Justin knew what he had to do at third. I think we both executed it perfectly.”
Shain struck out and Labbe grounded out to end the frame, but the momentum had shifted toward Greely going into the seventh. O’Brion didn’t go out for the seventh, as his day was done at six innings pitched, four earned runs, five hits, four walks, five strikeouts, and one hit batter.
Shain took the mound and got senior Jeff Kuklewicz to groundout to first. Merrill was then grazed in the head by a fastball and awarded first base, but appeared not to move much at all. Give him credit for not ducking out of the way of a potentially painful pitch, but Soule was enraged.
“He didn’t try to move!” the frustrated Greely skipper shouted to the umpire. “I’m not taking any more of your (garbage),” the umpire yelled back at Soule loud enough for anybody in around the backstop to hear. After a brief conversation/ argument, Soule returned to his dugout.
Merrill’s stay on first base was brief, as he was gunned down trying to steal by Stauber, thanks in part to a pitchout.
“I had a feeling he was stealing,” Stauber said. “I think Shain threw a great pitch out and it made it a little bit easier for me.”
The momentum was still with Greely with two outs and nobody on base. However, Pierce was hit by a pitch and it brought up the powerful Whittaker. Whittaker took a perfect inside out swing and shot an up-and-in fastball to the rightfield corner. Pierce was running on contact, but the play at home was bound to be close because the ball was hit so hard. Greely’s relay was off the mark, though, and the Clippers had jumped ahead 5-4. Sullivan then blasted a hard one-hopper to Russell at third, which he smothered enough to keep in the infield and save a run. Belisle-Haley struck out to end the inning, but the damage was done.
“(Nick’s) the one that kind of struggles in the fifth and sixth innings on the mound, and then he keeps his focus and goes out and hits a game winning double,” said Halsted. “That’s maturity and focus and you got to love having that.”
“I’ve been in a slump for 3 games now, so this was a great way to break out,” Whittaker said. “I was just focusing on going middle-away like Halsted always preaches. I’ve been trying to pull the ball way too much, that’s why I’ve been slumping.”
The Rangers never go down without a fight, though, and they put together a rally in the seventh. Russell struck out looking on a full count to lead off. Cyr then battled off multiple Belisle-Haley curveballs before smacking a single to centerfield. Walsh was then hit by a pitch (his third HBP of the game) to bring up O’Brion. O’Brion grounded into a fielder’s choice to put runners on the corners with two outs for McKenny.
That’s a pressure cooker if there ever is such a thing.
Belisle-Haley zoned in and got his man. McKenny was overpowered with fastballs and the Clippers celebrated loudly on the mound. It looked similar to a playoff win celebration. Well, the game was certainly of postseason caliber, so who can blame them?
“It was tough,” Belisle-Haley said. “I was a mess out there. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to let my team down. It felt great to get that final out and win on this field.”
Greely falls to 5-4 on the season and Yarmouth improves to 10-1. There seems to be a slight shift in the power, as Greely usually is near the top tier of Western B teams and Yarmouth is usually closer to the middle. But Halsted doesn’t care what the Heal Points say.
“I never listen to anybody who tells me that Greely is going to have a down year, because Greely never has a down year because they’ve got a baseball culture here,” Halsted said. “We have all the respect in the world for these guys.”
The game had all the intensity of a playoff duel and then some. The see-saw battle is hopefully just a sneak preview of what the 2010 postseason will entail.
“It really felt like a playoff atmosphere,” O’Brion said. “We were all into it, everyone was yelling. No one was sitting down. Everyone was up, fired up.”
Greely needs to stay fired up the rest of the season in order to earn a playoff spot. The Rangers (ninth in the Heals as of Wednesday morning, the top nine teams qualify for the playoffs) were scheduled to go to Wells Wednesday (weather permitting) and play at Poland Friday. Greely still has pivotal battles remaining with York, Falmouth, a rematch at Yarmouth (May 28) and a home showdown with the current undefeated top-ranked team in Western B, rival Cape Elizabeth.
Yarmouth, on the other hand, is for certain playoff-bound. Now, it just a question of how high the hot Clippers can rise in the standings (they had moved up to second by virtue of this win). The Clippers were supposed to have a chance to avenge their lone loss Wednesday at Cape Elizabeth (but rain put that game in jeopardy). Friday, Yarmouth hosts Freeport. The Clippers’ season concludes with a game at Falmouth and home tilts with Greely and North Yarmouth Academy.
The league is wide open this year, so stay tuned for June.