HARWICH, Mass. – The baseball rocketed off Sam Dexter’s bat, headed for a spot of grass where no outfielder could catch it. Dexter rounded first, glanced at the ball’s path and accelerated.

He could beat the throw, he told himself, running to second. He must. He was the leadoff batter. He couldn’t run a hit into an out in the first inning. Could he?

This was the game between University of Southern Maine and Endicott College, both unbeaten in the third day of the double elimination 2013 NCAA New England Baseball Regional. Half of the eight-team tournament had already been sent home.

Win this game and you need to win but one more to advance to the national championship tournament next week in Wisconsin. Lose this game and you’ve got to win the next three.

Dexter slid into second base ahead of the throw and popped up quickly. He spread his arms wide over his head, facing the USM dugout. He heard the wild cheering.

“I was celebrating,” said Dexter, the precocious 19-year-old freshman shortstop. “I wanted to get my teammates going and win this game.”

They didn’t. Endicott won, 5-2. Dexter’s double would not be the harbinger of another active day by USM’s potent lineup.

Dexter’s gesture could have been misunderstood. He spent part of the day before in a nearby Cape Cod hospital. An opponent’s spikes had caught the upper left side of his torso, near his rib cage.

There was concern his spleen was injured. Was he celebrating his health?

“It was scary. I had a bit of the flu. I had bruised ribs, but they did a scan and my spleen was all right. I just wanted to play.” He rolled up his shirt to show the white rectangle of a bandage, maybe 6 inches by 8 inches.

“It didn’t bother me.” Would it bother him that night when he tried to sleep and get rested for Saturday morning’s game?

Dexter hesitated and then decided not to answer. “I played football and hockey (at Messalonskee High in Oakland). I’ve learned to play through injuries.”

There is a toughness to baseball players that’s not always appreciated. Tucker White and Dexter almost literally knocked Endicott starting pitcher JJ Branch out of the game early. White’s screaming line drive hit Branch’s leg. Branch waved off any concern from his coach and trainer.

Dexter’s hard-hit liner in the third with the bases loaded went off Branch’s shoulder and was turned into a double play. Branch will have two ugly bruises Saturday morning to show off. His body saved the runs that might have given the game to USM.

“We didn’t catch any breaks today,” said USM Coach Ed Flaherty. “The game is fickle. Things average out.”

His hitters stung Branch’s pitches over the first three or four innings but got no runs. Balls hit less solidly by Endicott batters fell in front of onrushing outfielders for hits that helped account for the game’s last three runs.

In the fourth inning, Dexter dived to his left, his body nearly parallel with the ground, to snare a line drive heading to center field. He landed on his bruised ribs and quickly jumped to his feet.

Rookie college player? “I’ve had 200 at-bats. I’ve played all these inning at short. I don’t feel like a rookie.”

And he won’t admit to the aches and pains. Late in the game, his bat sailed about 15 yards out of his hands.

“Bone bruise,” said Flaherty. “That’s not something we’ve talked about. He tries to grip his bat tighter but sometimes he can’t.”

Flaherty shakes his head. His shortstop has “it” he says. Poise, confidence, skill, talent and that pure joy of playing a game.

“I don’t have to tell him to take that extra base, he’s aggressive and he trusts himself.

“But I know I had second thoughts when he kept going. I mean, he’s our lead-off hitter and this was a big game. He knew he could make it and that’s what matters.”

After the handshakes with Endicott and after Flaherty talked to them, the USM players shouldered their bags and left Whitehouse Field. They wore the defeat on their faces. Except for Dexter.

“We play again tomorrow, right? We win that game and play another, right?”

He’s got it.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway