GORHAM — In baseball, there is often little that separates the winning team from the losing team: an inch here, a bounce there.
Those inches favored the University of Southern Maine in its nonconference game with in-state rival Bowdoin on Friday. The result was a chilly 5-3 victory that kept the teams going in opposite directions.
It was the eighth consecutive victory for USM (22-6), the sixth-ranked Division III team in the nation. Bowdoin (13-10-1) lost for the third consecutive game and seventh of its last 10.
USM won because relievers Alex Tobey and Ryan Browner held the Polar Bears, who stranded nine runners in the first five innings, hitless over the final four. But there were a couple key plays that also swung the game in USM’s favor.
The biggest came in the top of the fifth with USM leading 3-2 – courtesy of a home run by Troy Thibodeau leading off the fourth – and two outs. Bowdoin had runners on first and second – two-out singles by Sam Canales and John Lefeber – when Chris Nadeau laced a drive into the left-field corner.
Chris Bernard raced after it and at the last second reached out to catch it. His momentum forced him to tumble over, but he held the ball to end the threat.
“Great play,’’ said Bowdoin Coach Mike Connolly. “Kind of a momentum-swing type of play. That gets over his head and it’s two runs.’’
“It looked like it was going over his head for sure,’’ said Sam Dexter, the Huskies’ standout shortstop. “Chris is a pretty good athlete and got a pretty good jump on the ball, and made an even better play.’’
Bernard left the game one inning later. While making that catch, he aggravated his hamstring, which he had tweaked when he hit a run-scoring double in the third inning and got thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple.
But that catch allowed USM starter Logan Carmen to leave with a 3-2 lead.
Carmen, an All-American last year, has been recovering from a shoulder injury and was starting just his second game.
He worked out of a couple jams, leaving after throwing 78 pitches, 51 for strikes.
“That will be a big plus if he gets back,’’ said USM Coach Ed Flaherty. “He’s not there yet, but that will be a big boost for us going down the stretch.
“I wanted to use him against a good club, against some decent hitters. I thought he did pretty well.’’
Tobey came in to start the sixth. The first batter he faced, Sean Mullaney, reached on a throwing error, winding up on second. A passed ball moved him to third and Mullaney scored on a sacrifice fly by Aaron Rosen.
But Tobey would also be the Polar Bears’ final baserunner, as Tobey and Browner shut them down.
“The biggest thing is you’ve got to go out and attack guys,’’ said Tobey, now 2-0. “I threw my knuckleball, fastball, slider. Actually all three of my pitches were working well so I could use them at any time.’’
USM, meanwhile, came right back in the bottom of the sixth to regain the lead. Thibodeau led off with his third hit of the game, a single off reliever Christian Martin. After a sacrifice, Thibodeau went to third when Paul McDonough’s line drive hit Martin on his left (throwing) arm, knocking him out of the game. John Carey knocked in the go-ahead run with a groundout.
Then Dexter hit a liner up the middle that deflected off the glove of a diving Mullaney, the shortstop, and into center, allowing McDonough to score.
Dexter, who extended his hitting streak to 17 games (while McDonough extended his to 16) had three hits for USM and made a spark-ling backhanded play to rob Bow- doin’s Chad Martin of a hit.
“Dexter is Dexter,’’ said Flaherty. “He’s as good as there is.’’
And right now the Huskies are playing as good as they have all year, and still looking to improve.
“There’s still a lot of room for improvement,’’ said Thibodeau. “Things are starting to go well and we’re on a pretty good roll right now.’’
Bowdoin, meanwhile, is looking to get back on track.
“We’re just trying to get better,’’ said Connolly. “We’re in a rut. We’re trying to work our way out of the rut right now. We’re going to come to the ballpark (Saturday against Williams), we’re going to play hard, compete hard and keep pushing forward until we make some luck that turns the tide for us.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: