GORHAM — The knot of muscle in Forrest Chadwick’s upper left thigh still hadn’t relaxed when the University of Southern Maine baseball team walked onto the field for practice Tuesday afternoon. The hitch in Chadwick’s stride was subtle, but Coach Ed Flaherty noticed. His best hitter can’t run and USM plays its first game in the NCAA Division III baseball championships Friday.

“He’s our Roy Hobbs,” said Flaherty, referring to the Robert Redford character in the 1984 movie, “The Natural.” Hobbs was bleeding and hurting from an old wound when he hit the home run that won the game and the championship. Hobbs was the older player who didn’t say much. His presence in the lineup bolstered teammates who may have questioned their own confidence.

In the NCAA regional championship game played two days earlier, Chadwick hit a three-run homer that turned a 3-1 lead into a rout and enabled his teammates to forget their anxieties. From the dugout, USM third baseman Troy Thibodeau watched Chadwick gingerly circle the bases, marveled at his toughness and understood the example they all were seeing.

“It’s a ripple effect,” said Thibodeau. That Chadwick could hit a home run with one good leg minimized the aches and pains many of them faced at the end of a 40-game baseball season. “Forrest inspires all of us in his own way.”

Thibodeau grinned. He played hockey at USM for three seasons. Chadwick was a hockey star at Gardiner Area High School. Sam Dexter, another high school hockey star at Messalonskee of Oakland, plays shortstop for USM and hit .522 in the regional tournament to lead all hitters. He had surgery on his hip earlier this winter and rehabbed in time to return to the lineup. Dexter didn’t make excuses or ask for favors while he worked to get his body’s quickness back.

Three hockey players who swapped sticks and skates for bats and cleats.

Three USM starting players who didn’t swap out their mental and physical toughness.

Three athletes who have felt the sharp pain of a puck to the body and returned to the ice for their next shift. “I don’t think playing through injuries comes from being a hockey player,” said Thibodeau with a touch of diplomacy. “Everyone has their own pain tolerance.”

Consider Chadwick – he may be hobbled, but he’ll be in the lineup as a designated hitter in Wisconsin.

Flaherty loves that hockey mentality. The don’t-back-down-attitude. Losing by one goal or by three, hockey players don’t stop skating or working against the clock to take their best shots. There’s no equivalent in baseball to pulling the goalie for an extra skater and baseball isn’t played at the speed of hockey. The idea is to transplant hockey’s intensity with baseball’s discipline.

“It’s what Dustin Pedroia brings to the game,” said Flaherty. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was a hockey player.”

Thibodeau grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts. He’s a baseball-hockey hybrid. If he and Dexter and Chadwick have any down time, they’ll be watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. When ponds around the Gorham campus are frozen, they’ll gather some baseball teammates for impromptu games of pond hockey. Flaherty holds his breath, anxious that no bones break or ligaments tear or stretch – but he won’t deny them a chance to play another game they love.

Thibodeau is usually the catalyst. Chadwick plays with a quiet intensity while Thibodeau’s blood can run hot. Both are seniors, playing their last season for Flaherty. Dexter, a sophomore, has the personality somewhere in the middle.

“I wasn’t the smoothest player on the ice,” said Thibodeau. “I was into the game preparation, getting amped up, bringing the energy. In baseball, I know I’m not (one of the team’s better hitters) but I know my role.”

He may not hit with Chadwick’s power or Dexter’s consistency but he hit well enough at last year’s NCAA baseball championships to be named to the all-tourney team. He played right field with confidence.

Chadwick is an everyday player when healthy. So is Dexter. Thibodeau works for his playing time. His go-go energy couldn’t sustain itself after three or four starts last year. When Flaherty took him out of the lineup, he noticed his team went a little flat.

At the plate, Thibodeau sees his battle with the pitcher like he’s facing a goalie. If there’s one inch open on net, Thibodeau takes the shot. In the batter’s box he isn’t shy about taking his swings.

“In baseball, sometimes I was too amped up. Hockey is played at such a fast pace. You have to learn to calm yourself when you play baseball.”

Don’t worry. Thibodeau won’t unplug the energy after USM lands in Appleton, Wisconsin. Neither will Chadwick and Dexter or their teammates.

Playoff hockey will make way for playoff baseball, USM-style.

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

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