SPBRichards.JPGSouth Portland sophomore Andrew Richards was superb in his Opening Day start against Portland. (Jason Veilleux photo)

By Eric Carson

The South Portland Red Riots baseball club opened the 2009 season against rival Portland Saturday looking like it was already June. The Red Riots played one of the more complete games in recent memory, getting outstanding pitching and timely hitting, to go with a fine defensive effort in the field.

For six innings.

But leading 5-0 and needing just three more outs to dispatch the Bulldogs, South Portland starter Andrew Richards tired after spinning six scoreless frames, and Portland rallied against a pair of relievers to throw a major scare into the hearts of the Red Riot faithful.

Portland sent 10 men to the plate in the frame and scored five runs to tie the score, but behind the big bat of junior Mike Foley and a nice piece of hitting by junior Jon DiBiase, the Red Riots salvaged a 6-5 win on a gorgeous day for baseball at Wainwright Farms.

They almost didn’t get the chance to win with just the one run, but South Portland junior right fielder Ryan Curit, a three-sport standout, turned in a sensational defensive play to finally end the Portland rally. With two outs and runners on first and second, Curit tracked down a rising liner in right-center and made a diving, tumbling catch for the final out of the top of the seventh.

Curit led off the bottom of the seventh but struck out waving at a breaking ball to bring Foley to the plate. Foley, already with two hits on the day, hit a bomb to the deepest part of the ballpark in dead center and legged out a triple to set up DiBiase’s heroics. After misplaying a key relay throw in the top of the inning that led to a Portland run, DiBiase earned some sweet redemption, ripping the first pitch he saw by the Bulldogs’ third basemen to deliver Foley and a huge win for the Red Riots in their 91st season opener.

And for a little added satisfaction, South Portland denied Portland the chance to record the 1,000th win in their program’s long history. A little “not in our house” by a young team that despite several key injuries could play a major role in determining this year’s SMAA champion.

The Bulldogs’ (0-1) normally potent bats were silenced by Richards, a crafty right-hander that frustrated Portland for six complete innings without the benefit of a strikeout. Richards did what good pitchers do- threw strikes, mixed in a nice curve and kept the Bulldogs guessing by changing speeds.

“(Richards) did a great job,” said Mike McCullum, the Bulldogs first-year head coach. “He kept us off-balance and we were probably a little too aggressive to start. We were a little more patient there in the seventh and it paid off. The positive is that we were able to come back and make a game of it. The negative is that we didn’t show up to play until the sixth inning. They outplayed us. They deserved to win. If we had won we would have stolen one.”

South Portland (1-0) proved that they can hit against one of the league’s top pitchers in Portland’s Brian Furey, roughing up the right-hander to the tune of 10 hits and six runs, scoring at least one run in each of the first four innings to build a 5-0 lead. Furey posted a 2.90 ERA last season when he was one of league’s stingiest.

The Red Riots opened a 1-0 lead in the first on a long sacrifice-fly by Foley, and added a two spot in the second to take a 3-0 lead with some situational baseball and a little help from Portland.

Travis Gulliver led off the second inning with a single to right, but the ball got past the fielder and he made his way all the way to third on the two-base error. He scored when senior catcher Mike Discenso singled through the hole at short. Paul Reny followed with a sacrifice bunt to push Dicsenso to second, where he score rather easily on a single by the designated hitter, Evan Indorff.

In the bottom of the third, South Portland added another run to take a 4-0 lead. Foley singled, stole second, and moved to third on a ground out by Dibiase to the right side. Freshmen centerfielder Brendan Horton then did the same thing as Dibiase, but Foley scampered home with the fourth run for the Red Riots.

In the bottom of the fourth, Reny singled sharply to left, and scored when sophomore Zach Horton hit a towering RBI double to left field to make it 5-0 South Portland. Horton, an athlete to watch at South Portland in the next few years, finished the day with three hits.

South Portland failed to score in the fifth and sixth innings, and watched as Portland rallied to tie the score at 5-5 against a pair of sophomores in Rob Jordan and Jon Medici. Jordan replaced Richards but was largely ineffective. Medici, a left-hander, retired the last two batters to earn the win.

Now safely back in the dugout and tied 5-5, Foley and DiBiase combined for the winning run in the bottom of the seventh and final frame for the 6-5 victory.

“Give Portland credit for that comeback,” said South Portland coach Tony DiBiase. “They had six hits in that inning and I didn’t see any cheap ones. That was an impressive comeback. Curit saved the game for us with that catch. We could have come in and quit and folded but we didn’t. It was a good game for us, 90 percent of our guys are playing their first varsity game. But we have a strong program. There is talent here. It’s just a matter of getting experience, getting some at-bats. We just have to be patient and let them play.”

South Portland (which improved to 2-0 Tuesday with a 5-4, nine inning win over visiting Windham, Jon DiBiase had the winning run) went to Bonny Eagle Thursday, and then will head to Hadlock Field for a huge showdown with the Deering Rams Tuesday at 7 p.m.