Portland was the champion of the recent inaugural Maine Summer Sandlot Baseball League tournament. Left to right: Coach Matt Rogers, Chris Naylor, Mike Jones, Caleb McCartney, Ryan Sargent, Nate Rogers, Chris Cimino, Brian Riley, Noah Lewis, Garon Kelley, Aaron Goschke and assistant coach Chris Kelley. Front row: Luke Hill, Griffin Buckley, Max Brown and Caleb Viola. Missing: Anthony Poole, Liam Cooledge, Caden Horton, Nick Giancotti and Kevin Connolly. Contributed photo

Play ball was the call and that proved to be the right call for the inaugural Maine Summer Sandlot Baseball League (MSSBL).

The league, featuring four teams, Portland, Cape Elizabeth/Scarborough, Cony/Augusta and Westbrook, just wrapped up play for the 2020 season with Portland earning the championship.

The best news was that over 70 kids, who were denied a chance to play high school baseball this spring by COVID-19, were given an opportunity to get back outside and play the game they love.

“It was fun,” said league founder and Portland coach Matt Rogers. “The best part was the feedback from kids, parents and coaches. They thought it was awesome.”

Rogers had planned to coach a Senior American Legion team this summer, but the Legion season was cancelled, as was Babe Ruth. Rogers had already scheduled games for The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach, however, and that helped him form a league on his own.

“After (high school spring sports) got cancelled, then (American) Legion and Babe Ruth got cancelled, high school fields weren’t available for play either, so it seemed like one blow after another for these kids,” Rogers said. “I thought I’d run a league. I sent emails to Legion and high school coaches. We invited anyone who wanted to put a group together. We wanted kids to be able to play. We wound up with four teams. The Portland team was basically my Senior Legion team. It was like getting the band back together. A lot of the guys had played together before. Some hadn’t been playing, but wanted to play again. There were no games in town. We were the first to get started and to finish. Now, kids can move on and play other things.”

With health the first and foremost priority, the league’s rules were predicated on keeping the players safe. That was accomplished in part by each team bringing their own baseballs and social distancing being emphasized. Umpires weren’t initially used, but they were eventually brought in and called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher.

“The Ballpark had taped off seats and we had the kids stay six feet apart,” Rogers said. “We started out with no leading off and no stealing, so no one would have to hold a runner on, but then we realized other leagues weren’t doing that, so we changed it. We had a lot of sanitizer and kids brought their own equipment. After games, instead of a handshake line, we tipped our caps to each other. After a couple games, it was all pretty natural.”

Each team played 12 games and everyone made the playoffs. The top team played the squad with the fourth-best record, while the No. 2 and 3 teams squared off in best-of-3 semifinal series.

As it turned out, Portland, ranked first, and Cony/Augusta, seeded second, advanced to the final. There, Portland won twice to capture the title.

In the first game, Portland prevailed, 12-2, in five-innings, erasing an early deficit. Brian Riley went the distance and Noah Lewis, Caleb McCartney, Liam Cooledge, Chris Cimino and Nate Rogers all delivered key hits.

In the second contest, Portland won again, 11-1, again in five innings, as Chris Naylor threw four shutout innings and Aaron Goschke came in and finished it off. Cimino, Rogers, Max Brown, Luke Hill and Cooledge all had multiple hits for Portland.

The league announced an all-star team following the season. It included Cape Elizabeth’s Brennen Dill, Kyle During and Ryan Lefebvre, Cony/Augusta’s Kyle Douin, Jacob Humphrey, Brady Afthim, Bobby Stolt and Riley Geyer, Portland’s Chris Cimino, Nate Rogers, Noah Lewis, Ryan Sargent, Aaron Goschke, Chris Naylor and Brian Riley and Westbrook’s Bronson Damon, Lucas Knapton, Garren Post and Seamus Dillon.

Nate Rogers wound up leading the league in hitting with a .512 batting average. Cimino was second at .481.

Portland’s Naylor and Riley each won four games to lead the league.

“It was well worth the effort,” said Matt Rogers. “Exactly what I hoped for.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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