Cheverus 1 Portland 0 (10)

P- 000 000 000 0- 0 3 0
C- 000 000 000 1- 1 8 0
* One out when winning run scored.

Bottom 10th
Giancotti scored on Murphy bunt.

Multiple hits:
C- Giancotti

C- Giancotti

C- Murphy

P- Roberts

C- Giancotti

Stolen bases:
C- Giancotti, Tremble

Left on base:
P- 6
C- 7

Tocci and Gignac; Clark, B. Connolly (9) and K. Connolly.

Tocci (L, 4-5) 9.1 IP 8 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 5 K

Clark 8 IP 3 H 0 R 2 BB 10 K 1 WP
B. Connolly (W) 2 IP 0 H 0 R 3 BB 0 K 1 HBP 1 WP

Time: 2:09

PORTLAND—The day was perfect.

The crowd was large.

And the game was memorable.

An instant classic.

The old adage, “It’s too bad somebody had to lose” never rang more true than it did Thursday afternoon at Kevin MacDonald Memorial Field when the seventh-ranked Cheverus Stags hosted absurdly underseeded Portland, ranked 15th, in a Class A South quarterfinal that took forever to decide and was worth every second.

The game began as a vintage pitcher’s duel between valiant Bulldogs senior ace Danny Tocci and University of Connecticut-bound Stags senior hurler Sam Clark, who allowed just one base runner apiece in the first three innings and surrendered a combined five hits in the game’s first six innings.

Then, in the bottom of the seventh, Cheverus appeared poised to advance, as a walk and two perfectly placed bunt singles loaded the bases, but Tocci pulled off a Houdini act, inducing a ground ball that led to a force out at home, then getting a line drive double play to force extra innings.

Portland got its chance in the top of the eighth when senior third baseman Trey Roberts led off with a double, but junior pinch-runner Nathan Isajar would be stranded at third base as Clark capped his afternoon with consecutive strikeouts.

The Bulldogs then loaded the bases in the ninth, with one out, but freshman Brian Connolly, who came on to pitch for the Stags in relief, walked a high-wire of his own, getting a ground ball force out at home and a pop out to keep the game scoreless.

After a quiet bottom of the ninth and top of the 10th, Cheverus finally produced the only run it would need in the bottom of the frame.

Senior leftfielder Nick Giancotti led off with a booming drive to left-center that hit the fence and resulted in a triple.

One out later, Tocci was hoping to pull another rabbit from his hat when he got freshman pinch-hitter Chris Murphy to foul off a squeeze bunt attempt on a 1-1 pitch, but with the count 1-2, Murphy bunted again and with Giancotti on the move, he placed it perfectly and Giancotti came home to win it, 1-0, capping one of the best games of this or any other recent postseason.

Not only did the Stags improved to 13-5 and end Portland’s season with the misleading record of 6-12, they also advanced to take on No. 6 South Portland (13-5) in the semifinals Saturday in South Portland at 1 p.m. and good luck to those teams in topping this one.

“It was a wonderful game,” said Cheverus coach Tony DiBiase. “A very exciting game. You can’t ask for a better day. We’ve played three really good games against (Portland) this year and we’ve been fortunate to be on the winning side each game. This one was special because it’s a tournament game.”

“I’ve coached against Tony DiBiase for a long time and we’ve had some good ones,” said Portland coach Mike Rutherford. “That might be one of the better ones. A classic game.”

Surprise, surprise

Prior to the season, the suggestion that Cheverus and Portland would meet in a playoff game wouldn’t have sounded unrealistic, but by the time the playoffs began, it seemed improbable at best.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t have even made the postseason in a normal year (everyone qualified this spring due to COVID accommodations), but after a 4-11 regular season, Portland eliminated No. 18 Deering, 11-3, Saturday in a play-in game, then Tuesday, in the Round of 16, went to No. 2 Scarborough, the reigning state champion, and pulled off a shocker, 5-2.

The Stags entered the season pegged as one of the top contenders and after starting 0-2 and sitting at .500 after six games, they finished strong, going 8-2 down the stretch. Tuesday, Cheverus held off visiting No. 10 Massabesic in the Round of 16, 8-6, despite 15 hits by the Mustangs, who scored three times in the top of the seventh before falling short.

Cheverus and Portland played two close games in a doubleheader May 22, with the Stags winning both by one run, 1-0 and 6-5, in 11-innings. In the opener, Giancotti drove in the lone run and came on to earn the save, with Clark getting the win. In the nightcap, Clark had three hits and senior Shane Tanguay drove in the game-winner.

The Bulldogs and Stags had met three times previously in the playoffs (see sidebar, below), but the last meeting came way back in 2000.

And none were as memorable as this one.

Thursday, on the best day of the week so far, sunny, but not oppressively hot (66-degrees at first pitch), in front of a passionate crowd, Cheverus and Portland played a clean, entertaining and thrilling contest that for the longest time looked as if it would never end.

Despite pitching two innings Tuesday against Massabseic, Clark was sharp from the get-go and he made quick work of the Bulldogs in the top of the first, getting sophomore shortstop Henry Bibeau to pop out foul to Stags senior second baseman Brady Cormier, striking out Tocci swinging, then getting senior first baseman Bennett Berg to line out Cormier at second for the third out.

Tocci was equally impressive in the bottom half, as he got Cormier to chase strike three, fanned senior centerfielder Jackson Header, then got Clark to line out to center, where freshman Reegan Buck raced in and made a nice sprawling catch for out number three.

In the top of the second, Clark caught junior designated hitter Grant Crosby looking at strike three, got sophomore rightfielder Andrew Brewer to ground out to third, where sophomore Matthew Connor made a nice stab, then got Roberts to ground out to junior Orion Guibord at first, who threw to Clark covering to retire the side.

In the bottom half, junior catcher Kevin Connolly swung at the first pitch he saw and drove it to deep center, but Buck ran it down. Brian Connolly, who began the game at shortstop, then chased the first pitch he saw and bounced out to third. Tocci then ended the frame by getting Connor to ground out to third.

After Clark caught senior second baseman Nick Becker looking to begin the third, junior catcher James Gignac followed with the game’s first hit, a bloop single to left, but Buck bunted into a pop out to Kevin Connolly behind the plate and Bibeau struck out swinging.

In the bottom half, Giancotti led off with a single down the third base line for the Stags’ first hit. Junior rightfielder Richie Tremble then popped out foul to Tocci and after Giancotti moved into scoring position by stealing second, junior designated hitter Braeden Watson struck out and Cormier lined out to Brewer in right for the third out.

Clark returned to his overpowering ways in the fourth, getting Tocci to fly out deep to left, where Giancotti made a nice catch on the run, before fanning Berg looking and Crosby swinging.

In the bottom half, Tocci got Header to fly out to right and Clark to fly out to left and after Kevin Connolly reached on a bloop single to right on a 3-2 pitch, Brian Connolly lined out to right for the third out.

The Bulldogs went quietly in the fifth as well, as Brewer lined out to short on the first pitch, Roberts grounded out to second and Becker chased strike three.

Connor led off the bottom half by popping out to second on the first pitch. Tocci then fanned Giancotti looking, but Tremble singled to left and stole second. Watson wasn’t able to produce the run, however, as he grounded out to third.

Portland then threatened in the top of the sixth.

Gignac bounced out to first leading off, but after fouling off several pitches, Buck beat out a grounder to shortstop for an infield single. Buck tried to steal second, but Kevin Connolly threw him out. Bibeau then walked on a 3-2 pitch and moved to second on a wild pitch, but on another 3-2 offering, Clark got Tocci to fly out to left.

In the bottom half, Tocci caught Cormier looking at strike three, got Header to line out softly to short and Clark to bounce back to the mound.

Berg led off the top of the seventh by grounding the ball sharply to the right side, but it was right at Guibord, who fielded it, then stepped on the bag for the out. Crosby walked and junior Aidan DiMillo (the leftfielder) came on to run, but Clark picked him off, then caught Brewer looking at strike three.

That set the stage for Cheverus’ golden opportunity in the bottom half, which ultimately ended in frustration.

Kevin Connolly led off and drew a walk on four pitches. Brian Connolly then bunted up the third base line and when Portland couldn’t make a play, he reached safely with a single. Connor then bunted to the same spot, reached safely, and just like that, the bases were loaded with no one out and the Stags were on the brink of victory.

But Tocci, with some help from an unorthodox defensive alignment, managed to somehow get out of it.

Rutherford brought Buck in as a fifth infielder, limiting the amount of room a ball could get through on the left side of the infield and sure enough, Giancotti hit a sharp grounder, but it was right where Roberts was stationed and Roberts threw home to Gignac for the first out, leaving the bases full. That brought up Tremble and hit the ball on a line, but it was right at Bibeau at short, who caught it for the second out and threw quickly to third to double up Kevin Connolly to retire the side and send the game to extra innings.

The Bulldogs rode that momentum as Roberts led off with a double to deep right-center and Isajar came on to run and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt from Becker. Gignac wasn’t able to deliver the run, however, as he took strike three on a full count pitch. That left it up to Buck, who couldn’t catch up to a high Clark fastball and on his final pitch of the day, Clark registered the inning-ending strikeout.

In the bottom half, Guibord hit the first pitch he saw to left for a fly out, then Cormier grounded the first pitch he was thrown to shortstop for out number two. Header continued the first pitch theme by singling to right, but Tocci got Clark to fly out behind first base, where Becker showed nice range to run the ball down to force a ninth inning.

Brian Connolly came on to pitch and immediately got into trouble, walking Bibeau on a 3-2 pitch. After a wild pitch moved Bibeau to second, Tocci sacrificed on a 3-2 pitch to move Bibeau to third. Berg was then walked intentionally and after falling behind 1-2, Crosby worked a walk on a full count pitch to load the bases.

But again, Portland was denied.

Brewer made solid contact, but grounded the ball to shortstop, which resulted in a throw home and a force out. Roberts then popped out foul to Kevin Connolly for the third out.

Tocci made quick work of the Stags in the bottom half, getting Kevin Connolly to ground out to first unassisted, Brian Connolly to fly out to left on the first pitch he saw and Connor to fly out deep to center on his first pitch to keep the game scoreless.

In the top of the 10th, Becker lined out to center on a full count pitch, Gignac lined out to right and after Brian Connolly hit Buck with a pitch, with Bibeau at the plate, Buck tried to steal second, but Kevin Connolly threw him out.

And then, finally, Cheverus finished it off.

Giancotti led off the bottom of the 10th and needed just one pitch to put the Stags on the brink of victory.

Giancotti drove a high Tocci fastball deep to left-center. Off the bat, it appeared to have a chance to clear the wall as Buck ran up the hill in pursuit. The ball hit the fence and then rolled down the hill and by the time Portland could get the ball back in the infield, Giancotti stood at third base with a triple.

“I was looking for a fastball,” said Giancotti. “It felt good off the bat. I didn’t think it would go out where I hit it, but I wanted to take three.”

“Nick’s a good hitter,” Tocci said. “I just hung it and he slammed it. Props to him. That was a really good hit.”

Tocci momentarily averted the end game by getting Tremble to fly out to shallow left.

That then brought Murphy to the plate. Murphy took a ball, a strike, then Giancotti took off for home and Murphy squared to bunt, but fouled the pitch off.

Giancotti went back to third and with two strikes on the batter, it appeared the squeeze would be off, but again, Giancotti came home, Murphy squared to bunt and this time, at 7:05 p.m., after a hard-fought 2-hours and 9-minutes, he placed the ball fair, just to the left of Tocci and the right of Berg and Giancotti came home to produce a 1-0 victory and unleash jubilation from the home team and its fan base.

“I was nervous, but I just had to get it down,” Murphy said. “I didn’t even get a sign, the coaches told me before. I was a little discouraged after the pitch before, but I just wanted to get the next one down. I just wanted to get to first and celebrate. It’s a fun feeling to do my part and help us advance.”

“I knew he’d get (the bunt) down at some point and I’d get (home),” Giancotti said. “We battled hard and we stuck with it and got the win.”

“The toughest team always wins, so you can’t give up,” said Clark. “The game of baseball can go any way.”

“We’re a good bunting team and we’ve had a lot of one-run games,” DiBiase added. “Chris is going to be a really good player. I had confidence in him. We got a good mixture of young kids and veterans.

“(Portland’s) much better than they were earlier in the year. They made all the plays. I give my kids credit when we had bases loaded and nobody out and didn’t score, we hung in there and fought back. Portland had bases loaded and we got out of that.”

Cheverus managed eight hits on the day, with Giancotti finishing with two of them, a single and a triple. He also scored the lone run, which was driven in by Murphy, and had a stolen base, as did Tremble.

The Stags left seven runners on base.

Clark didn’t earn a decision, even though he pitched well enough to win, allowing just three hits in eight scoreless innings, walking two and striking out 10.

“I felt really good today through eight innings,” Clark said. “Tocci pitched a great game too. It was just a good pitcher’s duel.”

“(Sam) pitched a great game,” Giancotti said. “He had great stuff today for sure. They weren’t touching him.”

“Sam’s improved as the year’s gone on not only as a pitcher, but also as a competitor,” DiBiase added. “He really battled today.”

Brian Connolly got the victory in relief, going two hitless, scoreless innings of relief, with three walks, no strikeouts, a wild pitch and a hit batter.

Heads held high

Portland only managed three hits on the day and left six runners on.

Tocci was the hard-luck loser, giving up just one run on eight hits and one walk in his 9.1 innings of work. He struck out five.

“I felt good until we lost,” said Tocci. “I thought I’d give my team everything I have and I did.”

“What he’s done is amazing,” Rutherford said. “I’ll take Danny Tocci any day of the week and twice on Sunday. He pitched his tail off.”

“Tocci’s one of the better pitchers in the league,” DiBiase said.

Tocci and his teammates were distraught at game’s end, but it didn’t take them long to appreciate the magnitude of Thursday’s effort and the great run they’ve enjoyed over the past week.

“It was a great game, a gut-wrenching game,” Tocci said. “They had bases loaded, nobody out and we got out of the jam, then they did the same thing. With two strikes, I didn’t think (Murphy would) bunt again. What more can you do?

“I’m really proud of our guys because most of them, it’s their first time playing varsity baseball. They showed a lot of heart. Watch out for the Bulldogs in future years. They’re going to be something special. It meant the world to me to play for Portland. Anytime you can go out and represent your city, it means a lot.”

“I’ve coached a long time and I’ve had great teams, but I couldn’t be any more proud,” said Rutherford. “I thought at the beginning of the year, we had a chance to be one of the best four or five teams. We didn’t play well early and we had 20 days off with COVID. The Scarborough game Tuesday and this game were two perfect games. We both had good chances today. Neither team made an error. Giancotti, who I love, hit the triple off the wall, then a baseball play won the game. I give Coach DiBiase credit. That two-strike squeeze was risky, but they got it done.

“The kids competed all year. I’m really proud. They’re great kids and they’re not a 15 seed. When Cheverus decided to bring Clark back on short rest, it shows Coach DiBiase knew we were (for real). I think what brought us together was when I played all those seniors and we lost to Deering (late in the season). Our underclassmen thought it was a great move. We didn’t really take it as a loss, more as a scrimmage game. We’ve played great since then. We got better and better.”

Portland says goodbye to Becker, Berg, Roberts and Tocci, but will return a lot of experience in 2022.

We’ll be hearing from the Bulldogs again next spring.

“This is a program-builder,” Rutheford said. “These kids are really high right now. They’re bummed out they lost, but they know they played the best they could. We open up the Wood Bat League Monday and we’re excited.”

Semifinal Saturday

Cheverus will see a familiar foe Saturday at Wainwright Farms in South Portland.

The Stags lost, 4-0, at South Portland back on April 27.

The teams have split two prior playoff meetings, with Cheverus winning in the 2011 Western A semifinal (8-2) and the Red Riots prevailing, 1-0 (in eight-innings) in the 2014 Western A quarterfinals.

Expect another close, low-scoring affair in the next round.

“As long as we fight hard, we have a chance,” Clark said.

“I can’t wait for Saturday,” Giancotti said. “We have to stay positive and keep our momentum going. We have to swing the bats because our defense is there.”

“This means everything for our confidence,” DiBiase added. “The kids didn’t have varsity experience after missing last year. We had no tournament experience, so we’re building it up. South Portland is very good. I’m back teaching over there. I know all the kids and I know (Red Riots) coach Mike Owens very well. It has nothing to do with us coaches. It has everything to do with the guys on the field. We’ll see what happens.”

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

Previous Cheverus-Portland playoff results

2000 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 12 Cheverus 2 (6 innings)

1993 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 8 Portland 4

1987 Western A semifinals
Portland 5 Cheverus 2

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