BOX SCORE

South Portland 4 Portland 0

P- 000 000 0- 0 2 1
SP- 020 110 X- 4 9 2

Bottom 2nd
Domingos tripled to right-center, O’Connell scored. Houle singled to left, Domingos scored.

Bottom 4th
Houle singled to center, Domingos scored.

Bottom 5th
Hobbs singled to center, Heffernan scored.

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Multiple hits:
SP- Hobbs, Houle, Domingos

Runs:
SP- Domingos 2, Heffernan, O’Connell

RBI:
SP- Houle 2, Domingos, Hobbs

Doubles:
SP- Domingos, O’Connell

Triple:
SP- Domingos

Stolen bases:
SP- Heffernan, Hobbs, Houle, Rende

Left on base:
P- 4
SP- 5

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Payne, L. Winship (6) and Becker; Hobbs and Gilboy.

P:
Payne (L, 0-1) 5 IP 9 H 4 R 4 ER 0 BB 5 K 1 WP
L. Winship 1 IP 0 H 0 R 1 BB 2 K

SP:
Hobbs (W, 2-0) 7 IP 2 H 0 R 1 BB 4 K

Time: 1:35

SOUTH PORTLAND—South Portland’s baseball team is starting to round in championship form.

Again.

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The Red Riots, the reigning Class A champions, had all of their strengths on display Tuesday afternoon at Wainwright Farms when they hosted rival Portland.

South Portland again got strong pitching, some highlight reel defense and timely, two-out hitting to remain undefeated on the young season.

Junior Nolan Hobbs set the Bulldogs down with relative ease in the first two innings, but the Red Riots couldn’t do anything with Portland junior starter Sam Payne until there were two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the second, when senior designated hitter Finn O’Connell doubled, senior leftfielder Alex Domingos followed with an RBI triple and senior second baseman Jack Houle added a run-scoring single for a 2-0 lead.

South Portland added a two-out run in the fourth, as Domingos doubled and Houle singled him in.

After the Bulldogs failed to take advantage of a two-on, no one out situation in the top of fifth, thanks in large part to a terrific Houle defensive play to turn a double play, the Red Riots added one more run in the bottom half, when Hobbs helped himself, singling in junior third baseman Andrew Heffernan.

Hobbs then slammed the door and South Portland prevailed, 4-0.

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The Red Riots won their 11th straight game over the past two seasons, improved to 5-0 on the year and dropped Portland to 2-3-1 in the process.

“It’s a good group, working hard every day,” said South Portland coach Mike Owens. “I don’t think there’s pressure. There’s a lot of talk about us, but it’s a different group and it’s a different year.”

Making timely plays

South Portland enjoyed a dream season a year ago, or at least a dream postseason, as it caught fire and captured its first Class A state title since 1952, edging Bangor, 3-2, in the state final on a bases loaded walk.

This season, the Red Riots have picked up where they left off behind the dominant pitching of Heffernan (who retired 32 straight hitters in one stretch this season) and Hobbs, defeating visiting Bonny Eagle in eight-innings (1-0), host Deering (9-0), visiting Cheverus (3-2) and host Biddeford (12-5)

Portland also started fast, rallying to beat visiting Biddeford, 4-3, in the opener, then downing host Marshwood (7-4) before settling for a weather-induced 5-5 (six-inning) tie at Westbrook. After falling at home to Falmouth, 6-0, the Bulldogs lost Saturday at home to Noble (6-3). 

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Last year, South Portland downed host Portland, 5-1, in the opener.

Tuesday, under a beautiful blue sky, on a pleasant afternoon (the temperature was in the mid-50s and the wind actually blowing out, which rarely happens at Wainwright), the Bulldogs sought to beat the Red Riots for the first time since a 14-4 victory in the 2017 Class A South preliminary round of the playoffs, but instead, South Portland made it four straight in the series (see sidebar).

South Portland junior pitcher Nolan Hobbs fires a strike past Portland’s Andrew Legere early in the Red Riots’ 4-0 victory Tuesday. Hoffer photos.

Hobbs got Portland senior leftfielder Colby Winship to ground to short to lead off, but Red Riots junior shortstop Johnny Poole couldn’t come up with a tough hop and Winship reached on the error. Senior catcher Ryan Becker was next and drove the ball to centerfield for an apparent hit, but senior centerfielder Ryan Thurber raced in, dove and made the catch for the out. Junior shortstop Ryan Bibeau was next and flew to right, then Hobbs ended the inning by catching senior first baseman Grant Crosby looking at strike three.

Portland junior starting pitcher Sam Payne delivers a strike to South Portland junior shortstop Johnny Poole.

In the bottom half, Bulldogs junior starter Sam Payne got Poole to ground out to short and Heffernan to fly out to right. Junior catcher Richard Gilboy managed to reach when his little dribbler up the first base line resulted in an infield single, but Payne got Hobbs to chase strike three to send the game to the top of the second.

There, Hobbs got senior designated hitter Andrew Legere to fly to center, junior rightfielder Andrew Brewer to line to left and senior second baseman Anthony Bisco to fly to center.

In the bottom half, South Portland came up with some two-out magic to take the lead.

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Payne got Thurber to strike out on an off-speed pitch leading off, then fanned senior rightfielder Kenny Carlisle as well, but O’Connell blooped a ball to left which dropped for a hit and when Winship’s dive failed to come up with the ball, it got past him and O’Connell sped into second with a double. Domingos then squared up the first pitch he saw and crushed the ball to deep right-center. Domingos steamed into third with a triple and O’Connell came in with the game’s first run. Houle was next and he lined a ground ball just past third to score Domingos.

“Everybody can swing the bat 1 through 9 and I have confidence in everyone to do damage,” Hobbs said.

Houle stole second, but Poole struck out swinging.

Regardless, the Red Riots were up, 2-0.

Hobbs set Portland down quickly in the third.

The frame started with senior third baseman James Gignac grounding out to second on the first pitch. Houle then came up with a great defensive play, soaring to snag a line drive off the bat of senior centerfielder Aiden DiMillo.

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“Those plays don’t only get me going, but they also get the team going,” Houle said. “We benefit off that energy a lot. I didn’t think I had a chance at it, but you have to put the effort in. Coach would’ve been mad if I didn’t.”

Hobbs then got Winship to fly to left on the first pitch to end the inning.

In the bottom half, Heffernan grounded out to short,  then Gilboy bounced out to second. South Portland attempted to spark two-out trouble again when Hobbs singled, stole second and went to third on an errant throw, but this time, Payne escaped by getting Thurber to ground out to third.

Portland senior Grant Crosby lines his team’s first hit.

In the top of the fourth, Becker popped out to first, Bibeau struck out swinging and after Crosby produced his team’s first hit, a single up the middle, Legere swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded into a short-to-second force out to retire the side.

The Red Riots then added to their lead in the bottom half, again scoring with two outs.

Carlisle struck out swinging leading off, then O’Connell popped out foul to first, but Domingos ripped a 3-2 pitch to the gap in left-center for a double and after moving up on a wild pitch, he scored when Houle delivered a single to center.

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“Coach elaborates on us having depth all through the order and that showed today,” Houle said.

Poole grounded out to short, with Crosby making a nice scoop at first, to end it, but the damage was done and South Portland had a 3-0 lead.

Portland had its best opportunity to score in the top of the fifth, but Houle came up with another huge defensive play to stem the tide.

Brewer singled to left-center, then Bisco drew a walk on a full count pitch. Gignac wasn’t able to lay down a bunt, however, striking out, and DiMillo grounded the ball to short, where Poole fielded the ball, tossed to second to Houle for the first out and Houle, who made the turn with the bare hand, threw on to first for the inning-ending double play.

“I knew (DiMillo) had some speed, so I tried to make it quick,” said Houle. “It was just a reaction.”

“We couldn’t get the bunt down and they got the double play when they needed it,” lamented Portland coach Mike Rutherford.

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The Red Riots tacked on one more in the bottom of the fifth, as Heffernan singled to center, stole second and after taking third on a ground out to first off the bat of Gilboy, he came home when Hobbs singled up the middle through the drawn in infield to make it 4-0. Pinch-runner Nate Rende stole second and took third when Thurber grounded out to third, but he was stranded when Payne capped his day by getting Carlisle to bounce out to short, with Crosby again making a nice scoop at first.

Winship reached on an error by Houle to start the top of the sixth and took second on a ground out to short by Becker, but Bibeau lined out to center, then Crosby fanned looking.

Senior Liam Winship came on in relief of Payne in the bottom half and struck out O’Connell and Domingos swinging and after Houle walked on a 3-2 pitch, he was caught stealing to send the game to the seventh.

There, Hobbs finished it off by getting Legere to fly to right on the first pitch, Brewer to pop out to third, then Bisco to fly to left to end it in a tidy 95 minutes.

South Portland celebrates at the conclusion of Tuesday’s victory.

“Portland’s a good team and it’s always good to beat them,” Hobbs said.

“So far, so good,” Owens said. “We’re just finding different ways to win like we usually do. It isn’t always pretty. We have an older team and a deeper lineup. Today, the bottom of our order was huge. We got balls into the gap. It was a good day to hit here, finally. We did enough. We’re not always consistent, but all the guys can drive the ball. If we can drive it to the gap, we don’t have to rely on three hits in an inning.”

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South Portland produced seven of its nine hits with two outs. Domingos, Hobbs and Houle all had two.

Domingos scored two runs, while Heffernan and O’Connell also touched home.

Houle drove in two runs, while Domingos and Hobbs had one RBI apiece.

Heffernan, Hobbs, Houle and Rende all stole bases.

The Red Riots left five runners on.

Hobbs earned his second win of the year after throwing seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits while walking one with four strikeouts.

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“I felt good,” Hobbs said. “My defense played great, so I just was trying to throw strikes and have them put it in play and let the defense make the plays. It’s great to know that the defense has my back.”

“Hobbs was a little erratic early, a little up, but he did a nice job settling in and finding the zone,” Owens said. “We made some nice plays behind him. This is what we preach, pitching, defense and doing enough offensively. We don’t have a big strikeout guy like we’ve had in the past, but we have guys who can change speeds and be effective and we have speed in the outfield. Any of those guys can run and get anything.”

Portland stranded four baserunners.

Payne fell to 0-1 after giving up four runs on nine hits in five innings. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out five.

Liam Winship had a hitless, scoreless inning of relief, walking one and fanning two.

“We just made seven errors against Noble, probably our worst defensive performance in a long time, and gave a game away, so today, our goal was to play errorless defense and we did,” Rutherford said. “Sam Payne has been struggling with walks the past couple years, but he had just one three-ball count and no walks. They did tag him with two outs, but good teams do that. That’s the best he’s pitched and if he continues to do that, we can be in every game. South Portland’s a really good team. It was a good day to hit with the wind blowing out and he held the top of the order down well.

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“We’re struggling to swing it and they made some great plays on defense. They’re a state championship team and they know how to play baseball. They’re like my old Portland teams where you get a one- or two-run lead and it feels like it’s 8-0. Right now, they’re the class of the league. They throw strikes, they play good defense and get timely hitting. I’m happy we played with them.”

Midseason nears

We’re almost halfway through the regular season schedule and both teams still have work to do.

Portland is scheduled to go to Sanford Wednesday, but that game will likely be rescheduled to Friday due to impending bad weather. The Bulldogs return to Hadlock Field Tuesday of next week to face Scarborough.

“Obviously, the kids aren’t happy because they want to win every game, but with an open tournament, our goal is to get better defensively and get hot at the right time,” Rutherford said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”

South Portland is back in action Thursday at Gorham. The Red Riots then visit resurgent Noble Friday and return home for a showdown versus Thornton Academy Tuesday of next week.

“We’re together and we believe in each other,” Houle said. “We still need to get better every day. We take practice seriously and put in the work in in practice to get better.”

“We’re just taking it game-by-game and grinding out practices,” said Hobbs. “We know we have to get better and that none of our games will be easy. I don’t feel any pressure. We just try to win every game one by one.”

“We have a little of everything, but we’re still cleaning up the mistakes,” Owens added. “Every game in our league is so difficult. Gorham is excellent and Noble is a surprise, then we have Thornton next week.  We’re just trying to work on our craft and hopefully that’s enough to compete with the top teams. We have a lot of tough games ahead of us and hopefully, we’ll continue to get better.”

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

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