SOUTH PORTLAND—Softball is a game of inches.

A potential game-tying hit can either land and extend a game, or find the glove of a well-stationed outfielder.

Thursday afternoon at Wainwright Farms, fortune favored visiting No. 5 Portland, which built an early lead, then held on for dear life against fourth-ranked South Portland in a compelling Class A South quarterfinal.

The Bulldogs appeared to have the game in hand, as senior ace Sadie Armstrong dominated early and after senior second baseman Hannah Hawkes hit an RBI single in the second, Portland added two more runs in the top of the fifth, on a wild pitch and an RBI hit from junior shortstop Ruby Chase.

But the Red Riots would counter with two runs of their own in the bottom of the fifth, as senior second baseman Phoebe Dodge hit an RBI single, then scored on a ground out to cut the deficit to one.

Armstrong worked around an error in the sixth, but in the bottom of the seventh, South Portland put the tying run in scoring position with two outs for sophomore Baylie Littlefield, who began the game on the mound. Littlefield made solid contact, lining the ball down the rightfield line, but senior rightfielder Kaitlin Vigue was there waiting and she made the catch to allow the Bulldogs to prevail, 3-2.

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Portland got three hits from Armstrong, who struck out 10 on the mound, as it improved to 14-4, won a quarterfinal round game for the first time in seven seasons, ended the Red Riots’ fine season at 12-5 and in the process, advanced to play at top-ranked Windham (17-0) in the semifinals Saturday at a time to be announced.

“We stick together,” said Bulldogs coach Jason McLeod. “We have 11 players on our roster. We have no JV program. Compared to some other programs in our conference, we’re down a few notches before the first pitch is thrown, but we stick together, we know who we are and today, we weren’t afraid to fail.”

Good to the last pitch

Both teams enjoyed great success during the regular season (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

Portland, which missed the playoffs a year ago with a 3-13 mark, completely flipped the switch this spring, as Armstrong returned to the mound and the Bulldogs’ bats made life miserable for the opposition. Portland lost only to the four teams that wound up seeded above it and won its other 12 contests to finish fifth in Class A South.

Tuesday, the Bulldogs handled No. 12 Westbrook, 11-4, in the preliminary round.

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South Portland, meanwhile, won its first seven games and nine of its first 10 and after dropping three straight, closed on a three-game win streak to wind up fourth in the region.

In the teams’ regular season meeting May 6, the host Red Riots held on for a 6-5 victory. Dodge had a pair of hits and freshman Annalise Soucy added three, helping counteract three hits from Armstrong, including two triples.

Portland had won four of six prior playoff encounters, with a 2-0 victory in the 2018 preliminary round the most recent (see sidebar).

Saturday, two talented teams battled each other, as well as fog and occasional mist, and produced a contest where every pitch mattered, especially the last one.

The Bulldogs had a great chance to strike first, but left the bases loaded in the top of the first.

Littlefield got Hawkes to fly out to center on the game’s first pitch, then fanned Vigue on three pitches, but Armstrong lined a single to left, junior catcher Hadleigh McPartlan drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch, then senior first baseman Ainsley McCrum walked as well. Littlefield then got Chase to hit the ball to center, where Soucy was able to make the catch to end the threat.

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“We weren’t worried about it because if we got the bases loaded in the first inning, we knew we could keep doing it,” Chase said.

Portland’s Sadie Armstrong peers out of the fog and prepares to deliver a pitch in the first inning against South Portland. Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald

In the bottom half, Armstrong fanned Soucy leading off, got senior shortstop Ella Nickerson to ground out to third and retired the side in order by inducing a ground out to second off the bat of senior third baseman Andrea DiMauro.

The Bulldogs then broke through in the top of the second.

Soucy walked senior centerfielder Amina Suleiman on a 3-2 pitch leading off, then Suleiman moved to second when sophomore third baseman Lili McCullum grounded out to third. A passed ball moved Suleiman to third, but Littlefield fanned senior leftfielder Erin Winship for the second out. Hawkes then came through in the clutch, singling through the hole between third and short on an 0-1 pitch to deliver Suleiman for a lead Portland would never relinquish. Hawkes moved to second on a wild pitch, then Vigue walked, but on the first pitch of her at-bat, Armstrong made solid contact only to get under the ball just slightly and fly out to center to keep the score 1-0.

Armstrong preserved the lead in the bottom half, catching sophomore first baseman Rachel DiMauro looking at strike three, getting senior catcher Chloe Whitten to ground out to first and freshman rightfielder Jillian Edgar to line out to first.

Littlefield started the top of the third by getting both McPartlan and McCrum to fly to center. Chase followed with a single through the hole and after Chase stole second, Littlefield fanned Suleiman.

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Dodge grounded out to short on a slow roller to lead off the bottom of the third, then the Red Riots generated their first baserunner, as Littlefield drew a walk on a full count pitch. Freshman leftfielder Maegan Berry struck out and after freshman Lucy Wetzel came on to run for Littlefield, Soucy fanned as well.

McCullum started the top of the fourth by striking out, but Winship drew a walk. Hawkes then lined out to right and Vigue chased the first pitch she saw, popping out foul to first.

The Red Riots produced their first hit in the bottom half, but wouldn’t be able to parlay it into a run.

After Nickerson tried to bunt and popped it up foul to McPartlan for the first out, Andrea DiMauro ripped a solid single up the middle, but Rachel DiMauro hit a sharp grounder back to Armstrong, who turned, threw to Chase, who made a nice catch across her body, tagged second for one out, then threw on to first to complete the inning-ending, 1-6-3 double play.

Portland shortstop Ruby Chase turns a double play to end the bottom of the fourth inning.

Portland returned to its scoring ways in the top of the fifth.

Armstrong, still riding the wave from the double play, led off and ripped a sharp grounder just to the left of Nickerson at short which rolled all the way into the gap, allowing Armstrong to slide into second with a double.

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McPartlan then lofted a single to right on a 1-2 pitch, putting runners at the corners. With McCrum at the plate, Littlefield threw a wild pitch and Armstrong came in to make it 2-0, as McPartlan moved to second. McCrum flew out to center, moving McPartlan to third. Chase then delivered an RBI single to center, scoring McPartlan to make it 3-0.

“I was just trying to put the ball in play and it felt great to do that for my team,” Chase said.

That was it for Littlefield’s outing, as Andrea DiMauro came on in relief.

Chase was thrown out stealing, then Suleiman singled to right, but McCullum struck out to end the inning.

South Portland then got to Armstrong in the bottom half.

Whitten chased strike three leading off, but Edgar drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch and after a wild pitch, Dodge singled to right, scoring Edgar and on the throw home, Dodge took second. Another wild pitch put Dodge at third and she came home when Littlefield hit a little grounder back to the mound, with Armstrong throwing to first. Berry struck out swinging, but the Red Riots were back within a single run, 3-2.

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DiMauro made quick work of the Bulldogs in the top of the sixth, getting Winship to ground to short, Hawkes to bounce out to second and Vigue to pop out to short.

South Portland put the tying run on the in bottom half, as after Soucy struck out swinging, Nickerson popped the ball toward Hawkes at second, who dropped it for an error. Hawkes quickly atoned, as Andrea DiMauro hit a sharp grounder in her direction and after bobbling the ball initially, Hawkes threw out DiMauro at first, as Nickerson took second. Rachel DiMauro the lined the first pitch the other way, but it was right at McCrum at first to retire the side.

When Armstrong and McPartlan started the top of the seventh with singles, Portland had a great chance to extend its lead, but McCrum struck out swinging, Chase popped out to short and Suleiman grounded out to second to keep the score 3-2.

The Red Riots then stretched out the drama in the bottom half before being stymied at the final moment.

Whitten hit a slow roller to Chase at short leading off and Chase made a tough play to field and throw to first for the all-important first out.

“I was just trying to read the ball because depending on the field, it could have kept on bouncing or drop low,” Chase said. “I had to make sure I kept it in front and it worked out perfectly and it went into my glove.”

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“It’s good for (Ruby) because she’s been down on herself at times during the season, but the last third of the season, she’s really come into her own, especially offensively,” McLeod said. “That double play gave her a ton of confidence. The shortstop has to make plays and today, she did.”

Edgar then lined a single over the head of Hawkes at second and she moved into scoring position at second when Dodge grounded out to first.

That left the game up to Littlefield, who took a ball, then made solid contact, lining the ball to right. Had it dropped, the game would have been tied and Littlefield would have represented the winning run, but Vigue was in the right place and cradled the ball in her glove for the out that made the 3-2 victory official.

“I was honestly really nervous,” said Armstrong, who jumped for joy when the final out was made. “That was a solid piece of hitting, but Kaitlin is amazing and I trust her. I saw her get to the ball and I knew we had it. (South Portland’s) a really solid team and it’s a fun game when it’s tight.”

“I knew Kaitlin would get that,” Chase said. “I’m glad she could get the last out. We always talk about how we love being the underdog. No one expects us to win and it feels great to surprise everyone. That helps push us. We want to prove everyone wrong.”

“Good for (Kaitlin) to not be afraid to make a play at the end,” McLeod added. “I’m really happy for her. Getting up on them early put us at ease a little bit and put a little pressure on them, but they’re an experienced team. They were the 4 seed for a reason.”

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“I saw (Jason) had shifted (Kaitlin) over to the line, so I knew they were going outside on (Baylie),” said South Portland coach Drew DiMauro. “We were hoping it would tail or go over her head, but it was wishful thinking. He had the right call on.”

Armstrong earned the victory, surrendering just two runs on three hits in a complete game effort. Armstrong walked two and struck out seven.

“I ate some sour candy before the game and I was really jazzed up,” Armstrong said. “It kept me going. Pitching from ahead made it a lot easier. It kept my confidence up and our morale up in the dugout. It was definitely tough at the end, but I like to pitch under pressure. As a team, we thrive when there’s a fire lit under us.”

“Sadie threw strikes early,” McLeod said. “She didn’t get in a lot of deep counts. She didn’t need to throw her fastball much. She kept them off balance with her breaking pitches and throwing them for strikes. When that happens, you can call any pitch in any situation because she did so well hitting the zone.”

Armstrong also paced the offense with three hits and a run scored. Chase had two hits and an RBI.

McPartland and Suleiman also touched home plate. Hawkes had the other RBI.

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The Bulldogs stranded 10 runners, but managed to overcome.

So close

South Portland got an RBI and a run scored from Dodge, a run from Edgar and an RBI from Littlefield.

The Red Riots left three runners on base.

Littlefield took the loss, surrendering three runs on six hits in 4.1 innings. She walked five and fanned four. Andrea DiMauro was solid in relief, pitching 2.2 scoreless innings, giving up three hits and fanning two.

“The girls fought hard and I’m very proud of them, especially being so young, staying in the game,” Drew DiMauro said. “The bottom part of our lineup got us back in the game. Sadie was on today and ready for the challenge and they played a tight game defensively. They didn’t give us anything for free. I feel like if we could have executed a couple bunts, we could have scratched out another run or two and that’s what you need to do against Sadie.

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“We thought we’d have more offense today, but every time we squared one up, it seemed to be right at somebody. It was just one of those days. How else do you want to go down? Square up a ball that was right at her. We went down fighting.”

South Portland loses four key contributors, Andrea DiMauro, Dodge, Nickerson and Whitten, but a lot of younger players, who got invaluable experience this spring, will return.

“One through 12, these kids love each other,” Drew DiMauro said. “They’re one unit. They made it fun to coach them every day. It’s exciting to see what the future entails for some of the younger ladies. Baylie is coming back. She was on 90 percent of the season for us.”

Tall task

Portland’s regular season game with Windham did not go well, as the Bulldogs fell, 15-0, in five-innings, May 7 on the road.

The teams split four prior playoff meetings, with the Eagles winning the most recent, 1-0, in the 2007 Western A preliminary round.

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Portland knows it will be a decided underdog Saturday, but the Bulldogs aren’t ready to go home yet.

“I’ve never been to the semis in any of the sports I play, so it’s really exciting and I’m glad we can do it with this team, since we’re like a family,” Chase said. “Our hitting has to be on because I have no doubts our fielding will be. It’s really exciting. It’s great to come together this year and keep pushing forward.”

“We have a game plan and as long as we stick to the game plan, we’ll be just fine,” said Armstrong. “I’m looking forward to it. We’ve put in so many hours together this year and I think half of the team is seniors. We know it’s our last run and we have to make the most of it.”

“Windham’s good at every single position and 1 through 9 in the batting lineup,” added McLeod, whose daughter, Oakley, is a sophomore for the Eagles. “If we can get over the shock-and-awe part of it and play our game, we can have some success. We’ll go in there and know we’re the significant underdog and play that way. If something bad happens, we’ll move on and go on to the next play.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net

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