Falmouth 8 Portland 5
P- 200 003 0- 5 7 4
F- 001 025 x- 8 9 1
C. Winship scored on wild pitch. Crosby grounded out to second, Bibeau scored.
Coyne doubled to left, Ham scored.
Tracy flew out to right, Ham scored. Gill flew out to center, Coyne scored.
Bisco walked, Moffo scored. Bibeau singled to center, Page and Buck scored.
Cowperthwaite scored on error. Gay scored on catcher’s interference. Gill singled to left, Ham and Coyne scored. Smith grounded out, Christman scored.
P- Bibeau, C. Winship
F- Coyne 3
P- Bibeau, Buck, Moffo, Page, C. Winship
F- Ham 3, Coyne 2, Christman, Cowperthwaite, Gay
P- BIbeau 2, Bisco, Crosby
F- Gill 3, Tracy 2, Coyne, Smith
P- C. Winship
F- Ham 2, Cowperthwaite, Coyne, Gay, Gill
Left on base:
Fay-LeBlanc, DiMillo (5), Bibeau (6), L. Winship (6) and Becker; Cowperthwaite, Gill (6), Smith (6) and Hendry.
Fay-LeBlanc 4.1 IP 4 H 3 R 2 ER 1 BB 2 K 1 HBP
DiMillo (L) 0.2 IP 4 H 3 R 3 ER 1 BB 0 K
Bibeau 0 IP 0 H 2 R 1 ER 0 BB 0 K
* Bibeau faced two batters in the 6th
L. Winship 1 IP 1 H 0 R 0 BB 0 K
Cowperthwaite 5.1 IP 6 H 4 R 4 ER 3 BB 7 K 2 WP
Gill 0 IP 0 H 1 R 1 ER 2 BB 0 K
* Gill faced two batters in the 6th
Smith (W) 1.2 IP 1 H 0 R 0 BB 0 K
FALMOUTH—Much has been made of the heart and grit of Portland’s baseball team, and for good reason, but Falmouth’s ticker and tenacity are every bit the Bulldogs’ equal, something that was on display in a memorable Class A South quarterfinal round showdown Wednesday afternoon at John M. Croker Memorial Field.
Twice, the Navigators dug two-run deficits and twice they dug out of them and as a result, Falmouth’s season will continue while Portland, despite a valiant effort, is going home.
The Bulldogs, riding high after their walk-off preliminary round victory over Noble, took a quick 2-0 lead in the top of the first, as Navigators’ junior ace Eli Cowperthwaite wild pitched home a run, then Portland senior first baseman Grant Crosby drove home another with a ground ball.
After Cowperthwaite worked out of a bases loaded jam in the second, striking out Crosby to keep the game within reach, the Navigators got a run back in the bottom of the third, as senior shortstop Brady Coyne hit an RBI double.
Falmouth then went ahead in the fifth, as senior designated hitter Dom Tracy and senior first baseman Patrick Gill each hit sacrifice flies for a 3-2 lead.
But Portland never, ever goes down without a fight and after two were out in the top of the sixth, four straight Bulldogs walked, including senior second baseman Anthony Bisco with the bases loaded, to tie the score and junior shortstop Henry Bibeau followed with his latest in a season’s worth of big hits, a two-run single, to put Portland on top, 5-3.
This time, however, it would be the Navigators rising off the deck last, scoring five times in the bottom half.
Falmouth loaded the bases with none out, scored a run on an error, tied it on catcher’s interference, then Gill delivered his biggest hit of the season, a two-run single, and after the Navigators added one more, they took a three-run lead to the seventh.
There, senior Bennett Smith slammed the door and Falmouth was able to exhale and advance by virtue of an 8-5 victory.
The Navigators improved to 16-2, ended Portland’s season at 10-7-1 and advanced to take on third-ranked, defending state champion South Portland (15-3) in the semifinals Saturday, at a time to be announced.
“It was stressful, but the guys didn’t let the season end,” said Falmouth coach Mike D’Andrea. “I’m happy with our resiliency and spirit. They stayed up throughout the game. It was a good win for us.”
If Wednesday’s matchup wasn’t compelling enough on its own merit, the game also featured the first postseason matchup in 14 years between two of the state’s premier coaches, D’Andrea and Portland’s Mike Rutherford.
D’Andrea and Rutherford were both baseball standouts at Portland High who went on to excel in college as well, as Rutherford played at the University of Southern Maine and D’Andrea at the University of Maine (he later pitched in the Atlanta Braves organization).
The two began coaching against each other in 1998, the year Rutherford led the Bulldogs to their most recent state title and they squared off in the playoffs in 2000 (an 8-3 Deering win in the Western A Final), 2004 (12-0 Rams, in five-innings, in the regional final), 2005 (a 9-6 upset victory for Portland in the semifinals), 2006 (a 6-0 win for the Bulldogs in the semifinals) and 2008 (a 3-2 regional final win for Deering over Westbrook, where Rutherford was coaching at the time).
Rutherford returned to Portland for his second stint in 2015 and D’Andrea, who stepped down at Deering after the 2008 season, coached at Scarborough from 2016 through 2019, then came to Falmouth in 2020 replacing Kevin Winship (now a Portland assistant coach).
Both coaches have gotten the most out of their squads this spring (see sidebar, for previous results).
Portland had to rally from an early deficit, then go an extra inning to survive No. 10 Noble in Monday’s preliminary round, 9-8.
Falmouth, meanwhile, had no trouble with No. 15 Massabesic in its prelim, rolling, 10-0 (in six-innings).
Back on April 28, the Navigators went to Hadlock Field and enjoyed a 6-0 victory, as Cowperthwaite threw a two-hitter with 13 strikeouts, Falmouth scored all of its runs with two outs and five of the six runs were courtesy Bulldogs’ errors.
The teams had met three previous times in the playoffs (see sidebar) with the Navigators holding a 2-1 edge.
Wednesday dawned with rain, but by game time, it was a most pleasant 75 degrees and the teams went out and put on a show.
One which featured multiple twists and turns.
Senior leftfielder Colby Winship started the game for Portland by beating out an infield single off Cowperthwaite. Bisco then watched strike three, but Bibeau singled up the middle and with Crosby at the plate, Cowperthwaite’s first wild pitched the runners to second and third, then he threw wildly again and Winship came home with the game’s first run while Bibeau took third. Crosby then bounced out to second to score Bibeau. Senior designated hitter Andrew Legere kept the inning alive by singling down the leftfield line and junior rightfielder Andrew Brewer followed with a single up the middle, but senior catcher Ryan Becker bounced out to second to finally end what was a 19-minute, 32-pitch top of the first with the Bulldogs on top, 2-0.
In the bottom half, Portland junior starter Liam Fay-LeBlanc retired junior third baseman Mitchell Ham on a grounder to third and after Coyne singled through the shortstop-third base hole on the first pitch he saw, Tracy popped out to short and after Coyne stole second, Gill grounded back to the mound for the third out.
The Bulldogs then had a chance to open it up in the top of the second, but wound up leaving the bases loaded.
Senior third baseman James Gignac popped out to Cowperthwaite leading off and senior centerfielder Carter Page struck out swinging, but Winship singled to left, Bisco singled up the middle past the diving Coyne and after Winship stole third, Bibeau walked to load the bases, but Cowperthwaite was able to fan Crosby to keep the score 2-0.
“I started off rocky and that’s been troubling for me all year,” said Cowperthwaite. “I know when I’m on, the other kids don’t have a chance. I just dug deep and threw strikes.”
“When Eli’s in the zone and he’s on, he’s a tough pitcher,” said D’Andrea. “His fastball had a little more giddy-up on that pitch. He found that groove.”
In the bottom half, sophomore catcher Ethan Hendry drew a four-pitch walk leading off, but Smith popped out foul to Gignac at third, sophomore second baseman Brennan Rumpf grounded out on a slow roller to third and Fay-LeBlanc fanned Cowperthwaite to retire the side.
Legere led off the top of the third with a deep fly ball to center which senior Miles Gay ran down. Cowperthwaite then struck out Brewer on a 3-2 pitch before Becker appeared to ground out to third, but the throw from Ham pulled Gill off the bag to keep the inning alive. Gignac then grounded out to short to retire the side.
Falmouth broke through in the bottom half.
Gay grounded out to second leading off, but Ham reached on an error by Gignac at third. After Ham stole second, Coyne lined a double just fair down the leftfield line (or foul, if you asked Portland’s dugout) to get the home team on the board. Fay-LeBlanc then hit Tracy with a pitch, but Gill grounded into a shortstop-to-second force out and after Gill stole second, Hendry struck out looking and Portland still clung to a 2-1 advantage.
Cowperthwaite made quick work of the Bulldogs in the top of the fourth, getting Page to ground back to the mound before fanning Winship on an off-speed pitch and striking out Bisco as well.
In the bottom half, Portland made a couple of nice defensive plays to stay on top.
Smith led off with a line shot to left, which Page (who had moved over from center) ran in to make the catch. Rumpf then popped out to short, as Bibeau made a nice catch while retreating. Cowperthwaite reached on an error by Bisco at second on a tough hop, but Gay popped out foul to Fay-LeBlanc, who raced in front of plate to retire the side.
Cowperhtwaite set the Bulldogs down in order in the top of the fifth, as he got Bibeau to ground out to third and after catching Crosby looking strike three, Legere crushed a drive to deep left, but senior Eban Daniels made the catch in front of the wall to retire the side.
Falmouth then scored twice to take the lead in the bottom half.
Ham got things started by beating out an infield hit on a grounder to the hole on the first pitch he saw. After Ham stole second, Coyne battled back from an 0-2 count to work it full before singling to right. Ham didn’t try to score, but the throw came home and that allowed Coyne to move to second.
Tracy then drove the ball deep to right and while it was caught, Ham was able to score easily to tie it and Coyne was safe at third on the play.
After senior Aidan DiMillo came on in relief of Winship, Gill flew out to deep center and Coyne came home to put his team on top.
Hendry beat out an infield single off of DiMillo and Smith followed with a single to center, but Rumpf fouled out to Becker.
Regardless, the Navigators took a 3-2 lead to the sixth, but it wouldn’t last.
Cowperthwaite started frame auspiciously as he got Brewer to bounce out back to the mound on the first pitch, then Becker popped out to second, but after falling behind 3-0, Cowperthwaite walked Gignac on a 3-2 pitch, ending a string of nine consecutive batters retired. Cowperthwaite then fell behind Page 3-0 and walked him too and that was it for his time on the mound.
Gill came on in relief, but he fell behind sophomore centerfielder Reegan Buck (who had come in earlier in the game) 3-0 before walking him too to load the bases. That brought up Bisco, who got ahead 2-0 and 3-1 before drawing ball four and senior Dominic Moffo came home to tie the score.
That was it for Gill, who was replaced by Smith.
Smith was then greeted by Bibeau, who lined a 1-2 pitch into center to score both Page and Buck and just like that, Portland had a 5-3 lead.
Crosby grounded out to third, but the Bulldogs appeared to take the momentum to the bottom of the sixth.
But that momentum would be short-lived.
DiMillo appeared to get the first out when he induced a little pop-up off Cowperthwaite’s bat, but the ball dropped behind Gignac and Bibeau for a single and the trouble was just beginning.
“I was just trying to put the bat on the ball,” said Cowperthwaite. “I had two strikes on me and I just had to get on base any way possible. I knew we could come back.”
Cowperthwaite stole second with Gay at the plate and Gay followed with a single into left to put runners at the corners. Gay then stole second to put the tying run in scoring position before Ham walked on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases for Coyne.
DiMillo was replaced by Bibeau, who appeared to get the first out when he got Coyne to line to second, but the ball tailed away from Ethan Theriault, who had come on to play second base, and Theriault couldn’t handle it for an error, scoring one run and re-loading the bases.
“That ball was a tougher play than you think,” Rutherford said. “It had a major spin off the bat and I feel awful for him.”
Tracy then appeared to swing late and foul off the first pitch he faced, but catcher’s interference was called on Becker, allowing Gay to come home to tie it, loading the bases again.
That was it for Bibeau, who was replaced by senior Liam Winship, who faced the daunting task of trying to get Gill out with the game on the line.
And Gill wasn’t about to let that happen, as he singled into left, scoring two runs and the Navigators were ahead for good after Ham and Coyne came home.
“That’s when our energy picked up even more, when we got momentum,” Gill said. “I love being in that spot. I work best when I’m under pressure. I walked up there and I just tried to have the simplest mechanics on my swing. Their infield was in, so any ground ball was trouble. If it was at an infielder, it would be too fast to field, but I found a gap.”
“When (Patrick) got up there, my one comment to him was ‘redemption,’” D’Andrea said. “He didn’t feel good about walking two guys. I knew he’d relish that moment. We had that conversation during the pitching change and he wanted redemption. He needed it.”
Hendry reached when Bibeau, back at short, made an error, reloading the bases, then Smith grounded out to Gignac at third for the first out, but on the play, pinch-runner Mike Christman came home with the final run of the inning. Rumpf grounded out back to the mound and Cowperthwaite, who started the inning, popped out to short to finally end it, but Falmouth had turned a 5-3 deficit into an 8-5 lead.
“Defense hasn’t been our asset,” Rutherford said. “We’re a great-hitting team and we throw strikes, but sometimes, the ball finds holes. We had the momentum, but give them credit, they got a couple seeing-eye hits off DiMillo. One thing about a D’Andrea-coached team, whether it’s Deering, Scarborough or Falmouth, they all play hard. Old Falmouth teams might have quit. A lot of teams would have quit after we got that big hit, but they didn’t.”
“We were fortunate,” D’Andrea said. “We had a soft liner fall in and an error or two. That’s the playoffs. Anything can happen.”
Smith returned to the mound for the seventh and he, finally, slammed the door.
Legere grounded to second, Brewer bounced out back to the mound, then at 6:13 p.m., after 2 hours and 18 minutes of gripping baseball, the contest ended as Smith got senior pinch-hitter Mason Rang to line softly to Rumpf at second.
“We can count on Bennett to throw strikes,” Cowperthwaite said. “He’s got good stuff and he’s a senior and has experience.
“We never gave up. There are a lot of kids on the team that it could have possibly been their last game. We’ve been in a lot of close games this year, so we dug deep and battled back.”
“Our whole motto this season is keeping our energy up,” said Gill. “No matter the situation you’re in, you have to have the most intensity you can and I think that helped us come back. Everyone in the dugout was yelling their faces off and that got us hyped up.”
“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” D’Andrea added. “Portland High competes, so we expected nothing less. They can hit the baseball. We put the ball in play, made plays and threw strikes.”
Falmouth got three hits, two runs and an RBI from Coyne.
Ham scored three runs and Christman, Cowperthwaite and Gay all touched home once.
Gill had three RBI, while Tracy finished with two and Smith one.
The Navigators stole six bases and stranded nine runners.
Cowperthwaite had a no-decision, surrendering four earned runs on six hits in 5.1 innings. He walked three, struck out seven and threw a pair of wild pitches.
Gill walked both batters he faced and allowed a run.
Smith earned the victory in relief, surrendering just one hit in 1.2 innings.
“Bennett got sick early this year and he’s still trying to catch up,” said D’Andrea. “We’re very confident in him to come in and do his thing.”
Portland’s offense featured two hits apiece from Bibeau and Colby Winship.
Bibeau, Buck, Moffo, Page and Winship scored runs.
Bibeau drove in two runs, while Bisco and Crosby also had an RBI.
The Bulldogs left eight runners on.
Fay-LeBlanc got a no-decision after giving up three runs (two earned) on four hits in 4.1 innings. He walked one, struck out two and hit a batter.
“I thought Fay-LeBlanc pitched great,” Rutherford said. “He got a little tired, but he was fantastic.”
DiMillo took the loss, surrendering three earned runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning of relief. He walked one.
Bibeau only faced two batters and they both scored.
Liam Winship finished up with a strong inning of scoreless, one-hit ball.
“Cowperthwaite was dealing and we knocked them out of the game and got to their bullpen and went up by two,” Rutherford said. “Last year, we were 15th-ranked. Winning 10 games and having a great comeback win against Noble and leading Falmouth by two runs in the sixth inning, that’s how much these guys have improved. I trusted a lot of seniors. They competed right until the end.
“Mikey and I go way back coaching against each other in these kinds of games. You could write a book on our battles over the years. It’s always fun to coach against him. I take the lead, he takes the lead. Throughout our career, we’ve had a bunch of wins and losses against each other.”
After the contest, Rutherford said that he’s uncertain on his status going forward.
“I haven’t decided,” Rutherford said. “I’m thinking about going into an assistant coach role. Family-wise, I have a grandson. I want to go on vacations. I have to sit down and think about it. I’ve told the kids I’m thinking about it. If this was my last game, I wouldn’t have had it any other way with the seniors. I love these guys. We’ve battled through a lot of things through COVID, on and off the field. It was a bunch of football players playing baseball, which I was. I told the kids, ‘If I don’t coach again and if this is my last game, I’ll go to war with this team.’ I love this team. The seniors are great. They battled.”
Rutherford, 57, has won 270 games (Edson Hadlock still holds the program record with 283 victories) and a state title in his two stints at Portland, as well as 59 games in his four seasons at Westbrook from 2008-11. When SMAA tournament (also known as Telegram League playoff) games are factored out, his record stands at 316-120-1.
One of Falmouth’s two losses came at South Portland May 24, when the Navigators made four errors and mustered just four hits. Falmouth beat the Red Riots in both prior playoff meetings, 4-2 in the 2016 Class A South Final and 4-2 in the 2018 Class A South quarterfinals.
South Portland beat Westbrook, 5-1, in its quarterfinal Wednesday and will pose quite a challenge Saturday.
“We’re coming even harder,” Gill said. “That loss made us mad. We’re ready and we want it bad.”
“We’ll go into it with the same mentality as any game, just play our ball and the results should come,” said Cowperthwaite.
“It’s a new day and a new game,” D’Andrea added. “We’ll expect another dogfight.”