BANGOR, Maine — Little more than a month ago, Bangor was on the brink of not even qualifying as the host team for the Senior League World Series — needing extra innings just to outlast Brewer in the Maine District 3 final.
Now those survivors are just one victory away from winning it all.
“We’re so fired up right now, we feel like we’re unbeatable,” said first baseman Anthony Capuano, whose three-run homer in the top of the fifth inning propelled Bangor to a 9-3 victory over Manhattan Beach, Calif., in Friday afternoon’s SLWS semifinals before 1,900 sky-high fans at Mansfield Stadium. “And we’re hopefully going to show that [Saturday].”
Bangor, which earlier this week became the first host team to win more than one game in pool play since the SLWS was moved to the Queen City in 2002, now has parlayed comeback victories over 2009 world champion West University of Houston, Texas, and a Manhattan Beach team that entered Friday’s play with 19 consecutive victories into a chance to win the world Little League baseball championship for players ages 15 and 16.
Bangor will play for the crown at noon Saturday against San Nicolas, Aruba, a 3-2 winner over South Vineland, N.J., in Friday’s other semifinal.
“There’s something magical about this team,” said Bangor outfielder Luke Hetterman. “I don’t even know what to say right now.”
Bangor put forth a flawless performance in its semifinal, combining 12 hits with errorless defense and stellar pitching from lefthander Curtis Worcester who, less than 24 hours after earning the save in his team’s win over Texas, shook off a three-run first-inning uprising by Manhattan Beach to shut the U.S. West champs down on three hits over the next six innings.
“His changeup was pretty decent,” said Manhattan Beach first baseman Turner Conrad. “He got me off balance a couple of times with changeups low and away after throwing the fastball. His curveball wasn’t doing much in the early innings but then it started breaking off the plate. He used his changeup pretty well to keep us off-balance.”
With Worcester approaching his 95-pitch Senior League limit, Hetterman came on to pitch a scoreless seventh in his first mound duty since the District 3 tournament in late July.
“Luke is our secret weapon,” said Bangor manager Ron St. Pierre.”
Capuano, one of youngest players on the Bangor team, fueled the offense. He had two singles to go with his home run and drove home four runs while reaching base in all four of his plate appearances.
But he wasn’t alone. Christian Corneil, Nic Cota and Seth Freudenberger each added two hits, while Hetterman contributed an RBI triple that plated Bangor’s first run.
“Not everybody’s hitting every day,” said St. Pierre, “but there’s always somebody hitting.”
Bangor had to cope with immediate adversity in its first foray as a true contender on the world championship stage, as Manhattan Beach came out aggressively against Worcester in the first inning.
Consecutive singles by Austin Henning, Conrad and Bret Collins gave the Californians an immediate 1-0 lead, and Ian McLoughlin followed with a one-out double off the right-field fence to extend the lead to 3-0.
“They came out very strong,” said Worcester. “It wasn’t like we were making stupid mistakes, they were hitting the ball and got on the board first, but we didn’t let it bother us.”
Worcester settled down, blending a fastball, changeup and curveball into a mix that Manhattan Beach wouldn’t be able to solve.
“We came out hitting and put three on the board early and thought we were in good shape,” said Manhattan Beach manager Carlos Rojas. “But after that, [Worcester] had us off-balance, and you give credit where credit is due.
“Today was one of those days where we thought we figured it out in the first inning, but we didn’t get anything after that.”
And having rallied from a 3-0 deficit a night earlier against West University, Texas, the Bangor squad knew there was plenty of time for a comeback.
“You don’t want to get down early, but we’d just been through it the night before,” said Bangor shortstop Cota. “We just had to bring ourselves back up, and once somebody got it started everybody else followed.”
Manhattan Beach lefthander Anthony Lombardo struggled with his control throughout — walking six batters before reaching his 95-pitch limit after just 4¤ innings — and Bangor made him pay in the top of the third.
Worcester drew a leadoff walk, and special pinch-runner Wyatt Frost scored when Hetterman drove a triple to deep right field. Hetterman then scored on a wild pitch to pull Bangor within 3-2 — a rally that might have been greater but for the Californians throwing Corneil out on a close play at the plate after a single by Capuano.
But Capuano wouldn’t be denied an RBI — or three — in his next at-bat.
Adam King grounded a single to right with one out in the fifth as the last batter faced by Lombardo. Corneil then greeted reliever Carter Casady with a single to center.
That brought up Capuano, Bangor’s cleanup hitter. He fought off two pitches just off the outside corner to work the count to 3-1, then Casady brought his next pitch across the middle of the plate.
By the time the ball landed beyond the right-field fence nearly 400 feet from home plate, Bangor had a stunning 5-3 lead.
“On a 3-1 count I was just looking for my pitch, and he gave it to me,” said Capuano. “I just drove it; it felt good off the bat.
“It was middle in, exactly what I like.”
That blast forever changed this game’s momentum, as Manhattan Beach struggled to find any offensive success against Worcester while Bangor and its crowd fed off each and every hit.
“The crowd always helps,” said Rojas. “I’m not making excuses, whatsoever, but we haven’t played in front of a crowd like this. I personally was a little jittery, I dropped my clipboard a couple of times, but it is what it is. It was a phenomenal experience for my boys.”
Bangor blew the game open in the sixth, using five hits to score four runs and push the lead to 9-3.
Cota singled up the middle to open the inning, then Freudenberger singled to left. A sacrifice bunt by Worcester enabled Cota to score, then King singled with two outs before Corneil delivered a two-run single to center to give Bangor a five-run lead.
That again brought up Capuano, who this time grounded a 3-2 pitch up the middle for a single to drive home Corneil for the game’s final run.
“The whole game we were telling each other to never let up, and we didn’t,” said Hetterman. “We had to keep burying them.”
Now comes one final challenge for Bangor against a speedy, talented Aruba team — with the ultimate prize at stake.
“I knew [Thursday] night that these guys were going to win,” said St. Pierre. “I just knew it. I came here [Friday] smiling and laughing and joking with people because I knew these guys were going to do it. They’re just phenomenal.
“I knew last night and I knew today. I don’t know about tomorrow, though.”