MILLINOCKET, Maine — There’s no such thing as cruise control during a high school baseball game with a berth in an Eastern Maine final at stake.
The top-seeded Stearns Minutemen flirted with the negative consequences of such potential complacency Monday afternoon but withstood a seventh-inning rally by Orono to earn a 6-4 victory over the fifth-ranked Red Riots in a Class C regional semifinal at DiFrederico Field.
The win advances Stearns (16-2) to Wednesday’s 7 p.m. EM title game at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor against No. 2 Bucksport (16-2), a 7-1 winner over Dexter in Monday’s other semifinal.
Stearns had taken a 6-2 lead with four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning and maintained that advantage until Orono mounted a determined comeback in its final at-bat that ended with the potential tying run in scoring position.
“It was nerve-wracking, but a good contest. Both teams came to play ball,” said Stearns coach Ryan Carrier. “I’m not sure if it got in their heads that they had it in the bag already or if they just started feeling confident. But once they started seeing some baserunners on they realized there was a danger and they picked it up again.”
Senior left-hander Kyle McVey pitched three scoreless innings of relief to get the victory as part of a strategy employed by the Minutemen that leaves their entire pitching staff eligible to pitch in the regional final.
Senior right-hander Jordan Morrow, who on Sunday was named one of seven finalists for this year’s Dr. John Winkin “Mr Baseball” Award, yielded two runs over the first three innings before giving way to McVey.
Sophomore right-hander Nick Dumas came on the pitch the seventh, yielding two runs but stranding three Orono baserunners to preserve the victory.
“If we could do it that was the plan so we could have all the arms we have for the next game,” said Morrow.
The Red Riots left 14 runners on base for the game compared to just four for Stearns and outhit the Minutemen 12-8.
These teams split two regular-season meetings, with Orono winning 4-2 at home on April 18 and Stearns edging the Red Riots 5-4 at Millinocket on May 6.
Orono (9-9) took its only lead of the third meeting in the top of the first as Dillon Cyr drilled a one-out double to deep left field, went to third base on a single to left by Christian Mowrer and scored on Cameron Mowrer’s groundout to second base.
Stearns answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Cam Gauvin drew a leadoff walk from Orono starter Trevor Francis, stole second and reached third on a wild pitch before scoring when Dumas singled to left.
Dumas stole second and scored one out later when Tanner Carrier flared an opposite-field single down the right-field line.
Orono tied the game in the second as Justin White grounded a leadoff single to center, moved to second on a walk to Ethan Hall and scored when Jacob Earl hit an 0-2 pitch into center field for an RBI single.
The Red Riots then loaded the bases with two outs before Morrow got an inning-ending strikeout.
Stearns took the lead for good by sending eight batters to the plate in the fourth inning.
The Minutemen had five hits during the uprising, starting with a leadoff single to left by McVey and also including a pop single to center by Dylan Martin and run-scoring hits by Brad Moscone, Zach Bouchard and Gauvin — Gauvin’s a safety-squeeze bunt.
That gave Stearns a 6-2 lead that McVey made stand up through the sixth inning after getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth.
Orono broke through against Dumas in the seventh, beginning when Francis singled to center and moved to second on a bad-hop single to shortstop by Hall. An outfield error on a fly ball by Earl allowed Francis to score and cut the Red Riots’ deficit to 6-3, and an infield hit by Jesse Kelly followed by a bases-loaded walk to Conor McKaig made it 6-4 with just one out.
But Dumas prevailed, getting Cyr to ground to third base with Tanner Carrier throwing home to force out Earl for the second out and then inducing Christian Mowrer to pop back to the mound to end the game.
“We’ve preached to the kids all year that errors are what cost games,” said coach Carrier, “and I think they saw that they were losing control and then they started making some good throws. They kept their heads in there, they stayed positive.”
Eight different Stearns players had one hit, with Lucas McLain’s sixth-inning double the lone extra-base hit.
White had three singles for Orono while Francis singled twice as each of the Red Riots’ starters had at least one hit.