AUGUSTA — From the 10 runners left lingering on the Morton Field basepaths to the three that were cut down by multiple footsteps, Thursday was an afternoon of expired opportunities and rallies that were born at the wrong time for the Oxford Hills baseball team.
The No. 1 Vikings played catch-up all day and ultimately became the final victim in the No. 6 Messalonskee Eagles’ regional playoff trifecta. The defending state champions completed their sweep of the top three seeds in Eastern Class A with a 3-2 triumph.
Oxford Hills (16-3) scored two runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to sneak within one run, but the Vikings also left the bases loaded.
Base running blunders sabotaged both the fifth and sixth frames, and Devin Warren, the third pitcher for Messalonskee (13-6), slammed the door with a 1-2-3 seventh.
“They battled. We were right there. Great baseball game,” Oxford Hills coach Shame Slicer said. “It’s just going to go one way, and we made more mistakes than they did.”
Messalonskee emerged from deep in the bracket for the second straight year and will host Westbrook here Saturday for the state title.
The Eagles employed a pitching-by-committee strategy that never allowed their playoff opponents to get into a rhythm, similar to the approach that silenced Bangor and Hampden earlier in the playoffs.
“What I was worried was going to happen was when we put those guys in that situation three games in a row, that’s a lot of mental stress, which will affect the body, too,” Messalonskee coach Ray Bernier said. “I think it started to show a little bit today.”
Eagles starter Nick Mayo worked around a hit and three walks in his two-inning stint before yielding to Jake Dexter.
Thanks to Trevor Gettig throwing out Nick Attaliades-Ryan on an attempted steal, Dexter faced the minimum in the third before the Vikings’ bats awakened in the fourth.
Jordan Croteau was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. Riley Chickering’s sacrifice bunt moved pinch runner Brady LaFrance to second, and Matt Beauchesne’s subsequent single put Oxford Hills on the board.
Ty Martin walked and Nick Bowie legged out a two-out infield single to load the bases. Dexter’s inside pitch with a full count nicked Attaliades-Ryan to force home the second run.
As Patrick Breton warmed in the Messalonskee bullpen, Dexter escaped the jam by getting Dalton Rice to bounce into a fielder’s choice. He then promptly began lobbying Bernier for one more inning.
“I knew I could just go out and get some quick outs in the fifth,” the sophomore said. “I really felt that I still could locate. I struggled in the fourth. I got a couple tough breaks, and I wanted to go out there and finish my job.”
With Rice retiring the Eagles quickly in his first inning of relief, Bernier wasn’t given much time to sweat the decision.
“He talked us into it,” said the coach. “He’s the type of player that says, ‘No, Coach, I can do it. I want the next one.’ We listen to him because that means he gets it down here [in his heart].”
With one out in the fifth, Messalonskee dropped Croteau’s shallow fly down the right field line. Oxford Hills’ senior catcher elected to go for two, and Caleb Bean atoned for the muff by throwing him out easily.
That out loomed larger after singles by Chickering and Beauchesne. Martin’s line drive on another 3-2 pitch appeared ticketed for left field, but third baseman Josh Woodard dove headlong to his left for an ice cream cone catch to preserve the lead and ultimately Dexter’s victory.
“We didn’t really sting the ball, and when we did, we had two outs. We [rarely] got a leadoff guy on. We had our chances,” Slicer said. “We knew how [Dexter] threw. I thought our approach against him was the best. We got one timely hit, but we left a lot of guys on and they didn’t make any mistakes.”
Oxford Hills fell victim to a gadget pickoff play in the sixth.
Pinch hitter Walter Feeney drew a leadoff walk. Ben Bowie re-entered and took second on Nick Bowie’s sacrifice.
Warren, still getting warm in his first inning of relief and his feet strategically straddling the rubber to avoid a balk, faked a high throw to second. Dexter, now playing second, and Woodard, having just shifted to center, also sold the drama.
Bowie committed toward third. Warren calmly threw to shortstop Jared Cunningham to begin a short, fateful rundown.
“We just practiced it our last practice. We practiced with the people that were in there and said if we got in that situation we’d try it,” Bernier said. “We [coaches] can’t even take credit for it. That’s what’s great about these guys is they love to play the game that way. They recognized the options, their chance, and they took it.”
Again, the Vikings immediately got a hit to heighten the agony, this one by Attaliades-Ryan. Warren fanned Rice to end the inning.
“That’s a good play by them, and we weren’t prepared for it,” Slicer said. “We tried to tell them that something was on, but it’s too late by that point.”
Warren struck out Dylan Cox and Croteau and got Chickering to pop out to Cunningham to nail down the save.
He also scored the Eagles’ first run after a leadoff double against Ryan Godin in the second. A sacrifice and two walks set the table for Gettig’s RBI on a fielder’s choice.
With first base open and two out in the fourth, Oxford Hills intentionally walked Dexter to load the bases. Cunningham, a freshman, made it backfire with a two-run single to left.
“He’s unbelievable. He loves that stuff, and he’s one of the best hitters on our team.” Dexter said. “He came up huge.”
Oxford Hills outhit Messalonskee, 7-5. Each team made only one error.
Six seniors graduated for the Vikings. Woodard was the only Eagles upperclassman on the field at game’s end.
“It hurts now, and the seniors, I feel bad for them, but we had a hell of a season,” Slicer said. “We went on a good roll there during the middle of it. We wish it had gone the other way today obviously.”