BANGOR, Maine — One of the hardest decisions a high school baseball coach faces during postseason play is how to handle a pitching staff.
The availability of staff aces and team-wide depth play pivotal roles, as do pitch counts and arm fatigue as the regular season gives way to the win-or-go-home pursuit of playoff success.
Bangor Christian coach Tim Collins faced a gut-wrenching decision during Wednesday’s Class D North championship game at Mansfield Stadium, with staff ace Dean Grass — coming off a complete-game performance in last Saturday’s semifinal — pitching a no-hitter but tiring midway through the contest and the Patriots still three innings from a second straight regional title.
So Bangor Christian turned to its bullpen, and Fort Fairfield rallied from a 2-0 deficit for a 4-3 victory and its first regional crown in 24 years.
“Dean had thrown 139 pitches combined (between the semifinal and final), and I really anticipated that by the fifth or sixth inning that he would start to fade even though he was pitching wonderfully,” said Collins. “The combination of the anticipated arm fatigue and my seniors wanting to win the state title and knowing that our best chance was with Dean on the mound (at states), we rolled the dice.
“Give credit to Fort Fairfield. They took advantage, forced the issue and got the big hits.”
Fort Fairfield coach John Ala was sympathetic to Collins’ dilemma.
“Surprised, no, it was a tactical move,” said Ala, whose team was playing in its third straight D North final. “(Collins) was looking at possible states on Saturday and sometimes as a coach you have to gamble a bit. They’re a bit of a different team when he’s on the mound so if you move on you’d want to have him back.
“It was fortunate for us, but they still played a terrific game.”
The victory advances top-seeded Fort Fairfield (15-2) to Saturday’s 3 p.m. state final at Mansfield against Richmond, a 14-6 winner over three-time defending state champion Searsport in the D South final.
“It’s a great feeling taking another step, especially with this senior class,” said Ala. “If you look at our record over the last four years it’s been a very successful program across the board, so these guys being able to end their high school careers taking that next step and getting to the state final, regardless of what happens, is great for them.”
Bangor Christian, which defeated Fort Fairfield 9-3 in the 2017 D North final, concludes its season at 14-5.
Senior right-hander Jared Harvey was a two-way key to victory for Fort Fairfield, pitching a complete-game five-hitter and rapping a two-run triple as the Tigers scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth to take its first lead.
“I’ve wanted to go to states all my life,” said Harvey. “That ‘94 team, my dad [Brad] was on that team. Knowing that baseball’s my No. I sport, I’ve always wanted to win states and that’s what fired me up.”
Walks to Alex Sprague and Malcolm Langner put runners on first and second with one out in the Fort Fairfield fifth. BC righty Erik Gorczok struck out the next batter before Colby Langner grounded an RBI single through the shortstop hole and Harvey followed with a line drive down the right-field line to give Fort Fairfield a sudden 3-2 advantage.
“That’s probably the first hit I’ve had this year that was hit sharp and toward first,” said the right-handed hitting Harvey. “I think it was a fastball and I read it outside and put it where it needed to go.”
Bangor Christian tied the game at 3-3 in the top of the sixth as Brady Reed reached on an error and was sacrificed to second by Calvin Mercier before pinch-runner Adam Ford scored on two balks by Harvey.
Fort Fairfield scored what turned out to be the winning run in the bottom of the inning as Dylan Jandreau drew a leadoff walk, stole second and scored on Wyatt Keegan’s single to right.
Grass then returned to the mound and yielded a walk and an infield hit before recording the final out.
Grass had nine strikeouts, two walks, and a hit batter while yielding just one of Fort Fairfield’s four hits in his 4⅓ total innings on the mound.
Harvey also struck out nine and walked two while yielding one earned run during a 97-pitch effort.
“It seemed like I got better as the game went on,” Harvey said. “When it comes down to the grit and the grind, I want to win the game so I’ll do whatever I need to do.”
Follow BDN Maine Sports on Facebook for the latest in Maine high school and college sports.