Editor’s Note: As University of Maine sports fans hunker down amid concerns about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the BDN hopes to inspire fans by recounting stories of some of the most memorable Black Bear games in program history.
It seemed like the night would never end.
It was May 12, 1983. The University of Maine baseball team was playing Providence College in the ECAC New England Tournament at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The first game is critical because losing the opener in a four-team, double-elimination affair means you have to win four consecutive games to capture the title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Black Bears ace righty Billy Swift of South Portland took the mound and threw 197 pitches in 13 innings. He wound up with a no-decision.
The game wasn’t decided until the 18th inning when Brad Colton’s single scored Kevin Bernier and gave UMaine a 5-4 triumph in a game that had one plot twist after another.
“That game is on my never-forget list,” said third baseman Jeff Paul. “It was incredible to be part of a game like that. And I loved playing at McCoy Stadium.”
The game ended at 3:05 a.m. with 34 people left in the stands.
“When we got back to the hotel, you could see a glow in the sky. The sunrise was going to start coming up soon,” Bernier said.
“It was a very tense game. There was a huge load lifted off us when we won. It was a game we were supposed to win,” he said.
Prior to his game-winning hit, Colton had jokingly asked UMaine athletic trainer Wes Jordan if it was going to be as difficult for a hitter to pick up the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand at dawn as it was at dusk.
The Black Bears had been one pitch away from winning on a number of occasions. Flame-throwing but erratic Providence left-hander Chuck Howard had a number of three-ball counts, including some 3-0, with the bases loaded.
But the gritty Howard battled back time after time to pitch out of jams, primarily via strikeout.
The Black Bears struck out a school-record 23 times. Catcher Peter Bushway owned six of those, an NCAA record he shares with several others.
They had been gifted chance after chance, due largely to the school-record 18 walks they were issued.
The Friars had a glorious opportunity to score the go-ahead run in extra innings but a brilliant coaching move by the late John Winkin thwarted them.
With a runner on second and a left-handed pull hitter at the plate, Winkin moved Colton from left field to right field with Dick Whitten going from right to left. Colton had the stronger arm.
Sure enough, the Providence hitter pulled a base hit to the right, but Colton charged the ball and gunned down the runner at the plate.
“[Winkin] was prophetic. That couldn’t have worked out any better,” Paul said.
“I remember the base hit going through the hole. I threw a two- or three-hopper to the plate,” Colton said. “You could call it lucky. [Winkin] was one of those guys who did things differently.”
“That made [Winkin] look like a genius,” recalled Stu Lacognata, a UMaine starting pitcher. “I don’t remember a lot about the game except pacing back and forth in the dugout.”
Paul said he doesn’t remember being tired physically but he was exhausted mentally, which made it hard to stay focused.
“It was a long night and it was getting colder,” former outfielder Tommy Vanidestine said. “I just wanted to win and get the hell out of there. But we couldn’t close the door.”
Bernier said he will never forget Swift’s mound outing.
“It was one of the most incredible pitching performances I’ve ever seen,” Bernier said.
“I don’t remember a lot about the game, but it was a grind,” recalled Swift, who became an accomplished major league pitcher and finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting 10 years later.
“We didn’t think about pitch counts back in the day. My arm was never sore,” Swift said.
He recalled playing in the outfield the next day during a 5-0 win over Massachusetts and throwing out a runner out at the plate. But he wasn’t sure if it was a dream or reality.
He remembered accurately.
“That’s crazy,” Swift said.
Colton said his game-winning single was a ground ball up the middle. It will always hold a special place in his heart because his father, the late Bill Colton, was among the fans who stayed until the end of the game.
“He was up there pacing near [radio play-by-play man] George Hale and [color analyst] Al Hackett,” Colton said. “It was a great memory of my dad.”
Days later, UMaine met Connecticut in the championship round and after UConn forced a title game with a 2-1 victory over the Black Bears. Swift tossed a one-hit complete game as UMaine captured the championship with a 7-0 victory.
UMaine went on to host and win the Northeast Regional and make its third consecutive College World Series appearance.