SANFORD, Maine – It’s funny what a couple weeks can make in the game of baseball, quite literally.
On July 28, just over 14 days ago, the Newport Gulls were mired in an extremely uncharacteristic stretch of mediocrity. It wasn’t June, it was late July, or as it has come to be known in the City by the Sea, the time of year that often precedes trophy season.
Instead, the Gulls limped over to nearby Forges Field to face the red-hot and story-of-the-season Plymouth Pilgrims, the second-year franchise that had stolen the limelight away of Cardines Field and hogged it all to itself through nearly 95 percent of the regular season.
On that day, a scheduled doubleheader between the two, no less, Newport came to the crossroads of a season that, like so many other, had been full of hope and realistic expectation for another New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) championship, one that would be a league-record sixth crown. But after trudging through July with, at that point, a 4-11 record in the second month of the year, those expectations took an unexpected hit, and so the Gulls surely eyed that doubleheader as a put-up-or-shut-up moment of the year.
And sure enough, it exactly was.
Newport won those two games, and for good measure, the Gulls own five of their final six regular-season games and, just like that, all of the whispers of “it’s not their year” vanished like a Blaise Salter (Michigan State) home run into the Rhode Island night…
Flash forward two weeks, and once again, the Gulls are hosting the Fay Vincent Sr. Cup as 2014 NECBL champions, completing an incredible late-season surge that rivaled what the team they lost to last summer – the Keene Swamp Bats – did en route to the league crown a year ago.
After storming from fourth place to second in the South, Newport faced in-state rival Ocean State in the South Division Semifinals, and after dropping the opener of that series, the Gulls were forced to rally back. And indeed they did, holding on for a 10-8 win in Game 2 before using an explosive, six-run fourth inning to seal the series with a 9-4 win at home in Game 3.
Appropriately enough, the top-two seeds from the South – Newport and Plymouth – would square off in the South Divisional Finals, as Newport grabbed an home-field advantage from the Pilgrims with a momentum-stealing 9-6 win in Game 1, only to watch as the Pilgrims returned the favor by sending the series back to Forges Field with a 7-6 decision in Game 2.
Once again, the Gulls used a potent-but-concentrated offense to whip their way to victory, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 lead thanks to a five-run sixth inning, and that was all they would need to lock up their 11th berth in the NECBL Finals.
There, of course, they would face Sanford, but there would be no third game in this series. Newport ace John Kilichowski (Vanderbilt), who finished with a 0.67 ERA in the regular season, would toss seven scoreless frames while fanning seven as his offense chipped in a run in the second and fifth before netting three more in the eighth to pace the Gulls to a 1-0 series lead thanks to a 5-0 shutout win on Monday night.
That sent the series to Goodall Park, where the loyal Sanford faithful were hoping to extend the series and see their Mainers vie for their third league crown and first since 2008 – one that was also won against Newport. That, however, would not be the case, as yet again the Gulls did all of their damage in one particular inning, this time an eight-run sixth inning, to put the Mainers on the brink.
To Sanford’s credit, the hosts did not back down, responding with five runs of their own to chase Newport starter Jack Petterson (Bryant), but southpaw reliever Marc Huberman (USC) made sure the score got no closer, as the rising junior capped off an incredible season – and postseason – with three scoreless innings that featured five strikeouts and no hits, capping off his playoff run with 10-1/3 scoreless innings and 13 strikeouts in that span, clinching the title for the Blue and Orange.
All together, Newport finished the season 15-3 from that doubleheader back on July 28 against Plymouth, including a 6-2 mark in the postseason. Salter, the hero time and time again for Newport and potential league MVP, finished the postseason with nine RBI and two home runs, while finishing the summer with 11 long balls, 51 RBI, 11 doubles, an .856 OPS and .340 batting average over 47 games.
The title is Newport’s league-record sixth and first in two years after sweeping Danbury in 2012. It is also the fourth title for manager Mike Coombs, who sees Newport finish the year 31-19 overall to raise his 10-year win total to 287, as he aims for win No. 300 next summer.