By Raptors beat reporter, Phil Hynes
Sunday 18th April, 2010 – the day all of Hampshire had been waiting for. Yes, Opening Day and the mouth-watering prospect of heading down to Mustangs Stadium and cheering on their favourites from the Mustangs II squad and also of the chance of seeing the Raptors rookie line-up they’d heard so much about – short on experience, maybe, but bursting with promise. The day finished with a trouncing of the Herts boys, 31-5, but I fancy if the fixture calendar had allowed the teams to meet again later in the season, then matters would be very different.
Played under clear blue skies and, thanks to a distant volcano, free of the noise of nearby Southampton Airport, it really was a great way to start the season. The Raptors, immaculate in their pristine white uniforms, were immediately put under notice that they were perhaps outgunned as the Mustangs piled on run after run in the first couple of innings. It was very obvious to this observer which team had the most experience under their belts. While the Raptors suffered various mishaps the Mustangs profited from a good, strong pitcher – Herts will face few of his calibre in the months ahead.
However, in the top of the 3rd the pitching colossus faltered. The Raptors sensed weakness and went to work – all nine of the line-up went up to the plate with Phil Hynes having the pleasure of two appointments at the business end of things. During this most joyous of spells we saw majestic hits from Bryan Drummond, Jeff Witter & Tom Green. We saw the opposition waver and issue five walks as the Raptors raw pluck threatened to upset their day. We saw Will Belbin take one for the team with a ball pitched straight to his ribs, nary a flinch was spotted as he strode down to 1st base. The Herts baserunners were ever ready to take advantage of pass balls, as well as a speedy steal by Rob Jones. When the smoke of battle had cleared Jones, Drummond, Witter, Green and Jim Arnott had all crossed the plate. At that point, anything seemed possible.
Unfortunately that was our moment in the sun, a fleeting pleasure as we were quickly reacquainted with the Mustangs dominance. The rest of the game offers various memories – Jones doing a ‘Hollywood’ diving catch somewhere between his post at 1B and the pitching mound, afterwards he combined with Phil Gover for a pinball-style 'double catch', Arnott’s easy assurance with a couple of tricky catches and a good hit into the outfield, old veteran Witter urging on his young charges – whose heads never dropped however lopsided the score became – and also giving the ball a good clout a couple of times, the obvious massive potential shown by the unflappable duo of Gover at 3B and Bobby Gould at SS, the natural way Drummond took to captaining the outfield, the almost superhuman endeavours of Green behind the plate who really bust a gut for five innings before being replaced by the equally steady hands of Belbin. I think between those two we have found a fantastic catching platoon. The sun hampered Hynes in left-field but he made valiant efforts to track down fly balls. We also had the pleasure of idly wondering if one of the several foul balls would wing it’s way onto the M27. If you ever fancy adding to your collection of baseballs the undergrowth betwixt hard shoulder and the ballpark will yield a rich harvest.
The mercy rule was invoked in the 7th with the Raptors a full 26 runs behind their opponents. There was a very brief hope that the relief pitcher who came up for the Mustangs might stink — unfortunately the 3 strikeouts he racked up indicate that he doesn’t! I think it’s a testament to the great spirit of the Raptors that every single one of them would have gladly played on until the end of the full 9 innings and there was not a single show of tension amongst the unit at any point during what many other teams would have found a trying day.
At the end we heartily congratulated the well deserved victors and also the plate umpire, who I have to add had a great day, but I suspect we all walked away knowing that sooner or later the Raptors are going to ‘click’. I have no doubt that in 2011 many of the team will be playing with the Hawks at AA level and when the other talent that we have within the roster becomes available then I confidently predict the Raptors will be winning more than they lose by midway through the season.
Next up is Chelmsford at home and I’ll warrant, with the applying of the lessons learnt at Southampton, that the scoreline will be a lot closer than 31-5.