The batter hits a flare to shallow right field. Second base goes back, and back, but can’t get it and the ball drops. The runner digs for second but the right fielder makes a perfect throw, and the shortstop is waiting to apply the tag. And that is how the Raptors won their first game of the season.
But there was so much more involved in the four and a half hours leading up to that moment, and so much more in the three months and the ten games since the season started. A 37-23 victory over the Tonbridge Bobcats capped off a process of battling, and learning, and wrestling the game of baseball to a point where the Raptors could win, and win well.
The game started with two relatively tight innings. The visiting Raptors showed patience at the plate, with Arnold Longboy and Duncan Hoyle each taking a walk, and scoring a run on steals and pass balls. The Bobcats did manage a scatter of early hits against Ken Pike, but then either struck out or were dealt with by the defense. After two innings, it was 8-6 to the home side.
Then the Raptors put themselves on the right side of a “big inning” for once. All season, a single meltdown had undone good work by the Herts rookies. Now, they took their bats and pummelled the game into the shape they wanted it. Right fielder Will Belbin led off with a hit and eventually scored twice in the inning. Arnie Longboy took two of his six walks to score two of his seven runs on the day, the highest total on the team. And newly recruited slugger Glen Downer began a series of towering hits which menaced the Bobcats all day. The Raptors batted around twice and scored 13 runs.
Tonbridge had little reply, getting just two hits off Pike in the next inning, and tacking on just a few runs each time to their total. There were pitching changes and conferences, but it all became academic once the Herts bats opened up again in the fifth inning. The rookies had shown both patience and confidence at the plate, an ideal combination. After using early walks to manufacture runs, there were now big hits too. Shortstop Theo Scheepers got two doubles in the inning, while Rob Jones got his third and fourth hits and catcher Oz Kemal scored his fourth run.
The Raptors reliever on the mound now was Jose Morillo, a graduate of the Herts Little League. He blew away the first batter he saw, and persevered through the heat and the pressure heaped on him to finish off the game. Tonbridge put up their best score in the final inning, with Shaun Dary even getting a home run to make his 4-for-5 figures look more gaudy. But all the time the game was ebbing away from them, with Herts defending a commanding lead and giving up runs to secure outs.
In the end there was that flare to right field, and the throw from Belbin to Scheepers, and the celebrations. On a baking hot day in Kent this had been a strong team performance to secure the deserved victory. The manager-of-record for the season, Ken Pike, scored five runs to go with his four strikeouts to help his own cause and secure the big W. John Kjorstad, who has taken over game-day duties, even managed to come off the DL and take part with a hit. There were still fielding errors and baserunning misadventures, because this is still British single-A baseball. But there was relief and delight for the Raptors to break their duck and take the win. Credit goes to the Tonbridge Bobcats who have also had a long and tough season against more powerful teams — they played this game in a tremendous spirit and battled right to the end with a lot of heart.
The rest of the Herts club extended congratulations to the rookies for their win. At some point in the season, both the Falcons and the Hawks had found themselves looking longingly at the Win column, and in time, they both managed to put some numbers in it. This weekend, they both played hard and took games to extra innings, but were ultimately denied. The Hawks lost 18-2 but then 12-11 to the Latin Boys in the AA-division. By the end of the day, the travelling Hawks had only eight players so the result was even more creditable. The Falcons went down 9-5 to the Essex Arrows in their first game before taking them to extras in a tighter second half of the double-header. Falcons scored five to surge ahead in the fourth inning, but were pegged back and then could not hang on to a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh. After a scoreless eighth, Essex snatched the win 9-8 after nine.