Life has been getting much much better for the Herts Raptors recently. There were two strong performances against the Old Timers, then a long-awaited victory against Tonbridge. This week, there was a re-run of the good performance. But the final score was a repeat of the 16-15 defeat to the Old Timers, once again on a walk-off hit.
The wind blew hard across the field at Braintree, and clouds occasionally threatened rain, but two sides who have had their struggles this season matched up well. Both pitchers recorded a clean first inning, with their defenses making the plays smoothly. Then in the second Ken Pike started the scoring for the visitors, with a walk and a steal before being driven in by Senna Ashida. He was then brought home, along with Jose Morillo, by shortstop Chris Deacon’s double to right field. The Raptors had a 3-0 lead.
It looked as if the Rays would answer right back. Their first two batters in the bottom of the second came around to score. But Theo Scheepers picked up his first strikeout of the day, and the Raptors fielders again kept it tight. With runners on first and second, Jose Morillo ended the threat by grabbing a sharp line drive at second base.
The top of the Herts order led off the third inning, and it did all you could ever ask really. Chris Deacon got aboard for the third time, and was driven home by right-fielder Duncan Hoyle’s single to left. John Kjorstad was next to get a hit, then up stepped Glen Downer, the clean-up hitter. The first baseman had already clouted a double to centre, but the Rays came right after him, and he hit right back. Again, it went deep to centre but this one was wayyy back. There is no fence at Braintree but with Hoyle and Kjorstad already safe at home, Downer was heading for third and showed no sign of stopping. He didn’t need to. He crossed home plate standing up for a three-run inside-the-park homer.
Downer was also part of a second offensive explosion, in the top of the sixth inning. He scored his third run of the day, while Theo Scheepers finally had some luck with his big bat, and third baseman Ken Pike also scored his third run. The Raptors now had 15 on the scoreboard and a 10-run lead. But the problem was that the Rays hit back in the bottom of the sixth, batting around to score 7 runs of their own.
And this might be where the crucial moments of the ball-game occurred. The Raptors needed to extend their lead if they were to be comfortable in the closing stages of this game. Substitute right fielder Tak Ashida led off the inning well with a double. But while Rob Jones was at the plate, Ashida tried to swipe third base. The Braintree reliver was a hard thrower, and the catcher had shown he had an arm which was strong if not always accurate. On this occasion, they combined perfectly to cut down the runner.
Jones battled on, and drove the ball over the head of the first baseman to right field. But he, too, had too much fire in the blood. An attempt to stretch the hit into a double was doomed, and he was tagged out in a clumsy collision at second base. Glen Downer took a walk, but there was little the Raptors could do to recover this one, and they ended the inning without scoring.
The Rays replied with their biggest hit of the day, a triple deep to centre. But they were held to just one run in the bottom of the inning, so the Raptors had a final chance to tack on runs. It was their first nine inning game of the year, and it was going to be tight. Pike reached again, and Senna Ashida reached again (he would make just one out from six plate appearances on the day). After a strikeout, catcher Oz Kemal drew a walk and the bases were loaded. But the Rays’ reliever was up to the task. A second strikeout left the runners frozen, and a final flyout left the Herts side empty handed again.
They now had to defend a 15-13 lead in the bottom of the final frame. Theo Scheepers was in for the complete game, and had shown a lot of fight to keep his side in front, giving up just five walks despite the high winds. The first Braintree batter hit a single, and stole unforgivingly to score on a groundout. One run in, one man out, but that ratio was not going to work for Herts this week. Another hit, more steals, and then a walk laid the table for the decisive blow. Braintree got the final hit they needed to walk off as winners, 16-15.
It was a painful defeat, but it must also be seen as a welcome change from the overwhelming defeats early in the season. Manager Ken Pike — who had a 3-for-5 day with a pair of RBIs – has seen the team grow in confidence and ability during the season. This was the second time in three games that the Raptors had lost by just one run, and a walk-off at that. The third game of the three was a convincing win. The season still holds the return fixtures against Braintree and Tonbridge, so hopes are high that the Herts Raptors can put another win on the 2011 record.