written by Trevor Clissold for britishbaseball.org
The top four teams in the BBF’s National Baseball League are separated by just one game following sweeps for Herts, Harlow and London. Herts took the spoils in their top-of-the-table clash with the Southampton Mustangs and the lead at the top changed hands for the third time in three weeks.
Having earned a hard-fought split in their series with the defending champion Harlow Nationals on June 10, the Herts Falcons could have been forgiven for wanting an easier encounter than hosting the NBL-leading Southampton Mustangs the very next week. But following their sweep of the Mustangs, Herts will be elated at coming through with a 3-1 record against two of their biggest rivals in the standings.
Sam Dempster, Head Coach for the Great Britain National Team, was in the crowd on Sunday and everyone was keen to impress. And the visiting Mustangs got off to a fast start in Game 1 with some help from the Herts defense, who showed some early nerves.
Robbie Unsell was given the start on the mound for Herts and looked dominant initially, striking out the lead-off batter and getting ahead 0-2 against Alberto Rodriguez. But then things started to go wrong for Unsell as he threw four consecutive balls to walk Rodriguez before a wild pickoff attempt allowed him to progress to second base. Rodriguez then stole third before scoring on a ground-out by Victor Aizpurua to give the Mustangs an early 1-0 lead. This quickly became 2-0 on a home run from the very next batter, as Gary Davison lifted a 1-2 pitch over the left field fence. Despite issuing another walk to Marius Urbanavicius, who also stole second, Unsell managed to get out of the inning without any further damage.
Herts knew they would have to respond early and took full advantage of some wayward pitching by Mustangs starter Gary Davison. Robbie Unsell was hit by the very first pitch and reached third on a line drive double from Cristobal Hiche. Unsell would score on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Bird to halve the deficit, and then a series of errors from Southampton allowed Hiche, David Tretheway and Darrin Ward to follow Unsell across the plate as the Falcons began to take charge.
Herts added two more runs in the second inning to take a 6-2 lead and threatened to run away with the game.
But the Mustangs then showed why they were leading the NBL coming into this series. Justin Frosina started the comeback with a solo shot over the right field fence in the top of the third inning and Southampton tied the game at 6-6 an inning later.
Herts reacted by adding three runs of their own in the bottom of the fourth and moved five runs clear with two more in the fifth, but the scoring was far from over as the Mustangs came back again, scoring twice in the top of the sixth to keep the pressure on their hosts.
Despite this, it was Southampton who cracked, as the Falcons’ bats came to life in a big way with seven runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to force a mercy-rule victory. Herts had already scored three times when David Tretheway hit a two-run home run, leaving Robbie Unsell to deal the decisive blow with a two-RBI single to finish a breathtaking encounter.
“The final score did not tell the full story,” reflected Falcons Team Manager Lee Manning. “They’re a top team and the game was in the balance right up to the last inning.”
Ryan Bird (3-for-4, 4 RBIs) and David Tretheway (4-for-4, 1 HR, 4 RBIs) both starred with the bat while Robbie Unsell picked up the win along with three RBIs of his own.
Game 2 was a much tighter affair, as both sides settled down on defense to back up some solid pitching.
Just as in Game 1, it was Southampton who took an early 2-0 lead with runs in the first and second innings. Alberto Rodriguez took the mound for the Mustangs in Game 2 and was strong early on, holding the Falcons scoreless and allowing just three hits through the first three innings.
But mirroring Game 1 again, the Falcons’ bats came to life in the second half of the game and they lit up Rodriguez for nine runs on nine hits over the next two frames.
Darrin Ward allowed just four hits over the last five innings as he shut the Mustangs down to pick up the win and seal the sweep for Herts. Ward pitched a complete game, allowing two earned runs on seven hits and also went 4-for-4 with the bat to round out an excellent day. Ryan Bird also went 4-for-4 while Jeff House knocked in three runs on two hits.
Southampton Team Manager Ross Arieta was left to reflect on what might have been for the Mustangs. “Obviously, we are disappointed with our performance today,” he said. “Herts are a good team and we gave them too many outs to not be punished today.”
There will be no rest for Southampton though, as they look to return to the summit. “We play Harlow next week,” Arieta added, ”and we are looking forward to making amends for today.”
Herts Manager Lee Manning said, “They were the leaders coming into this game and we knew we needed two wins to overtake them. It was important for the standings to win both games today but it was also important for our momentum; it feels good to be back to winning ways. We have London next and it’s a really exciting time for the whole club. We feel better equipped this year to deal with the top teams, we recruited well both domestically and internationally, and there’s a sense of pride building throughout the club at AAA, AA and Single-A levels.”