written by hertsbaseball.com correspondent Ken Pike
Across the sporting world rivalries are borne from close proximity. Either geographical proximity such as football’s Arsenal v Tottenham derby, or from proximity of ability or regular competition such as England v Australia in the Ashes. In our neck of the sporting world a new rivalry has sprung up this year arising from not one, but both of these factors. The Herts Eagles have risen phoenix-like from a one year sabbatical to enter the Single-A division joining the traditional Herts entry, the Raptors.
As far as proximity goes the two teams are from the same club and play on the same fields, so you can’t get any closer. However on competitiveness, there had been a conscious Herts board choice to pick the Raptors team to create a pennant chasing side while the Eagles would be grounds for blooding new players and providing experience and game time to those who could develop over time. As is often the case however, reality bears out a little difference from expectation.
The first game between these two minor league teams was as hotly contested as it was anticipated. The Raptors played the ‘home side’ for this meet having played only two of their regular season fixtures so far thanks to rain delays, forfeits and unfortunate scheduling. Conversely the Eagles had fared better with six games under their belt, including three wins. As a result they had built up some confidence and experience in some of the new young prospects, and more importantly, regular game time for the whole team.
The opening innings were set to be pitched by two of these very bright young prospects for the club with the Raptors promising star Zack Longboy taking the mound while young newcomer William Zucker started for the Eagles.
The first inning saw Zac dominate the mound retiring the first batter with a strikeout. Craig La Roux reached base after being hit by a pitch, but was out the very next play after a bouncer from Theo Scheeper’s bat went straight to second baseman Ken Pike forcing out La Roux on the fielders choice. Shortly after power hitter Reagan Wood grounded out to end the inning with a zero on the board.
By return the powerful bats of the Raptors make the first dent with a mixture of hits and walks bringing four runners home with a nervy start from Will leading to a balk and some errors before he settled into a groove. Singles from Brodie Caress, Gilberto Medina, and Jake Caress were added to by four walks, a fielding error and a balk.
The second inning was a much closer affair. Zack Longboy’s pitching however remained impervious to Eagles attack to result in clean inning number two. The Raptors only added one run courtesy of a Glen Downer double scoring John Kjorstad before the Eagles retired the side.
The third inning saw the Eagles bounce back with three runs courtesy of strong running from Senna Ashida and Craig La Roux topped off by a big double from Reagan Wood. The Raptors had tagged on another single to keep the gap at three runs before the Raptors defence clamped up again and put the Eagles out of business for the next three innings, while adding three more of their own.
To keep the game close the Eagles brought in relief pitcher Theo Scheepers who had a good three innings keeping the Raptors pegged at eight while the Eagles added one run in the top of the seventh.
The eighth inning however proved the final undoing of the Eagles as the Raptors changed up a gear. While the titing, but still impressive pitching from Zack closed out all but one run (which only reached courtesy of a fielding error), doubles from Gilberto Medina and Brodie Caress helped tack a further six to open up a gap just shy of requiring an early mercy rule finish to the game.
This proved too big a gap for the eagles to overcome with two ground outs and a stealing runner beaten by the tag thanks to an immaculate throw from catcher Ben Marques. the final inning resulted in the sixth zero on the board for young star Zack Longboy resulting not just in him being the game MVP, but provided the best performance by a Herts pitcher in a Single-A league game.
In the end that pitching performance and a near impervious Raptors defence (only three errors in total) left precious few chances for the Eagles. On the other half of the inning, the Raptors batting line-up gave the Eagles pitchers no gaps in which to find respite by combining the impressive power hitters Ben Marques, Glen Downer, Gilberto Medina and John Kjorstad with the consistent and speedy base presences of the Caress family, Arnie Longboy, and Ken Pike.
That is not to say the Eagles were impotent by any means. Both young starting pitcher William Zucker with three strikeouts, and reliever Theo Scheepers pitched calmly and impressively showing signs of great things to come, while powerful hits by Scheepers and Reagan Wood were matched by several strong performances around the lineup, notably several great catches from young outfielder Senna Ashida. The Eagles have already matched the Raptors record from the previous year with two games left (including bottom of the table Braintree Rays) and look set for great things to come.
Herts Raptors Manager, Arnie Longboy, commented after the game: “I am really proud of how everyone on the team contributed to the win. As a manager I was particularly proud of how we excelled on the fundamentals of base running – manufacturing runs when we needed them and limiting fielding errors to a season low of 3. As a father I was proud of how Zack not only pitched but also played all aspects of the position from fielding to keeping base runners in check. We won’t have our Ace for our next game but this should test our mettle as a team and I expect us to do well.”
Eagles Manager, Duncam Hoyle, said: “We went into the game believing we had a good chance of winning but the Raptors reminded us why they are the Raptors and we are the Eagles. In general I thought we played well, especially defensively but we couldnt get our offense going – mainly due to the excellent pitching display by Zack. The Raptors made few mistakes and were very clinical in everything they did. Once again we had a lot of positives to take from the game, I was delighted to be able to give Will Zucker his first start from the mound and I thought he was superb. The defeat does hurt but we will bounce back”
This derby, one of the closest of rivalries, played out in the best weather that British baseball could offer, on one of the best fields in the country, provided a true classic. Perhaps the skills on display were no match for the ‘big brother’ National League Falcons, but, much as the English football team are proving in Ukraine and Poland, a little heart and a lot of passion can go a long way. A dominant win…but by no means a blowout. A game which will surely become unmissable in Herts calendars.
(The result brings Herts Raptors to a .500 record with two wins and two losses while the Eagles sit on 0.429 with 3 wins and 4 losses.)