As the baseball season entered the month of July, the battle for the postseason playoffs is simmering nicely. In the AA League the top two teams in Pool B South met at the ballpark in Enfield for a colossal double header. The Sidewinders were sitting on top of the standings, just one game ahead of the second-placed Herts Hawks.
The Hawks opened the game with a single and a double by Louis Hare and Jon Lewys, respectively. Andy Cornish was walked to load the bases with 2 outs but the Sidewinders pitcher managed to get out of that bases-loaded jam without any damage.
Nick Russell was the starting pitcher for the Hawks and he responded by retiring the Sidewinders on 3 fly outs. Both pitchers kept putting zeros up on the scoreboard through the first 4 innings. Russell was very effective allowing only 2 hits over that period. This was turning into a classic pitching duel and both teams were showing why they are top of the AA standings.
Herts drew first blood in the fifth inning. Paul Auchterlounie hit a single up the middle and stole second. He was followed by Jon Lewys who drove him in to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.
The Sidewinders responded swiftly putting together their first real offensive rally of the day with 3 doubles and 2 singles to take a 3-1 lead. Herts sprung into action. A sacfly by Ralph Bartholomew brought home Andy Cornish and Kal Dimitrov somehow managed to beat out a ground ball to bring his brother Aspi Dimitrov home to tie the game and go into the final inning with a score of 3-3.
In that final inning Louis Hare got on base on an error. The next two Herts batters managed to move Hare to third base, but there were now two outs with big-hitting Andy Cornish coming up next. The Sidewinders called a mound conference and their first baseman, Bruce Dullea, provided some valuable inside information having played for and managed the Herts Falcons in 2005, 2006 and 2007. He alerted his team mates that Cornish is a dangerous batter and they decided to pitch around him to walk him and face Aspi Dimitrov instead who was playing in his first game after being on the DL for the last 10 months with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Dimitrov hit a 2-out single to left-centerfield driving two runs in to make the score 5-3.
Could the Sidewinders come back from this in the bottom of the last inning? Two singles and two stolen bases brought one run in. It was now 5-4 with the tying run at third and 1 out. Nick Russell was still on the mound and he needed to use every ounce of energy he had left to keep the runner on third from scoring. The only way to guarantee this was to make sure that batters did not make contact with the ball and that’s exactly what he did. He took the next 2 batters to full count and struck out both of them leaving the tying run on third base and securing a priceless win for Herts.
Nick Russell will get the praise, and rightly so, but it is also worth noting that he had tremendous support from the whole team who played errorless defence.
In game two the Sidewinders put their ace pitcher, Tadaaki, on the mound looking for revenge. He had a no-hitter earlier in the year and he showed why. Consistent control and change of speed make him a very awkward pitcher to face. The Hawks were having real problems making solid contact. Tadaaki was pitching a perfect game (no hits, no walks) in the first 5 innings of the second game. On top of that the Hawks had a very sloppy start of the game. They committed 3 errors and allowed 5 runs to score in the top of the first inning. 4 of the 5 runs were unearned (i.e. resulting from the fielding errors). The Hawks defence recovered after that and managed to give starting pitcher, Greg Bochan, the support he needed. The team was working efficiently again and Bochan was pitching a gem. They allowed only 1 run in the next 6 innings, but the big challenge was to find a way to score runs against pitcher Tadaaki.
Into the top of the 6th and a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Seth Lipstock, who had a great game at third base, ended Tadaaki’s perfect game with a lead-off single. Kal Dimitrov followed with a single of his own. With 2 outs, Lipstock came around to score as Andy Cornish and Louis Hare got on base on fielding errors. Both Cornish and Hare scored after an infield hit by Aspi Dimitrov and an error throw. That reduced the deficit to 6-3.
Into the final inning Tadaaki was still going strong. Despite a single from Greg Bochan, Tadaaki completed the game in style with a groundout and two strikeouts.
After the games Hawks co-manager, Andy Cornish, said: “Today, was a great game of baseball and very enjoyable to be in such a contest. We played against very good opposition, and shown that we can play with the top teams in this league, even with a depleted side. We have some more tough opposition to come, but with the way that we played today I am encouraged about our chances in pushing forward to the playoffs. Today, we played great baseball for 13 out of the 14 innings, and next time we will do so in every inning, there is no doubt in my mind.”
Today’s games emphasised just how hotly contested the title race is in the AA league. With the Daws Hill Spitfires and the London Mammoths picking up wins today it looks like the playoff race will go down to the wire. In the words of Manchester United Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, it is “squeaky bum time”. The Hawks remain one game behind the Sidewinders, but they are now third after the Mammoths jumped above them. The focus is now on the next Hawks game on Sunday, 8 July, against the Pool A leaders Guildford Mavericks who are still unbeaten with a 14-0 record so far this season. The game will be played at Grovehill Ballpark in Hemel Hempstead. First pitch 12:00pm.