The term “epic” is sometimes used to describe a game of baseball in order to highlight the enormity of the occasion, and we are sometimes guilty of overusing it. This afternoon’s AA quarter-final between the Herts Hawks and the Guildford Mavericks was truly epic and there is absolutely no risk of misrepresentation. It had everything – the grand slam, the catch at the outfield wall, the masterful pitching, the energy of the fans, the staring contest, the tense atmosphere, the rally call form the managers, the class acts, and more.
The Herts Hawks are a confident and laid back bunch and they probably would not admit it in public but there must have been a sense of uncertainty ahead of the game. They were about to face a team which has won all 17 of their games so far this season, a team which they had not seen before and which other teams and experts have described as “invincible”. To add to that, the Hawks were missing 9 players, including regular starting infielders Greg Bochan, Louis Hare and Seth Lipstock.
During the pre-game preparations news came in that there had been an emergency situation with the assigned independent umpire and therefore under the regulations in such circumstances the game was to be umpired by an official provided by the home team. There was a concern that in a game with everything at stake, the element of bias, or overcompensating against bias, may cause confrontation, but the Guildford umpires and Guildford’s officials deserve a lot of praise for managing the situation and umpiring with great integrity and impartiality. There will always be plays which are difficult for umpires to get absolutely right even in the multi-billion dollar Major League Baseball, but in terms of neutrality Herts Hawks will be the first to take their cap off to the Guildford officials.
The classy conduct by Guildford did not end there. The Hawks’ starting third-baseman, Andy Cornish, was delayed in traffic so he had to be taken out of the starting lineup card when it was officially exchanged in the official plate meeting between the two managers and the umpires. Cornish arrived just a few minutes after that as the game was getting under way and under MLB rule 4.01 (c) the only way for him to enter the game is if an official substitution is made which would have meant that the Hawks would not be able to use the substituted player for the rest of the day. Once again Guildford acted with admirable sportsmanship and their Manager, Tony Oliva, without any hesitation allowed the starting lineup to be amended. Technically, the Hawks had sufficient grounds to request that the start of the game is delayed (up to 30 minutes under BBF rules) but once the lineup cards were exchanged the amendment of the lineup would not have been possible without Guildford’s waiver.
FULFORD GETS THE “BARRY BONDS” TREATMENT
The Hawks got off to a strong start against Mavericks starter, Tetsuro Shinkawa. In the top of the first Paul Auchtelounie and Tim Elkins reached base with a walk and a single, respectively. With one out, up stepped Herts catcher Andrew Fulford. Guildford Manager, Tony Oliva, must have seen enough from Fulford during batting practice to convince him that he is a major threat and he instructed his pitcher and catcher to walk him intentionally loading the bases. It is only players like Barry Bonds that receive this level of respect. With the bases loaded Andy Cornish worked a walk for the first run of the game. Rod Naghar then got the sacrifice fly to give the Hawks an early 2-0 lead.
In the second inning Andrew Fulford stepped up for his second plate appearance of the game, but this time the bases were loaded. Shinkawa decided to pitch to him. With a count of 3 balls and 1 strike Fulford blasted the ball high up into the sky and over the left field fence for a grand slam (a video of the grand slam will be available to view shortly). This was his second home run of the postseason.
The score was 6-0 but the Mavericks didn’t let their heads drop. They had adopted a “small ball” strategy with a combination of aggressive base running and bunting. Their aggressive running strategy was quickly stopped by the arm of catcher Fulford who threw out 2 runners during the game. Despite this they struck back with 2 hits and took advantage of a fielding error by the Hawks to make the score 6-3. They were back in the game now. Herts scored 2 in the 4th inning to make it 8-3, but Guildford were always threatening.
THE SPAGHETTI-WESTERN STARING CONTEST
In the 5th inning the fans became witnesses to something which they may never see again on a baseball field. Fulford had advanced to third base and he was looking to distract Guildford’s relief pitcher, Owen Hazelby, with claps of encouragement for team mate Rodney Naghar who stepped up for his at bat. It is customary for runners to try to put doubt into the minds of the fielders and the pitcher by taking an unusual lead, kicking dirt or attracting attention in any other possible way. This usually isn’t noticed by spectators as the pitcher stays focused on their role and delivers the pitch, but on this occasion Hazelby appeared to freeze on the rubber in the “stretch” position. He stood motionless for what seemed like an eternity. After 20 or 30 seconds of everyone at the field standing still, batter Rod Naghar called time as it is not realistic to expect someone to hold the bat in the air for such a long time. The pitcher stepped off the rubber and everyone was starting to return to their positions not very clear on what had just happened. Everyone was ready in their positions again but Hazelby once again stood still in the “set” position.
It was becoming clear to players and fans that Guildford’s pitcher did not want to throw the pitch until Andrew Fulford stops clapping his hands. After another 20-30 seconds of Hazelby standing in his “set” position, Andrew said quietly in the direction of the pitcher “I can do this all day” to which the pitcher responded with words to the effect of “I can do this all day too”, which in fact is not legal. Under MLB rule 8.05 (h) when “the pitcher unnecessarily delays the game” a “balk is awarded when there are runners on base”. In this situation a balk would have resulted in Andrew Fulford advancing form third base to score a run. This is a rule which does not come into effect very often so the umpires could be forgiven for not calling a balk. But the effect was that this turned into a staring contest, a shoot out in a spaghetti-western movie. Who will blink first? Andrew Fulford certainly had no legal obligation to stop clapping. This may have been a minor incident which had no direct effect on the outcome of the game and both players would probably have dropped the issue. However, in the context of a highly-charged elimination game this was about not displaying any weaknesses at a critical time of the game. The Hawks bench didn’t want to leave their team mate alone in this psychological battle, so they joined him in clapping and shouting words of encouragement for batter Rod Naghar who was waiting for the pitch to be delivered.
The Guildford fans on the other side of the field also felt they needed to show support for their player and this created a noisy and tense atmosphere – a bizarre scene of every player in the field standing still, endlessly waiting for the pitcher to throw the ball under a crescendo of noise. After a minute or so of this spectacle, Owen Hazelby finally threw the pitch to get a pop-up in the infield for the third out to a standing ovation from the home fans.
The incident fired up both teams, but it was Guildford who were more in need of a boost so they ended up as the beneficiary. They came out firing in the bottom of the 5th. They may have had only 2 hits in that inning but they did enough to force Herts to commit 3 errors and score 4 runs reducing the Hawks’ lead to 1 run. Herts starting pitcher, Nic Goetz, was still going strong but the fielding errors meant that he had to find that little bit extra to get out of this inning with Herts still in the lead. The Guildford fans could sense their team was truly back in the game now.
It was the turn of Hawks’ co-manager, Andy Cornish, to gather his team for a team talk and to get his team back in the game. Ho achieved an immediate response. With two outs, a single by Jim Arnott and a walk and steal for Tim Elkins put runners on second and third base. Up stepped Jon Lewys. Failure at the plate would have ended the inning and given the Mavericks a further boost. But Lewys delivered one of the most important hits of the season. He sent the ball deep into the outfield for a 2-run ground-rule-double. He was then driven home by an Andrew Fulford single. 3 runs were scored in that inning, all with 2 outs. The momentum was shifting back in favour of Herts. They added another run in the 8th inning after a single by Andy Cornish.
Going into the 8th inning and having thrown 100 pitches, Nic Goetz was relieved. His performance was outstanding allowing only 1 earned run through 7 innings.
In came pitcher Nick Russell. He has been one of the team’s most reliable pitchers all season and he delivered once again for the Hawks. He pitched two innings allowing no runs, no hits and only 1 walk. He received support from his teammates, including an amazing diving catch by catcher Andrew Fulford in foul territory and a catch at the wall by Paul Auchterlounie which was headed for a homerun.
The Hawks won it 12-7 and are now heading home for the Semi-Final next Saturday as the British Baseball community prepares for the deciding weekend of the National Baseball Championships on 25-27 August at Grovehill Ballpark in Herts.
Hawks Manager, Andy Cornish, said: “Today was excellent baseball. Everyone contributed in key moments. There was a moment where the momentum had shifted, but we dug deep and I think we wanted to win the game more. I want to thank Aspi, Kal and Slater for their excellent work as the coaches, and also Guildford for supplying some tough opposition. We have to reset now, and want the title as much as we wanted to win today’s game. We also welcome back a few key players, so I am looking forward to a weekend of tireless and emotive baseball.”