This article written by Michael Jones and Oliver Mintz-Lowe was first published on britishbaseball.org
With both sides having won the previous day, they each had the pleasure of a 10am start at Grovehill, with the winners guaranteed of a place in tomorrow’s final and the losers having a few hours to recover before a final elimination game later in the afternoon. And it was the defending champions who would get the best rest heading into the National Baseball League NBC final following a strong batting display.
The Harlow Nationals sent 2011 NBL NBC MVP Jamie Ratcliff to the mound as the youngster sought to bolster his ever expanding credentials against Herts Falcons stalwart and British baseball legend Darrin Ward.
Both sides came out swinging, as would be expected from the top two seeds during the regular season. In the last match-up the two teams split their series and things remained evenly placed throughout the early stages of this crucial encounter.
Ryan Bird hit a long double in the first to score Robbie Unsell but a slip at third base stranded the Herts’ catcher and the Nationals headed to the batter’s box just a solitary run behind their hosts. George Lintern drove Robbie Almanzar home, but was himself picked off by a great move from Ward. However, free-swinging Edwin Alcantara stroked a double from off his nose and crossed the plate when Jarrod Pretorius found a gap along the third baseline, providing the Nationals with the early advantage.
But the lead changed hands once again as Ward capped a five-run rally with a two-run double to right field after some excellent hustle on the base paths forcing some mistakes on the infield. The game threatened to become another run-fest in the NBL competition and four runs from the Nationals, led by doubles from catcher Will Lintern and shortstop Luis Goncalves, tied it up at six apiece but a great grab at third base by Kevin Niedringhaus and quick arm to second turned two to end the offensive onslaught.
Ratcliff managed to post the first zero of the game as things quietened down in the third. Although he issued the first two walks of the game, it amounted to nothing and his batters set to work on restoring the lead. With the bases full, Goncalves blooped into centre field in what would be Ward’s last action on the mound as Unsell got the Falcons home just one behind.
Two fantastic plays by the young shortstop kept his former club off the board and helped maintain their slender advantage, and the Nationals padded the lead by scoring a couple of Falcons fielding mistakes. But that was reduced as the Nationals followed Goncalves’s neat double-play with a couple of errant throws and the Falcons were back within touching distance having clawed their way back. However, the Herts bats couldn’t escape the GB Under-23’s glove on the infield and he ended the frame having turned all three outs en route to an MVP performance.
Unsell may have felt the momentum was with his side, but with two outs, big-hearted third baseman Maikel Azcuy had three Herts’ fielders sprawling on a double to the fence that knocked in two and restored the big lead. Brendan Cunliffe came in to relieve Ratcliff and quickly got ahead in the game to pick up the crucial save. Two pop-ups either side of a Niedringhaus double that would come round to score meant, heading into the bottom of the sixth, the Nationals remained a couple ahead.
The Herts pitcher, having loaded the bases on a couple of walks and hitting George Lintern on the back, was relieved by Bird, with Unsell picking up the pieces behind the plate, but the second pitch passed by his new catcher and allowed Will Lintern to come home, before Bird hit both Alcantara and Pretorius on consecutive pitches to force in another. Four runs behind now, the dangerous Azcuy at the plate, Unsell missed another for Aaron Webster to cross and the game was getting away from the hosts in a big way. Azcuy couldn’t put anyone else over and a line-out to right fielder Phil Clark got the Falcons out of a messy frame to try to come back with their bats.
Cunliffe again made use of his fielders with two quick outs, and the long save was wrapped up with Azcuy firing across the diamond to Pretorius at first base, Ward the unlucky batter.
In making six errors over the morning game, the Nationals only conceded one earned run (the score in the first frame), but they marginally out-hit the Falcons and looked much the stronger side in the box.
Nationals manager Marty Cullen said “It feels good again like yesterday, but if you look on the board there’s six errors and that’s not why we’re the number one seed. I think we’ve given up fewer runs than anybody this season and we’ve played really good defence – the past two days we haven’t. Fortunately the bats have come alive at the right time of year, which is where we’ve struggled in the past. In the really low-scoring games we’ve pitched really well and played defence extremely well, and today it seemed that we did everything pretty well but our defence.
“Brendan’s one of the best pitchers in the league – he doesn’t throw 90mph like he did in college, but he’s smart with what he has and when you get to the bottom of the final inning with a little bit of a lead, well for me he’s the one you want to see up there. Jamie threw really well and at times he had to get four or five outs in an inning because of the errors, but he was dealing. His breaking ball was breaking late and it had some juice on it.
“Luis Goncalves is one of the best raw talents in the league. He has been since he was 14 years old, and he gets baseball. He doesn’t get fazed at all on the big stage and if he can get to a ball then you know he’s going to get to it,” he concluded, before suggesting that yesterday’s starter, Robbie Almanzar, would be a favoured option on the mound for tomorrow’s final. Although to keep opponents guessing, he added: “You may even see me up there!”