The article was written by Oliver Mintz-Lowe and first appeared on britishbaseball.org
The Harlow Nationals sealed back-to-back NBL titles in only their second year in existence as they secured consecutive National Baseball Championship wins with a 6-3 victory over the Herts Falcons.
Two years in existence, two NBL National Baseball Championship titles – that’s the impressive resume of 2012 champions Harlow Nationals.
After winning it all last season in stunning fashion, the Nationals arguably achieved an even more impressive feat over the weekend by backing up their 2011 success with another championship, beating a strong Herts Falcons team in the final.
Harlow were always favourites after finishing in first place during the regular season, and played progressively better each time they took to the field. Their final win, in an entertaining high standard game, was an excellent advert for British baseball.
The eventual difference maker proved to be a pair of home runs from Jarrod Pretorius (2-3) and Maikel Azcuy (2-3) – two powerful hitters at the heart of Harlow’s line-up. Pitcher Robbie Almanzar, making his second start of the weekend, pitched a solid complete game to seal the win.
Number two seeds Herts Falcons undoubtedly played their part in the final, and certainly looked capable of winning to force a decider. British baseball stalwart Ryan Bird pitched better than his numbers suggested, and continued his excellent form with that bat, while explosive leadoff man Robbie Unsell was once again impressive at the top of the order.
Under the double elimination format the Nationals, coming into the contest with a 2-0 record, would only need to win one of two games. As the Falcons had one defeat to their name they would need to pick up two straight wins.
And while both teams got off to a confident start, it was Harlow that moved a step closer to the title thanks to Jarrod Pretorius’ first inning home run- his second of the weekend.
Herts did score first, however, when, not for the first time this weekend, Robbie Unsell and Ryan Bird (1-2, 2 RBI) combined to put a run on the board. After Unsell got aboard with a line drive single, the leadoff man stole second and advanced to third on a fly ball. Bird got the job done, knocking in the run on a groundout to put the Falcons in front.
But the lead was quickly reversed thanks to Pretorius’ three run shot. Leading off the inning, Robbie Almanzar hustled down the line to beat the throw and reach base on an error. George Lintern then laid down a perfect bunt to reach first, before Pretorious jumped on a 1-0 pitch to put the favourites into pole position.
And Pretorius backed up his fine batting with some excellent fielding in the very next inning, making an excellent diving stop at second base to assist with a double play, erasing Kevin Niedringhaus (2-3) after a leadoff single.
In the next couple of innings, the pitching remained tight, with both teams exchanging a run each. Herts pulled one back when Chris Hiche reached safely with a two out single, and ended up scoring on an error when right fielder George Lintern misplayed a fly ball. Brendan Cunliffe restored Herts two-run cushion when he drove in Azcuy in the very next inning.
The contest was tense, and there was nothing between the two top teams in the country. The Falcons once again made it a one run game when Chris Hiche and Ryan Bird hit back-to-back two-out doubles.
Bird was also turning in a strong performance on the mound to go with his two RBIs. But after striking out Edwin Alcantara for his eighth K of the contest, he ran into trouble in unfortunate circumstances. After Pretorious picked up a two-out scratch hit to barely keep the inning alive, Maikel Azcuy crushed the first pitch of his at bat over the left field wall and out of the yard for a two-run homerun.
This resulted in Jordan Farkas entering the game in relief, and he managed to throw 1.1 scoreless innings to keep Herts in with a sniff going into the 7th.
And the final inning certainly proved to be a tense one for Herts. Pinch-hitter Andy Cornish got aboard with a leadoff single followed by a five-pitch walk to Robbie Unsell, putting runners on first and second, with nobody out and the tying run at the plate. But Nationals pitcher Roberto Almanzar held his nerve, keeping his pitches down in the zone to induce a Chris Hiche ground ball. Azcuy tagged the lead runner, and calmly fired to Cunliffe who duly completed the crucial double play.
With two outs, Ryan Bird drew a walk to once again bring the tying run to the plate, and prolong the Nationals agony. But when right fielder Dan Parker nestled under a high fly ball from Darrin Ward, last year’s champions knew the National Baseball League trophy was staying in Harlow for another 12 months, and the celebrations could begin.
Harlow manager Marty Cullen said: “It’s a great reward for all the effort and hard work the guys have put in over the season.
“Today I thought we played much better defence, which has been our strength all year. We got a lead, and played really solid baseball to stay in front. That’s how we like to play and we managed to execute when it mattered.”
“It got a little tense at the end when they had two guys on with Ryan Bird on deck, but Robbie pitched great, stayed calm and we got the big double play.”