Herts Eagles 31-30 Herts Raptors, Grovehill, Sunday 12th May
How many runs do you need to lead by if you are to feel secure in a baseball game? Yesterday’s Herts derby didn’t give us a definitive answer, but we do know that it’s more than 17. Because that is the cushion which the Eagles had built up over their Single-A rivals by the end of the fifth inning. But it was not enough to prevent a nail-biting finale.
The game started badly for the home side, Duncan Hoyle’s Eagles, as missed chances and poor throws allowed the Raptors to rack up runs. Hoyle had to call in his fielders for a pep talk before a single out had been recorded, an illustration of how crucial this game was.
Raptors scored six in the first frame, but the Eagles quickly answered back with 5 against starting pitcher Jeff Witter. Mike Cresswell led off with a single, and after stealing bases he came home to score the first run. We will hear more of Cresswell later. By the end of the second inning, Eagles led by 15-6.
The Eagles had a Dominican debutante on the pitchers mound, Antony McDowell. He was making his first start for the club, though he clearly was no new boy to baseball. He kept the powerful Raptors bats in check and the defence tightened up behind him, so that for four consecutive innings the Raptors did not score a single run.
Rain had fallen a couple of times by the end of the fifth, when the score had reached 23-6, and heavy downpours had been forecast for late afternoon. It’s possible that minds on the Eagles bench were starting to turn towards a mercy rule victory, or even a convenient rainout now the game was official. Several of the starters had been subbed out to give playing time for the large squad.
Arnie Longboy’s Raptors, though, were far from giving up. As McDowell perhaps showed some signs of tiredness, the hits and the runs started to come. Theo Scheepers was a constant threat, and Longboy himself hit a long drive to the outfield. The highlight was a bases clearing triple by Brodie Caress — and he crowned his hit by coming home to score on an overthrow.
The Raptors scored an improbable 13 runs in the top of the sixth, and were down by just four. And the Eagles run rate had slowed dramatically since the early outburst. Caress had come in to pitch, and looked as if he could be in line for a remarkable win. Catcher Ken Pike helped cut down base-stealer with a laser throw to end an inning, and keep his team in the game.
The momentum was clearly with the Raptors. But now, with the rain falling steadily, the Eagles stood firm when they could have crumbled. Rory Hutchinson, new to the game of baseball, had been introduced at shortstop as part of the sixth-inning changes. He made back-to-back excellent stops to secure outs and save runs. In the wilds of right field, Adam Landau-Smithers made two heart-stopping snow-cone catches on fly balls drifting back towards the fence.
McDowell had got a second wind, and was perhaps determined not to see his remarkable effort go to waste. In all, he threw close to 250 pitches on the day. His efforts helped limit any further big onslaught from the Raptors, although they did take the lead. They were in front, 30-28, as the Eagles went in to bat in the bottom of the ninth. The stage was set.
The first man got on, stole second. And up stepped pinch hitter Adrian Smithers, last year’s home run champion. He’d not played since the first game of the season, but he came through with a drive down the third base line to bring in a run. He scored the tying run himself after Will Belbin continued his excellent form at the plate and got aboard.
And when lead-off man Mike Cresswell stepped in, Belbin was there on third base as the winning run waiting to score. Cresswell was calm, as if nothing was at stake. The crack of the bat was a clean sound and the ball sailed decisively out to the outfield. Arms aloft, Will Belbin crossed the plate. He was mobbed by a team which had its first win of the season in the most dramatic fashion.