By Ken Pike
What a difference a month makes in baseball. On the third weekend in May the Raptors had just suffered the second defeat in a row levelling their record at 2-2 after what had been a very promising start to the season. Errors had plagued the team, and while part of the damage came from notable absences of the younger members having to undergo end of year exams, the remaining players had to admit at the time that lapses of concentration had cost them dearly. Playoffs still seemed a very long way away and it was clear that no more mistakes could be tolerated if those were to ever become reality.
Fast forward four games and victories against league leading London Marauders, the solid Redbacks, a dominant performance over the 2Sox, and vengeance against their sister team the Eagles had restored their position at joint top of Single A Pool A and revitalised faith in their abilities. What’s more, the manner of victories had also been resounding – four straight mercy rule games, with a significant drop in error rates, and impressive pitching performances.
Yet much more was to come. Despite the continued success there was no light between their Pool opponents the MK Coyotes and the next few games saw them face 2 pool leaders (including MK), a team that could top their pool if they won their games in hand, and a series of teams all with winning records. First up, the Haverhill Blackjacks, a team that had suffered a rocky start to the season before notable acquisitions from the local US Airforce base had significantly improved their fortunes with rumours of a near unbeatable pitching/catching partnership.
The first inning started with a touch of the shakes for Herts. A couple of fielding errors led to three unforced runs scoring for the Haverhill team, but the Raptors had seen far worse starts turn to victory and were barely phased by that. The Raptors offense is rapidly making a name for itsself having outscored every other team in the league by 50 runs over the season. The bottom half of the first saw Ken Pike get on base and test the fabled visiting battery early on with a steal to second. A hit moved him to second before he took his opportunity on a pass ball. In what was a close play the pitcher made the mistake of stepping over the plate into the path of the 13 stone Raptors catcher. The wind promptly knocked out of him, the ball was no-where near a glove and the home team were on the scoreboard. Only one more runner would score to bring the game back to one.
The second inning saw the Raptors defence hit their stride. Young Will Zucker was cutting through the Haverhill lineup and a series of powerful plays saw the side retired without further score. The bottom half of the inning saw a significant change of pace. Perhaps the pitcher had suffered slightly from his collision, or perhaps the batters had taken heart from the fact the battery wasn’t as dangerous as they had heard. Either way they batted around the order nearly twice with 13 runners scoring before the side was retired (not before Haverhill had gone through two pitchers and descended into a full blown on the pitch argument with themselves). No fancy homeruns required for the home team, just a solid on base percentage with the youthful and fast side making the most of any opportunity to advance.
The third inning saw Will Zucker swapped for the equally young Brodie Caress on the mound, but little else changed. One Blackjack came around before the side was retired, barely denting the Raptors lead of 12. Said lead was promptly restored in the bottom of the inning, but not with quite as much aplomb as the previous inning. Three runners scored – a lead of 14 runs. Sadly not without loss of limb (though thankfully not life.) The cursed first base on the old Grovehill diamond had struck again as Warwyk Byrne landed awkwardly on his hand while returning to first on a pickoff attempt adding a broken finger to the long list of Herts players having suffered in the same position (Duncan Hoyle, Ken Pike, Rob Jones, Joe Osborne-Brade etc etc etc).
Brodie’s performance on the mound continued into the fourth too, this time retiring the side in rapid progression, the first two batters departing within 3 pitches. A walk later the fourth batter went for a simple fly out with barely 15 pitches having passed all inning. Again, another 3 Raptors runs were added stretching the team’s lead to 21-4.
With clouds looming the fifth inning proved more exciting. Caress’ arm was clearly tiring and despite him comfortable lead some of the accuracy had departed. Six runs from Haverhill gave them a fighting chance but they still had work to do to overcome the mercy rule which loomed within two innings. Sadly for the away team, their work should have started on defence in the bottom of the fifth. Instead the Raptors went to town again putting the game well beyond doubt, going around the order again plating 10 more runs to extend the lead to 31-10.
As the sixth started an increasing rainfall started to play havoc with Caress’ accuracy before the heavens opened deluging the field sending both teams heading for umbrellas as umpire Adrian Smithers called for a rain timeout of 5 minutes. Those minutes passed without change for the better and the game was called with a result being called and Havehill’s score being pulled back to the end of the fifth. End result 31-10.
Raptors manager Arnie Longboy praised another great performance: “I think our offense had another explosive game against a tough opponent. I want to be sure though that we can keep up the momentum for our next two opponents. Sony Lama continued his hot hitting streak with two singles, a double, triple – just missing the cycle by a homerun. Jim Arnott’s production also carried over with a team season high seven RBI’s . And of course Ken Pike added to his team lead in stolen bases with another 3.”
The Raptors have now convincingly demolished the leaders of both other pools, and thanks to the Coyotes – Marauders game being postponed by two weeks they now sit top of their group by a half game. They face MK in two weeks, and suddenly the resurgence of faith and potential has turned into a serious charge for the end season. No predictions can be made in what is a very close fight to the finish in all the pools, but whoever wins that game will be strong favourites to finish top of their group. That said, that might make little difference the second team in pool A will be very strong candidates for the first of the three wildcard spots. What will matter however is pride, bragging rights, belief, and above all, momentum.