Falcons and Nationals keep fans on the edge of their seats in a thriller at Grovehill Ballpark

The Falcons came out of the dust as the winners, but the Nationals deserve a lot of credit for a fantastic game of baseball (photo by Richard Lee richardleephotography.org)

written by Cristobal Hiche

BRILLIANT! That’s the only way to describe two well played games both of which were literally decided on the last pitch. More importantly, Falcons came away with two important wins, keeping them on top of the National Baseball League.

NBL (Game1) Herts Falcons 3 Harlow Nationals 2 (click to view box scores)

The first game was an MLB classic with a pitching duel by veteran and All-Star Michael Osborn for Herts and Marty Cullen Jr.’s debut against the Falcons. It was not meant to be an easy task against a powerful Falcons lineup but Cullen Jr. managed to give up only 3 hits in 5 and two-third innings. Unfortunately for him, Osborn again grabbed the spotlight with another pitching gem, despite the Nationals taking a lead with an unearned run in the top of the 3rd inning after two unexpected errors by the Falcons defence. Herts reacted quickly in the bottom of the inning. Marty Jr. with 2 outs lost a bit of concentration and hit Cris Hiche. A wild pitch and an error by 2B Matt Gilbert extended the inning. With men on 1st and 3rd the always dangerous Jordan Farkas came to the plate and punished the Nats with a 2-run double to put the Falcons in the lead. The great pitching duel continued but Cullen Jr. made a small but costly mistake at the end. In the bottom of the 5th he walked Robbie Unsell to start the inning. Falcons needed the insurance run so they were aggressive with Robbie stealing second and then third base. Cullen Jr looked to end the inning by striking out Cris Hiche but with 2 outs Ryan Bird was able to bring the run home with a double. Harlow needed to react but with a man on 1st and 1 out, Osborn turned up the heat and struck out the next two batters. The Nationals were following Yogi Berra’s quote “it ain’t over till it’s over”, determined to try and get a lead in the last inning with the top of the batting order coming to the plate. Falcons looked poised to win with Roberto Almanzar on 1st base and having the always dangerous Maikel Azcuy hit a fly to CF to record the 2nd out. Unfortunately Osborn seemed to lose a bit of gas and although ahead in the count to both Edwin Acantara (1-2) and Jarrod Pretorius (0-2), allowed singles to load the bases. Credit must be given to the Falcons defence which was well positioned to make sure no runs were scored on Jarrod’s single even with Robbie Almanzar’s great speed and being in scoring position. Manager Lee Manning decided to call the bullpen and put flame-thrower Ryan Bird to close the game. The crowd went numb when Ryan walked Dan Parker on four straight pitches to bring the 2nd run home (the only earned run credited to Michael Osborn). A hit could potentially put Nats ahead. More importantly could Ryan find the strike zone? It was an intense moment for fans on both sides of the field. With the count 1-1, Matt Gilbert hit a laser beam towards 1st base and Herts’ hearts (no pun intended) stopped beating for a second. It was a potential bases-clearing double but Darrin Ward was able to catch the line drive, end the game, and make everyone’s heart beat again. A dramatic but well-deserved win for the Falcons.

NBL (Game1) Herts Falcons 8 Harlow Nationals 5 (click to view box scores)

Either Falcons players were still thinking and celebrating the victory of Game 1 or Nats were absolutely determined to reverse their faith, but 2 consecutive errors and a wild pitch opened the gate for the Nats to score 4 runs and could have been worst since they had 2 runners on base with only 1 out, but left them stranded. Given the result of the first game and Harlow having Matt Gilbert on the mound, this could potentially be enough for the visitors. However the instructions heard from Falcons dugout were to adopt the ‘one run at a time’ philosophy and it looked that way when in the bottom of the 1st with 2 outs, Cris Hiche and Ryan Bird were able to manufacture a run between them. Unfortunately, Maikel Azcuy had none of that and silenced the stadium with a blast to RF to keep the 4-run lead. Falcons responded in the bottom of the 3rd when after an 8-pitch battle, Cris Hiche hit a home run to centerfield to close down the score 5-2. Falcons made everything interesting again in the bottom of the 4th when they pulled a string of hits to manufacture two more runs and reduce the deficit down to 5-4. On the other hand, Jordan Farkas was able to settle down after the 1st inning and keep the dangerous Harlow Nationals bats quiet. On a hot day in Grovehill, both starting pitchers looked tired and both managers decided to go to the bullpen. Coincidentally, both brought the same relievers as in Game 1, Ryan Bird (Herts) and Robbie Almanzar (Nationals). In the bottom of the 6th Robbie Unsell again started the inning with a single and knowing how important it was to score at least 1 run, Phil Clark moved Robbie to 2nd with a sacrifice bunt. Cris Hiche was able to reach base on an infield single and all of a sudden the Nats went into a meltdown. Robbie balked bringing the tying run and destroying the potential double play. Then he hit Ryan to put him on base. Following that, Luis Goncalves made a throwing error sailing into right-field and this brought two more runs home. Several batters later Dave House hit a double with Jordan Farkas on third base. With 2 outs Luis Goncalves made another fielding error to bring Jordan home. Falcons had a 3-run lead with only 3 outs left and Ryan Bird on the mound. Game over, right? Well, in what is becoming a Herts tradition, it needed to end dramatically. Robbie Almanzar started the top of the 7th with a single and Ryan Bird walked Edwin Alcantara. The tying run was at the plate with the powerful and always dangerous Jarrod Pretorius stepping to the plate. Fortunately he flew out to centerfield to record the second out and Ryan was able to strike out Dan Parker to finish the game. Game over.

An ecstatic Lee Manning said after the game, “happy with the way we played today: solid defence and strong pitching again. Timely hitting helped us catch them in Game 2. My only concern is the amount of runners we left on base”. He also put emphasis on the quality of the games today and the pitching duel in Game 1 by adding “I must say that Marty Jr. did an amazing job in Game 1 to keep toe-to-toe with NBL legend Michael Osborn”.

These were quality games by both teams who showed great pitching, good defence, and some power hitting too. These games showed how close the league is and how a single fielding error, a bad pitch, or a bad inning can make a difference in the outcome of the game. The crowd responded with a record (or near-record) attendance and I think they left happy. There is another opportunity to come and support the Falcons this Sunday as they host the Bracknell Blazers and, with the summer finally here, pick up a nice sun-tan along the way!