by Ken Pike
The Raptors hosted Southern Single A Pool A rivals Milton Keynes knowing that a win would clinch a guaranteed playoff position and set them up to win the pool outright and earn a first round bye at Farnham Park. They were facing a team that had beaten them by the narrowest of margins earlier in the year, and while the self assured pronouncements that the Raptors had been missing key players were not without basis, there was still room for doubt and question over what the result would be.
In 32 degree heat the Raptors had taken a very easy warmup to conserve energy and hydration levels while Milton Keynes took the opposite approach. After watching their sister team, the Eagles’ playoff hopes sadly fail at the hands of the Pool C leaders, London Marauders the delayed Pool A titans clash could commence. Young Brodie Caress’ reassured mound performance only saw a couple of Coyotes get on base, but the first inning was ultimately cleaned out without any damage being done. The Raptors’ bats had been vicious all year and if anything the sun had set them on fire as they made mincemeat of the opening Coyotes pitcher going around the order and drawing a replacement pitcher to the mound before three outs were recorded opening up an 11 run lead right from the word go.
Back in the dugout a touch of overconfidence asserted itsself with players lamenting that the Raptors could have been looking at a perfect season were it not for a couple of weak performances, but Milton Keynes came back to the field with more intent. They notched up two scores as some defensive errors started to creep into the Herts team. T he sun played a serious part with several balls lost in the blazing sky and the heat causing some more lapses of concentration. The starters for the home side have an average on base percentage of well over .500 and more than 170 stolen bases (17 per game) before going in to this game so two runs was hardly a concern. The Raptors promptly brought around another 8 runners to pump the lead to 17.
The third inning played out somewhat differently though. Whether the heat had finally got to the Raptors as well, or whether Brodie Caress’ young arm was getting tired is uncertain but a series of errors and missed chances allowed 8 Milton Keynes Players to cross home plate. The final out came courtesy of short stop Will Zucker who ignored the fact that he could not see the ball which had again disappeared in the sun, and he guessed at its location… correctly. Certainly a wobble for the home defense, but quickly mitigated with 4 reply runs leaving a reduced lead of 13.
The Raptors blip was shortlived however as they came back refocused. Brodie struck out two Coyotes before the final out at first retired the side in order and the Raptors bats came back out to knock in another 3 and the lead looked healthy again at 16. The young pitcher’s arm and concentration had been shot by the fifth inning where five players crossed the plate. Never the less it was far too little as the Raptors brought in another 10 going around the order one and a half times in the bottom of the inning and putting the game beyond any reasonable doubt with a lead of over 20 runs.
In an effort to shut down the game and get out of the sun, coach Arnie Longboy brought out sidearm closer Will Zucker. Will made a slightly shakey start, thanks in part to accidentally hitting a Coyote very squarely on the knee with a wild pitch. While it took him an inning to get his composure fully back he allowed only 2 runs in the sixth and seventh while the Raptors responded with 2 of their own. The lead remained at 20 at the top of the last inning, but this was too much of an ask for a now dehydrated and exhausted Coyotes team who valiantly got 2 runners around before Will Zucker struck out the final batter to bring the Raptors team to ecstatic jubilation knowing they had just secured the first playoff in Raptors history.
As the players cheered and embraced it was plain to see what this result meant to them, and it is certain they will be bringing their determination and love of the game to Farnham park for the off season. Having beaten every team they faced over the past 7 games, including the heavyweight Marauders, Blackjacks, Arrow and now Coyotes they carry a serious momentum with them. Another win and they top their pool, while topping the single A league can be guaranteed with three straight wins inthe remaining games or a mixture of wins and Marauders losses.
Raptors coach Arnie Longboy said: : “I am so proud of the team and what we’ve done to get this far. A few people have asked me how we’ve managed to score so many runs this season. First of all we have had production throughout the entire line up. The fact that our number nine hitter leads the team in RBI’s should tell you something. Secondly I think the guys have come to realize that just some basic fundamentals of base running and situational hitting can make a big difference. Yes, we continue to have the occasional fielding errors and that’s to be expected. But more importantly we have managed to eliminate almost all mental errors on the base paths that cost us outs. And with our mix of young talent, sophomore players, and veterans really starting to gel it should make for an exciting rest of the season and of course Farnham park!”