This article by David Dunphy was first published on britishbaseball(.org)
After the formal proceedings and a rousing orchestral rendition of God Save The Queen, the double-defending National Baseball League Champions Harlow Nationals took on the 2013 NBL pennant winners Herts Falcons in what was expected to be a close encounter, and those expectations were more than met in a thrilling encounter that leaves the Nationals still in with a chance of a historic threepeat.
The first inning was dominated by the staring pitchers, Robbie Unsell for the Herts Falcons and Roberto Almanzar for the Harlow Nationals as the first five batters in first inning came and went without troubling the first base. Then a simple groundball hit by Ryan Bird was over thrown to the first base dugout and allowed Bird to reach on the error which started a brief two-out rally for the Falcons as they scored two runs.
First, Jordan Farkas hit a double which popped out of the centre fielder’s glove and Bird crossed the plate, before another error at first base saw Farkas score, Phil Clark batting him in.
At the top of the second, the Nationals managed to pull the scores level Jarrod Pretorius hit a line drive single to centre field and was brought home by Maikel Azcuy who hit a huge triple over to right field. Again the fielder got a glove to the ball but could not hold on, scoring Pretorius before a fielder’s choice saw Azcuy home.
The Falcons responded quickly with a two out rally in the top of the second with John Blose scoring after Unsell hit a triple to right field, before he was plated by Xavi Gonzalez with a hard hit ground ball single.
With Herts leading 4-2 after three innings both pitchers began to loosen up, Almanzar striking out Phil Clark with the next five batters going to pop-ups and groundouts in the infield.
At the top of the fourth Harlow started what would prove to be their game winning charge, pulling back one run as Azcuy’s hard hit groundball plated Edwin Alcantara , who had hit the third triple of the game. At the same time that Harlow started to get the bats working with runners in scoring positions the Herts bats started to stutter, poor choices and good pitching seeing them fail to score again until the bottom of the sixth.
The fifth inning saw no further runs scored, though Harlow did have a couple of hits by Luis Goncalves and Almanzar, whilst Almanzar added strikeout of Gonzalez in a three-up-three-down inning.
In the top of the sixth, Harlow levelled the scores up once again with a two out rally of their own as a single by Pretorius and a walk on Matt Gilbert, followed by a strike out of Will Lintern, brought Aaron Webster to the plate. The runners advanced to second and third on a wild pitch and Pretorius was brought home on a passed ball before Webster drew a walk. This brought Goncalves to the plate and he drew another walk to leave the bases loaded. With Almanzar at bat the homeplate umpire called catcher interference to bring home Gilbert.
Dan parker stepped up next and hit a booming fly drive to deep centre field where a diving attempt was almost taken by Blose, but the miss allowed a base clearing 3 RBI double before Alcantara was struck out to leave Harlow ahead 8-4.
Herts did not drop their heads, however, and began their comeback immediately as three of the first four batters singled to leave the bases loaded with Unsell at bat. He drew a walk which plated Darrin Ward to narrow the gap to three runs and Gonzalez hit a sac fly out to centre field which allowed Osborn to make it home to further reduce the lead to two runs at 8-6. However, Bird could not continue the rally as a ground ball made an easy out at second to end the inning.
Both pitchers continued to pitch well, despite what the scoreline may suggest, and in the seventh inning Unsell only saw three batters, ending the inning on a double-play ground ball to second base. Almanzar on the other hand saw two singles hit but the momentum could not be kept up as the next three batters were out with Ward becoming another K on Almanzar’s wall. Unsell added a strikeout of his own when Goncalves went swinging on a full count after a sac bunt by Webster. Farkas got Herts out of the inning, sprinting in to shallow centre field from left field to make the catch..
The bottom of the eighth inning saw Blose double to centre field straight away, and then advance to third on a fielder’s choice when Unsell ground out to second base. Gonzalez then came up and fired a hard ground ball through the infield to single and allow Blose to cross home plate to make the gap just one and give Herts real belief they could level or even take the lead back. Ryan Bird ththought he had extra bases with a line drive to left field, before seeing this snared in to the fielders glove. Gonzalez was the caught trying to steal second base to end the inning and bring us into the final inning.
And so it was, Harlow leading Herts 8 – 7 in the ninth inning, tension was at fever pitch with the vuvuzelas blowing as they were throughout the game and both sets of fans, who were there in their droves, raised the decibel levels. Harlow began in the top of the ninth and the first three batters got on base though Pretorius was forced out at second after Azcuy had a broken bat single. Gilbert was walked to load the bases with one out to bring Lintern to the plate, and he worked the count full before going down swinging. Then Webster grounded the ball to the shortstop Gonzalez who made the out with a backhand flick to Dave House.
This brought Herts to the plate with three outs to get one run and force an extra inning or two to win the encounter. Clark was first to the plate but could only pop up to shallow centre field, and House could only manage a ground out to first base.
Ward stepped up to the plate knowing he had to make something happen to extend the match, but on a 2-2 count he swung and missed and Harlow could celebrate a dramatic victory.
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Herts manager Lee Manning said he was pleased with the season as a whole with winning the pennant, however had he said “It was not our weekend, the five run inning was the deciding factor which got Harlow ahead and they managed to hold on to the end. We are looking forward to next season now with new reinforcements though we are losing one or two players as well.”
Harlow Nationals manager Marty Cullen said “It was a great game, one of the best in some time in this league. A hell of a game!” Asked about tomorrow’s opponents he thought “Southampton wanted it badly and I thought they would get through. We have a game plan within reason and we are set up to be difficult to beat!”