This article by Michael Jones was first published on britishbaseball.org
The Herts Harriers edged the first Pony semi-final in a gripping encounter to start the day, while Cobham Cougars began the defence of their title by jumping out early against Halton Polecats.
London and Herts – the two largest clubs in the country – squared off on the first game of the under-17 semi-finals around half an hour later than scheduled following heavy overnight rain. However, the delay only gave fans more time to prepare themselves for the clash of the titans in this division. With faces painted and spirits high despite the inclement conditions, when they took the field the crowd was ready for action and the juniors themselves eager to perform in their biggest game of the season to date.
The Mets (5-1) – losing finalists in 2012 but consistently in and around the finals of big tournaments – were the lower seeds in this semi-final, but with plenty of playoff experience as the current side is formed from much of the Under-14 champions from seasons past.
But though they made the Harriers work for their outs early on, the Herts side made them well and Tom Everex-Armstrong kept his diamond clean, matched only by opposite number Ewan Clegg. In the top of the first, Clegg was first to cross the plate following a lead-off double, driven in by Takuya Motohashi to get the ball rolling. But it was all the Mets could muster as Herts regrouped and played some good defence.
Everex-Armstrong showed his batting might, leading off with a ground-rule double, but he couldn’t get round the diamond before Clegg struck out the side and maintained London’s narrow advantage.
An error-strewn two minutes saw Dexter Bohn score the Mets second run but that rally was capped too as both sides demonstrated maturity and composure beyond their young years.
Cue the onslaught. Having loaded the bases, Herts sought something big from Jose Morillo and the youngster stepped up with a sac-fly to centre, seeing Charlie Mayhew halve the lead. And then Carlos Casal capitalised on a passed ball to tie things up, before Conner Brown snuck one through the left side to turn the game on its head when he drove in Zack Longboy. But despite loading the bases once again, they couldn’t make more of it and they would have to be satisfied with a 3-2 lead.
Not to be outdone, the Mets themselves put runners on all the bags for Dexter Bohn, whose pop-up deep in the hole was enough to see Max Caplan beat the ball back to home, but again the teams were trading tightly and stifling opportunities to capitalise.
With the potential go-ahead run deciding to make a move as Herts forced the issue, Clegg blocked the dish to stop Charlie Mayhew scoring, but he couldn’t do much as Matt Tarrant narrowly missed a tag on Carlos Casal on the next play as the Harriers edged ahead once more.
Some substitutions to try to spark a little extra into the Mets line-up failed to culminate in a run, while Everex-Armstrong reached his pitch limit and was replaced by Casal on the mound. London’s Clegg also took a break, being relieved by Suhi Kamada as the game neared its dramatic conclusion.
Jonny Compton-Weight made the most of some momentary lapses in London’s defence to get on base, putting himself at second before scoring an insurance run for Herts as Callum VanGundy laced a double to the left field wall, but again that’s all that the scorers were troubled by.
Two strikeouts gave Herts the edge but Bohn lined a single to centre and inspired the side behind him to drive him in, Marty Cullen providing the key RBI. But it was business as usual as the defence rallied to save further inroads into the Herts lead.
Herts then saw Morillo come home to restore a two-run lead, but in trying to extend it Everex-Armstrong was tagged at the plate by Matt Tarrant who turned quickly to pick up a rebound from the backstop.
Three outs remained, London needing two to tie things in the final inning. With runners at one and two with no outs, odds were in their favour to make something happen, but Longboy stayed strong on the mound and induced the final ground-out to advance to Sunday’s final.
London manager Steve Saltzberger reflected: “Pitching was light this year – one of our guys has gone back to Japan, another is in the NBL roster who were also playing today. But full credit to Herts. It’s a great organisation and that team has been developing for a number of years, running us close all season.
“For some of our kids who have been together for seven years, it’ll be the first time they’ve not been in the final, which is a new experience for them. But most of the kids are still below the upper age limit so there’ll always be next year.”
Harriers Manager Arnie Longboy wouldn’t be drawn in confirming who would pitch tomorrow, but said: “We’ve achieved our first objective, and so we’ll start fresh and go tomorrow ready to win. It’s the furthest our Under-17 team has ever gone.
“I’ve been watching these kids grow up over the past few years. I was with them when they won the Under-14 title three years ago and most of the same guys are still here. We have a great set-up and winning tomorrow will help further develop the programme and the talent from within the club.