Herts Baseball 2013: the Quest for Glory

How do you cap a year which saw two Herts adult teams in the post-season playoffs, and the cream of the youth players challenging for a trophy? How about a year in which three adult teams made the playoffs, and the cream of the youth players challenged for a trophy.

2013 was another step forward for Herts, already one of the biggest and best baseball organisations in the UK. The Herts Falcons won the National League pennant for the first time in the club’s history, and the Raptors — who just a couple of years ago were struggling for wins — made it as far as a heart-breaking semi-final defeat in the playoffs. Add to that the success of the Hawks and the Harriers, and it was a vintage year.

Let’s start with the lower leagues, where Herts is blessed with enough new players to field two teams in the Single-A division. The Eagles were nominated as the development team, and the rookies had a tough start with two big losses. But then they showed what they could achieve.

Eagles v Raptors
Will Belbin helps the Eagles beat the Raptors in the first Herts derby of 2013 (pic: Rob Jones)

The first win was a stunner against the Raptors, the Herts Single-A side which was built to run at the playoffs. On an ever-wetter day in Hemel Hempstead, Duncan Hoyle’s Eagles side racked up a big lead and survived a spirited comeback before capping it all with ninth-inning drama. Facing a two run deficit, Adrian Smithers scored the tying run, before Mike Cresswell drove in Will Belbin to be mobbed at the plate and secure the win.

There was more walk-off drama against the Milton Keynes Coyotes a fortnight later. Serge Plata was the star with the bat, and Andrew Slater on the mound, but the Eagles once again found themselves needing to score in the bottom of the ninth to win. Two out, two strikes on the batter, nobody on base — but an injured Smithers was again the key, and this time the Warsaw Express, Tomasz Kosak, barrelled in for the winner.

All the way

Duncan Hoyle is stepping down now as coach, but leaves a firm foundation for his successor. “There is no doubt this season has been a tough learning curve”, he said, “but there have been some great performances and the team’s record is really impressive”.  He said the teams victories “spoke volumes for the enthusiasm and character” of the Eagles.

The Raptors, despite that upset against the Eagles, fulfilled their promise and made it all the way to the playoffs. There were big wins over the Leicester 2Sox, the Essex Redbacks and the Archers. The Raptors scored freely all season. But they also came out on top in match-ups with the powerful London Marauders and the cunning of the Old Timers.

The team was a perfect mix of veterans and young talent, much of it having come through the Herts Little League. The coach Arnie Longboy set the tone – disciplined, calm, yet aggressive — and he led the team in batting average, and slugging percentage. There was also Jeff Witter, at first base and on the pitching mound, the Kevin Millar of the side keeping them loose. Zack Longboy and Will Zucker were the outstanding young starting pitchers.

Raptors at Farnham Park
Ken Pike at bat for the Raptors in the Single-A semi final (pic: Adrian Smithers)

One of the season highlights for the Raptors came from one of their guest stars, Ben Marques. He played for every team this season, but when he turned out for the Raptors against Guildford in July he hit two Grand Slam home runs. Exhaustive research has found no hint that anyone has ever achieved the feat in a British league game. A very strong contender for play of the year. Of which, more later…

The Raptors year ended with defeat in the semi-final against the Haverhill Blackjacks. With Zucker dealing on the mound, Arnie Longboy’s side had a strong lead in a tough game, but the Blackjacks managed to rally against the bullpen, and came from behind to win 10-6.

The walk-off hero

The Herts Hawks also made the postseason in the AA-league, for the second year in a row. Andy Cornish and Greg Bochan guided the side to a 9-7 record. Highlights for the Dynamic Duo were walk-off wins against both the Guildford Mavericks, and a particularly sweet win over the Kent Mariners. Hunter Devine, Andrew Slater (that man again) and Andy Cornish’s third home run of the year secured a comfortable win in Game 1 of a double header, but the Hawks had to dig deeper in Game 2. Devine wound up as the hero, with his second walk-off hit of the season, to secure fifth seed in the AA-league.

The playoff run ended swiftly  with defeat by a strengthened Sidewinders team, but the managers were still happy with their players. As Cornish put it at one point: “We have exceeded my expectations for this season, but now my expectations have changed and every week, I want to win. Every other team had better watch out!”

Liam Green
Ravens' phenom Liam Green in action (pic: Will Baxter)

The Herts Ravens had perhaps the toughest year of any of the cub’s sides. They were a new addition to the roster, arriving in AAA boasting talent both from the Falcons and from the impressive youth movement. The year began with defeats by Leones de Feltham, London and Bristol. But the Ravens soon found their wings, gaining revenge over Leones with a sweep.

They followed that up with the biggest upset of the AAA season, winning both halves of a double-header against the Oxford Kings. Louis Hare and then 17 year old Liam Green were the pitching stars, Green recording a two hit shutout.  The Ravens wound up with a 6-18 record.

Which brings us finally to the Herts Falcons in the National Baseball League. Hopes were high that this could be the year of a title coming to Hemel Hempstead. The top team had a clutch of riches in Darrin Ward, Robbie Unsell and Mike Osborn — and they only missed out on the win narrowly in the finals in 2012.

Manager Lee Manning was hoping to go one better, with the addition of players such as Xavi Gonzalez, who had once played in the Minnesota Twins organisation. Manning’s side started the year well with convincing wins over the South London Pirates and the defending NBL champions, the Harlow Nationals.

Proud pennant winners

There were then hiccups, with injuries to key players and a sweep at the hands of the London Mets — the first that the Falcons had suffered for two years! Then they re-established their dominance, and began a remarkable run of 18 consecutive victories.  Bingo bango baseball became the norm for the Herts side, their technique and power matched by their indomitable spirit.

In a season of great achievements — including Unsell setting the career record for steals in the NBL — one stands out. Pitcher Ryan Bird not only threw a no-hit shutout with 15 strikeouts against the Pirates in August — he followed it a week later with another one. This time the Essex Redbacks were the victims, 9 of them by strikeout. Just like Ben Marques’ double-slam for the Raptors, there is no record of any player achieving back to back no-hitters in British baseball. Voters for the end of season awards face a tough choice.

The Falcons scored more runs than any other NBL side on their way to a 24-4 record and the pennant. It was the first time in the 17 year history of Herts that they had finished top of the pile at the end of the regular season, and it was a proud moment for all involved.

Robbie Unsell
Falcons' pitcher Robbie Unsell

It seemed somehow inevitable that the Harlow Nationals would stand in the way at some point, and they were the opponents when the Falcons turned out for the semi-final at Farnham Park. Herts had the best of the early exchanges, and led 4-3 going into the sixth inning.

Then the Nationals managed to grab the initiative, and a bases-clearing double which was a whisker away from being caught became decisive. Herts fought back from 8-4 down, and needed just one run in the bottom of the ninth to tie it. But it was not to be. The Nationals progressed to the final and the three-peat.

Lee Manning was able to remain outwardly philosophical. “It was not our weekend at these finals”, he said, adding “We are looking forward to next season now with new reinforcements.” The Falcons are not done yet.

Last but not least in this round-up come the youth teams. Some of the youngsters prepared for the year with a coaching session led by Major League stars such as Jeremy Guthrie, and that was an indication of their promise.

Strong foundations

The Herts Harriers got further in the Pony (Under 17) category than any team in Herts history. They beat Leicester in the quarters, then the London Mets in the semi.  Tom Everex- Armstrong, Jose Morillo Jr and Will Zucker (remember him) helped pitch them to the final, where they ultimately fell 9-6 to the defending champion Cobham Cougars. Cris Hiche had led the side, and said that taking them all the way to the finals was the definite highlight of the season.

GB National manager Sam Dempster also provided a highlight, visiting training sessions at Herts.  And the quality of the youth set-up continued to grow. The club’s Under-14 league team, the Herts Cardinals, couldn’t progress beyond the quarter finals of their league after losing first to the Forest Glade Redbacks and later to the London Mets. But the team will be looking to regroup and strengthen over the winter and return stronger in 2014.

The very foundations, the Under 11s, switched from coach pitch to kids pitch, which meant the category now boasted a number of players with the talent and confidence to pitch with good power and accuracy.

The U11s also travelled successfully to Richmond and to Essex during the year, and were runners up in the season-ending Herts Futures Tournament. In the Herts Little League, the Dodgers won out over the Giants in a season-deciding 7-3 finale.

So it’s clear the future for Herts looks strong. Not only has the youth programme continued to flourish and feed into the adult leagues, but free midweek training sessions also attracted a constant influx of brand new players. Adult teams have all taken a further step up, and that has been a step towards the ultimate target — silverware and a national title.

Herts Baseball Club will hold its 17th Annual General Meeting in Hemel Hempstead on Sunday 17th November. All current, past and future members are welcome to come along. Proceedings begin at 2pm at Gadebridge Community Centre, The Nokes, Gadebridge, Hemel Hempstead HP1 3LF