The NBL is back! Mets and Falcons open the season with another classic

Cris Hiche greeted at home after his grand slam which started an almighty comeback (photo by Richard Lee

If the Opening Day games between the Herts Falcons and the London Mets are an indicator of what is to come this season, fans of British baseball would be advised to buckle up as we are in for a wild ride. The games had everything – incredible comebacks, home runs, gutsy pitching performances, heroic plays, heavy collisions and more.

Usually batters take a little longer to get back up to full speed after the winter offseason and pitchers hold the advantage in the first few weeks of the season, but that was turned on its head as hitting dominated throughout despite facing some of the best pitchers from the 2013 season. The starters in game one were Mike Osborne for Herts (6-0 and ERA 1.12 in 2013) and Sam Sproule for London (1-1, ERA 1.91 in 2013), but batters didn’t appear too concerned about those numbers. The Mets took an early 10-2 lead although it must be pointed out that most of these were unearned runs as the Falcons’ new look defence was still finding its feet. “It will take a little more time for us to tune up our defence after losing several key players who moved overseas” said Falcons manager Lee Manning. The Mets conceded an average of 3.36 runs per game last season so it would have been a natural reaction for Herts heads to drop and accept defeat. It was also interesting to see how the squad would react to such a score line. With so many new faces and a much lower average age there was a risk that there would be a negative effect on confidence and team spirit, but that wasn’t the case. In the bottom of the third inning Herts showed that they cannot be written off under any circumstance. A grand slam home run by Cris Hiche to centerfield, 2-run double by Jamie Gregory and a sacrifice fly by Carlos Casal Jr, brought in 7 runs reducing the deficit to 1 run. In the fifth inning a towering 2-run home run by 2013 NBL MVP, Ryan Bird, hits by Abel Salas, Darrin Ward and a sacrifice fly by Dave Tretheway gave Falcons a 13-11 lead.

The Mets responded in a big way not only to come back from this but to build an unassailable lead winning the game 23-13. This included a home run by Martin Tucker and a very scary moment when London outfielders Jonathan Cramman and Josh Saunders made a brave attempt to make a diving catch which resulted in a very serious collision requiring a 10-minute delay while treating both players. Thankfully, both managed to recover and seemed in good shape by the end of the day. There was also an injury to Ryan Bird which seemed innocuous but which may take him more time to recover from. The Falcons had to go into the second game without Bird as he had to be taken out of the lineup.

Abel Salas was the starting pitcher for Herts in game two and he went the distance. The Mets took an early 6-0 lead which included a grand slam home run by Zach Stroman, but from that point Salas was in control of the game and produced a battling performance which gave his team the opportunity to win. To do this, they needed their offence to get back into the game against the London Mets’ best pitcher of 2013, Pietro Sollecito. They responded with 4 runs in the bottom of the first and 3 in the second inning to take a 7-6 lead and added an eighth run in the third inning. The Mets came back to tie it at 8-8 in the fifth only for Herts to retake the lead in the bottom of that inning with 3 more runs. With darkness gradually setting in, both teams knew that the game can be called at any moment so the Falcons needed to keep that lead at any cost. The Mets scored two in the top of the sixth inning but Abel Salas produced two key strikeouts in the final inning to end the game stranding London’s tying run at third base and securing a win for Herts.

“After such an outstanding comeback in the first game we felt that we missed a good opportunity, but we showed character to respond in the second game especially as the team had to do it without the injured Ryan Bird and it is a positive sign that we have players who can step up in difficult situations with the game on the line” said Herts Falcons Manager, Lee Manning.