The Herts Raptors have suffered a torrid time in recent weeks. A close game which they led against the London Musketeers fell away in the final stages; they scored 20 runs against last year’s beaten finalists Haverhill but were undone by errors; and a rally against Tonbridge was snuffed out in a game which saw unwelcome fireworks within the team.
Now the visit of the Richmond Dukes offered the chance for the first win of the season. The Dukes were without a win so far – but it was never going to be easy.
Despite the perfect sun-kissed conditions, the early signs were inauspicious. Star centre-fielder Joseph Osborne Brade took a line drive straight in the face during the warm-up, and was ultimately patched up in hospital. Thankfully, he is fine, but the whiff of a curse hung over the diamond.
Young Charlie Mayhew was on the mound for the Raptors and the first inning was a mixed bag, with a couple of hits, a couple of walks and a strikeout. The Richmond Dukes scored three runs before they were closed down, with 2 runners left on base as Adrian Smithers caught a fly ball for the final out.
The Raptors hit back with one run of their own, and tied it up at 4-4 by the bottom of the second. Lead-off man Adam Landau Smithers did his job, getting on and stealing bases with abandon. He had 3 runs and four swiped bags by the end of the day.
As the game developed, Tomasz Kosak ended up the de facto leadoff, opening up three of the innings. He worked a series of walks which became runs as the Raptors managed to keeping adding just one more.
The bulk of the scoring came in the first few innings. Richmond had jumped out with 5 runs in the third and threatened to break it open. The Dukes’ rookie starting pitcher Stuart Doncaster was steady and straight and speedy and the home side’s bats never really got to grips with him.
But the Raptors stayed focused. The defense — which has had too many leaky moments so far this year — was mostly superb. Charlie Day at second base made a series of good plays. Kosak, who was moved from catcher to third base as part of a reshuffle, made the manager look like a genius with several excellent plays.
He took one spinning grounder at the second attempt and made an immense throw to get the runner by half a step, then hauled in an over-the-shoulder catch which appeared to be escaping from him all the time.
Herts’ relief pitcher Andrew Slater brought his seventies-style swagger to the mound, and battled hard to hold the Dukes to just 2 earned runs. Michael Cresswell came on in centre field as part of the changes and also made two crucial catches to keep Herts in the chase. By the middle of the seventh, it was 11-7 to Richmond.
There were frustratingly few good hits, though, as Stuart Doncaster continued dealing. First baseman Jeff Witter cracked one to centre to score a run, and shortstop Rob Jones — the only Raptor with a multi-hit game — drove one past the pitcher’s head to bring in another. But by then it was against Richmond’s veteran reliever Woo Kim, and time was running out.
The Raptors had thrown up zeroes three times with their good defense, but only once did they bring home more than one run. In the bottom of the ninth that left the score at 12-9, a tantalising target of scoring 3 to tie and 4 to win.
Today this was too tall an order. Although the Raptors were more aggressive in the box, Kim’s deceptive slow curves induced three balls in the air, and Richmond could celebrate.
The Herts Raptors co-manager Rob Jones was proud of the team’s effort. “This is the best 9 innings of baseball I have seen from us this year”, he said. “Everyone played a part and it was so close right to the end. We’re frustrated not to get the win, and it’s disappointing that the bats never really came alive. But that shouldn’t overshadow the good things that happened.”
Herts get an immediate chance to strike back — they travel to Richmond on Sunday for the return fixture.