Jose Sosa was majestic on the mound from start to finish of game 1 (photo by Paul Holdrick)
Daniel Levitt reporting from Grovehill Ballpark
Everybody on the Herts Falcons knew the stakes, it was now matter of everyone fulfilling their expectations.
The Falcons sat three games behind the playoff spots heading into their double-header with the Southampton Mustangs on Sunday, after losing a pair to the London Mets last week that crippled their postseason hopes
In the week leading up to crunch two-game series, the Falcons learned that they would again be without star pitcher and hitter Abel Salas, out with an illness for the second straight week.
Their mission just got a whole lot tougher.
With their fate in their own hands still, the team knew that they could not afford any more hiccups. The table-topping Mustangs were no pushovers by any stretch of the matter, but for 13 of the 14 innings played on Sunday, the Falcons looked as though they would escape this chapter unscathed and with two wins under their belts.
In Salas’ absence, centre-fielder Jose Sosa stepped onto the pitcher’s mound to produce perhaps the best outing of his career. Facing a stacked Mustangs line-up, Sosa was military like, sitting down hitters as though they were being ordained.
Sosa had just two rough innings, not bad for someone known more for his offensive exploits. After giving up a solo shot in the second and facing bases loaded with nobody out an inning later, the Cuban took advantage of his pinpoint fastball and some heads up defense by third-baseman, Jamie Gregory, to escape the major jam with just one run given up.
Having weathered the storm early on, it only got better for Sosa and his team.
Entering the sixth inning down 2-1, the Falcons unleashed a rally as if their lives depended on it.
Sosa himself started the comeback by reaching base for the third time in the game, courtesy of a throwing error to first and even managed to advance to second on the play. A Darrin Ward single between the third-base-shortstop gap prevented Sosa from advancing, and when a sacrifice bunt forced the pitcher to be tagged out at third, you couldn’t help but think it just wasn’t their day.
Enter John Blose.
The left-fielder has been largely unmentioned thus far this season, but he seldom fails to get in on the action. A double to straight away centre-field cleared the bases and, just like that, the Falcons had taken the lead. A wild pitch was enough to score Blose and make it 4-2.
Sosa then reeled off 1-2-3 in the last inning to seal the deal, including a terrific grab off a line-drive that would have otherwise taken his face off, had his glove not been there.
The sweep was on the cards and another step towards the fourth and final playoff spot, but the finale could not have panned out worse for the Falcons early on.
Starting pitcher Michael Osborne, suffering from lingering inflammation around his throwing shoulder, could only manage one inning before the pain eventually got too much. Third-baseman Jamie Gregory stepped into to try and fill the void, but he too was unable to do so.
After two innings, the Falcons found themselves down 11-2.
As Ryan Hackle took control for the last 5 innings of the second game, Herts fans arriving late for the game were asking whether this is Robbie Unsell (photo by Paul Holdrick)
But as Falcons fans have been accustomed to for much of the season, they were about to witness a soaring comeback that forced them to stand for the rest of the game.
Very rarely does a team score double digits in one inning, so the Falcons knew the deficit would have to be broken down inning by inning.
When Gregory swapped the glove for the bat and hit a single to lead off the 4th inning, Phil Clark then slugged his third home run over the right-field fence to make it an 11-6 game. A nervous energy began to fill the ground.
Phil Clark greeted at home after his 2-run homerun in the second game (photo by Paul Holdrick)
Ryan Hackel led the 5th inning off with a double and then proceeded to score on a throwing error. Darrin Ward cashed in Zac Malone to put the game on a knife point at 12-8. Another run batted in by Gregory and the Falcons were within a long-ball of tying the game.
That’s where it all ended however, as failure to convert a Jose Sosa double in the sixth meant the Falcons were on the wrong end of yet another agonizing defeat.
The Mustangs on the other hand, will count themselves lucky to escape Hertfordshire with even one game, and return to the south coast knowing they had been within three runs of a humiliating collapse.
The Falcons remain three games out of the playoff spots and face a double-header at home against the Bracknell Blazers on Sunday. The series proves to be the most important of the season thus far and, the ability to move within one game of the Southern Nationals will be on the minds of the home team.