Herts Falcons pitcher, Matt Gilbert – making British baseball history (photo by Paul Holdrick)
The Herts Falcons had the best possible start of the season winning both of their opening games and one of its debutants setting a new National Baseball League record.
Herts Falcons 16 South London Pirates 15
It has been a busy close season for the team from Hertfordshire with six players making their debuts on Opening Day and another expected to do so next week. Their opponents were the South London Pirates, a team which has struggled over the last few years, but by the end of the day they showed that they have quietly built a squad which will be very difficult to beat this season.
The focus today was firmly on Falcons starting pitcher, Matt Gilbert. Apart from making his debut and being their opening day starter, he was looking to make British baseball history as he needed two strikeouts to overtake Cody Cain who led the NBL in career strikeouts with 408. The Pirates had no intention to make way for Gilbert. He was getting the outs but they were coming by way of groundouts and flyouts. Eventually that record-breaking strikeout came and Matt Gilbert received a standing ovation and, in accordance with baseball tradition, the ball he threw for that 409th strikeout was taken out of the game for Gilbert to keep and perhaps auction on eBay in a few years.
Congratulations Matt Gilbert. Your longevity in British baseball is testament to your pitching. Well done!@hertsbaseball @CodyLCain
— Cody Cain (@CodyLCain) April 12, 2015
History was made but there was no time to celebrate. The Falcons had a game on their hands. The Pirates had a 3-1 lead and that was the wake-up call which the Falcons needed. John Blose struck the first blow – a three-run home run to left field. Next it was Maikel Azcuy’s turn. He also went deep with a 2-run home run again to left field, which is not an easy feat on diamond two of Grovehill Ballpark.
John Blose (left) and Maikel Azcuy (right) greeted at home plate after their home runs (photo by Paul Holdrick)
Just when it seemed like the Falcons had secured the win, the Pirates struck back in the late innings reducing the deficit to one run. Herts manager, Lee Manning, made what seemed to be a risky move putting 17-year-old Carlos Casal Jr on the mound to replace Gilbert and close the game. The youngster from Hemel Hempstead came through with flying colours shutting down the Pirates in the final inning and ending it in style with a strikeout.
Southampton Mustangs 4 Herts Falcons 5
The second game of the day for the Herts Falcons was against the Southampton Mustangs, who were the favourites to win it before the start of the day. The visitors took a 2-0 lead, but Herts responded immediately.
It was new signing Maikel Azcuy who hit his second home run of the day, a 3-run bomb to left centerfield, which was a reminder that Matt Gilbert is not the only player chasing a record. That home run was Azcuy’s 35th of his NBL career tying the current NBL career home run leader Simon Pole. Before the start of the season some have argued that it would be easy for Azcuy to add to his home run tally given the favourable dimensions of Grovehill Ballpark, but this home run would have been out of any ballpark in British baseball, including Farnham Park. It was measured at around 390 feet.
The Falcons had a 3-2 lead but despite another outstanding performance by starting pitcher, Jose Sosa, this proved to be a very tense game. Things weren’t made easier by a highly unusual event which occurred between innings. New signing Joel Vallejo was making his way to left field from the dugout before the start of the new inning and as he passed the mound he asked catcher Lee Manning to receive one pitch from him while Jose Sosa was preparing to take the mound. He did and the umpiring crew deemed it to be an official warm-up pitch which meant that Vallejo had to start the inning as the pitcher and face at least one batter. He did and Jose Sosa retook his place on the mound, but they certainly would have been happier not to go through the drama which ensued. In football terms this could be compared to Michael Carrick being asked to swap places with Joe Hart and be in goal for 5 minutes for England while Joe Hart plays in central midfield.
The Falcons held on for a 5-4 win – a great start to the new season. There were no more home runs from Maikel Azcuy. He will have to wait until the next league game on 10 May at the Essex Arrows for another shot at breaking the record. Before that he and the rest of the team will have to turn their attention to the BBF Cup on 26 April when they will travel to the highly-touted London Metros.
OTHER HERTS TEAMS ON OPENING DAY
The Herts Eagles couldn’t have faced a tougher opponent than last year’s Triple-A League Finalists, London Metros. They were stunned by 3 home runs in the first inning. Despite recovering well from that early shock, the damage was done and the Metros won it 13-1. It didn’t get much easier in game two of the doubleheader which the visitors won again, this time 24-5. Despite what seems to be a demoralising start of the season, the Eagles will know that if they can win the remaining winnable games, they will be in the playoff race this year.
The Herts Hawks picked up an away win at the Haverhill Blackjacks, which will surprise the rest of the league as the Blackjacks have been the national runners-up for two years in a row in the Single-A League.
The Herts Raptors rested this Sunday. They will begin their season next Sunday, 19 April, at home against Tonbridge. The Herts Hawks and Herts Eagles are also at home on that day.