It had been a vintage year for the Herts Hawks — posting a record of 11-2 — with a vintage team — full of experience and expertise. But its final moment was far from a vintage performance. It was a day when nothing worked, and the harder they tried, the further the game slipped from their grasp.
The Hawks were facing the Tonbridge Bobcats in the second semi-final at the Single-A National Championships. In the first semi-final, the top-seeded London Musketeers had been knocked out. Conventional wisdom said they were the chief threat to the Hawks, but they were upset 10-7 by the Guildford Mavericks.
The Hawks chances of a title had increased, but they first had to win their semi-final. Andrew Slater started on the mound for Herts. He had been the joint league leader in wins during the regular season, with 5. The game began well enough, with a scoreless first inning.
But when Herts came up to bat, the tone of the day was set. Centre-fielder Ilya Dimitrov led off by reaching on an error. But he rashly made the turn for second with the loose ball still on the infield. Tonbridge recovered, caught him in an efficient rundown and snuffed out the threat. One down.
Sonam Lama then walked, stole a base and moved up to third on a pass ball while Tim Elkins struck out. But the Tonbridge pitcher Dicky Gofton — of whom more later — smartly picked him off at third base, and the Herts inning was over. These were not the sort of mistakes the Hawks were used to making.
The Bobcats seized their chance and in the second inning started laying in to the pitching of Slater. The big number 99 never felt as sharp or as deceptive as he had been all season.
But there was malaise in the defence too. A swinging bunt turned into a base-runner when there was confusion about who should play it. Catches went down in the outfield. Hits would always go 6 inches from a glove. After the second inning, Tonbridge were up 5-0. After the third, they led 9-0.
Slater left after allowing 11 hits, striking out one and walking one. Charlie Mayhew made a brisk start in relief, limiting the opponents to just 2 runs.
But this was scheduled as a 7-inning game, because of the nature of finals day. That meant the mercy rule would be in force after 5, and Herts were in a deep hole.
Their first hit of the day had come in the third inning from second baseman Ken Pike. He then stole and progressed to third base, as Dimitrov again reached on an error. But Tonbridge were equal to it, and kept the scoresheet clean. In the fourth, Herts went down in order.
By the end of the day, Dicky Gofton had racked up 7 strikeouts, 2 walks, and no runs. A fastball which consistently found the corners, paired with a loping curve ball, kept the Herts batters off balance. They never showed the offense which had helped to drive them to the national finals.
There was one last push to save the game in the bottom of the fifth. Catcher Paul Auchterlounie tried to make something happen, by bunting for a hit. But he was thrown out by half a step by Gofton. Dan Bartram worked a walk, and Pike got his second hit of the day.
But a strikeout and a groundout ended the game, and Tonbridge moved on to the final. The disappointment in the Herts dugout was clear. “A tough day at the office”, was the polite way to put it. “Dreadful” was another. Joint managers Greg Bochan and Andrew Slater had led the team to a hugely successful season and felt flat to see it end in a damp squib.
Herts club president Aspi Dimitrov spoke for many when he urged the Hawks not to feel too downhearted: “You have had a great season”, he said. “Everyone at Herts Baseball Club is very proud of you.”
Tonbridge went on to beat Guildford in the final, winning 10-0 in five innings by mercy rule, and lifted the Single-A trophy for the first time in club history.
Photos of the day can be seen and downloaded here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hertsbaseball/albums/72157658536566555