This was a game of towering pop-ups, and of monster, moon-shot home runs. If it wasn’t so damned hard to hit a moving baseball, this could have been a very high-scoring game. But, as it was, there were bursts of scoring, and tense patches when pitching and defense held sway.
Paul Barton got his first start of the season for the Raptors on the pitching mound. Well, actually there is not a pitching mound at the Haverhill Blackjacks. If anything, you are pitching uphill.
But Barton, the Raptors 2015 MVP, found his rhythm quickly, and the hosts were held scoreless for the first two frames. Centre-fielder Matt Jackson made a great catch on an enormous fly ball towards the fence, and third baseman Aspi Dimitrov caught the first giant pop-up of the day.
By contrast, the Herts bats made a brisk start, three runs scoring in the first. There were two down in the second before the offense struck again. Manager Michael Cresswell hit a triple out into the wastelands, and was driven in by Adam White. It was 6-0 to Herts after two innings.
Then runs dried up. The Blackjacks pitcher was giving nothing away, and the home fielders were doing good work to back him up. Haverhill’s bats pulled back two runs in the bottom of the fourth — despite the brilliant work of catcher Ilya Dimitrov in catching two pop-ups at the backstop which were even higher than the first one I told you about.
Booming home runs
Herts extended their lead in the top of the fifth, Paul Barton continuing to help his own cause and the talismanic veteran Nick White continuing to deliver at the plate.
But Haverhill came right back with more, and had their biggest outburst in the bottom of the sixth to narrow the score just 10-9 to Herts. A big slugging line-up was starting to find its range, hitting booming home runs to left field and to right, as well as ground rule doubles which outfielder Darren Priest could barely see let alone catch.
Aspi Dimitrov came on to pitch in relief, and got to work swiftly. Neither side scored in the seventh.
Now, the test of a team comes when their back is against the wall. Raptors were determined not to let their unbeaten record go without a fight, and players who had endured a frustrating day at the plate came through. Ilya Dimitrov clobbered a double, closely followed by one from Matt Jackson, who was hitless until then.
Shortstop Rob Jones – whose day was frustrating with bat and glove – worked a walk, added a steal and scored a run. Nick White showed off his speed to steal a base, and Herts scored a vital five runs, their biggest inning of the day.
The Raptors Twitter feed at this point summed it all up — “God, this is tense”. Herts were held scoreless in the top of the ninth, meaning Haverhill were 15-11 behind and needing four to tie, five to walk- off as winners.
Dimitrov got the first dangerous batter to ground out close to his own feet, and a weight started to lift. One more out was secured. Then the next Blackjack batter smashed another monstrous shot towards the outfield fence.
It arced out to centre field. Matt Jackson went back on it, back further. And as the ball came down in his glove he squeezed it safely. His back was virtually touching the fence. The Raptors had won.
Grace and humour
The co-managers had been immense again in all their roles. Michael Cresswell saved a number of plays at first base, scooping up short or errant throws, while Paul Barton started the day 4-4 with the bat. The win was also his first W as a pitcher.
But this was a team effort, with everyone part of the victory. Haverhill Blackjacks had put up a tremendous fight and had done it with grace and good humour which made it a really enjoyable game in the Suffolk sunshine.
Raptors are 4-0 on the season, having played and beaten every team in their pool in the Single-A league.
The Herts Hawks were pushed all the way when they traveled to the Cambridge Monarchs, but they also came away with a win. The Hawks survived a big rally in the fifth inning and won 19-16 to remain undefeated.