Herts Raptors match reports always maintain a certain professional detachment, a level of decorum. But after an historic playoff victory against the defending Single-A champions, thanks to an epic four-hour game littered with heroic performances, how can we do that today?
The Raptors travelled to Kent face the Tonbridge Bobcats after a late switch of games by the BBF. No question, on paper it looked as if the Herts side had got the worst of the federation’s change of heart about the seedings.
The Bobcats beat the powerful Herts Hawks on the way to claiming last year’s crown, and they had lost only one game all season in 2016. The odds were stacked against the Raptors.
But when the game began on a blustery playing field almost in the shadow of Tonbridge castle, all bets were off.
The first three innings were tight, defensive, and scoreless. Herts managed to load the bases in the top of the first as the home side’s pitcher, Gareth Nutt, settled in on the mound. But they couldn’t push the run across.
Co-manager Paul Barton was the starting pitcher for Herts. After getting up at the crack of dawn to drive more than 200 miles from Leeds, he twirled an absolute gem for three innings.
The first clutch of runs came in the top of the fourth, as Herts capitalised on a handful of walks. Third baseman Jim Arnott scored the first of them, with catcher Joe Court using his Major League slide to create a run, and second baseman Rob Jones also coming home.
The Raptors plated nine runs before it was over.
The first big Herts hit of the day had came from Matt Jackson. He was playing centre field, just days after eye surgery which had threatened to rule him out of the game entirely. His booming drive to right centre allowed him to motor round for a triple.
The Bobcats hit back quickly in the bottom of the inning, scoring five runs of their own. Barton began to lose the zone, but he and his joint manager Michael Cresswell made a swift decision to stop the bleeding and Arnott came in to relieve.
Both sides then put up zeroes, before the runs began again. Cresswell was hit by a pitch for the second time to start the sixth, and got aboard.
13 year old phenom Aaron Witter then stepped up to bat, and hit a monstrous shot into Tonbridge’s gaping outfield. There are no fences in Kent, so he was able to circle the bases for a vital home run to extend the Herts lead.
Witter then showed his defensive prowess in the bottom of the inning. A sharply hit chopper flicked off Paul Barton’s glove at third base, but the shortstop was right behind him to cover.
Witter gloved the ball and made a full-on Derek Jeter leap to hurl the ball towards first base. It arrived in time for Michael Cresswell to scoop it up, juggle it, and then seize hold of it just in the nick of time to nab the runner.
Tonbridge had managed to pull back another two runs, meaning it was 11-7 after six innings. But Herts were still pushing on. Left fielder Darren Priest got one of a pair of hits, while Aaron Witter — whose day was far from over — claimed his seventh RBI. Arnott stole home as the climax approached.
The last Herts pitching change saw the young shortstop take to the mound and settle in quickly. The defending champion Bobcats showed no signs of lying down, but Witter stayed calm to keep the game under control.
The Raptors chipped in with their final runs and chased Gareth Nutt from the game after more than 200 pitches.
Rob Jones finally got a hit, while debutant Rob Henney ripped a double. Herts could only manage a couple of runs off reliever David Mote, and led 23-18 going into the bottom of the ninth.
There was a quick debate about whether Aaron Witter should stay in to pitch in such high pressure circumstances. But he made the call, and stepped back on to the pitchers mound.
Herts secured the first out, then the next batter skied a ball on the infield which looked ominously as if it would drop in between everybody for a cheap hit.
As everyone held their breath, grizzle-faced veteran Rob Jones raced in from second base, slid desperately and came up with an improbable catch. Emotions started to break out, as he was hugged by the bosses. The team was now a whisker from a stunning win.
There was another intake of breath as the next batter drove a pitch to the outfield. But Matt Jackson, he of the eye surgery, was right there under it. Cool as anything, he caught the ball and the Raptors celebrated.
This was a famous victory for Herts. The defending Single-A champions Tonbridge had fought hard and played well, their bats always posing a threat and their fielding giving nothing away.
But a series of great performances from all nine Raptors earned their place in the next round of the playoffs. Paul Barton was awarded the pitching W, while Aaron Witter was surely the game’s MVP.
“Amazingly proud of them all”, was Michael Cresswell’s assessment of the players. “Everyone was amazing and fully deserved the win”. Barton added: “Everyone played really, really great baseball. So happy I can’t believe it!”
The first year managers march on, and won’t fear their next opponent, whoever it is.