Herts Hawks lifted the Single-A National Championship trophy at the weekend to complete a perfect season in which they won all of their 18 games this year. They made their qualification to the postseason look effortless totally dominating their Single-A division in the regular season. However, they needed every last ounce of energy to prevail in the postseason.
The Semi-Final: London Musketeers 4 Herts Hawks 5
Ahead of the Semi-Final against the London Musketeers the Hawks had done their scouting homework largely thanks to the fact that their sister team the Herts Raptors faced them during the regular season. London’s ace pitcher was Billy Atkinson-Warne with a regular season ERA of 2.35 which is unheard-of in the Single-A league. But their success was not only due to pitching. They have been a very strong defensive unit with a potent offence.
The Hawks started with player-manager Greg Bochan on the mound. His win-loss record for the year was 5-0. In the top of the 1st inning it looked like the Hawks were going to strand London’s runners on second and third base with a ground ball which third baseman Jon Lewys fielded cleanly and with a runner approaching him from second base it looked easier to simply tag him than to get the third out at first base. However, with great agility, the runner very cleverly managed to avoid the tag long enough to enable the runner from third base to step on home plate just before Lewys applied the tag to end the inning.
London added two more runs to make the score 3-1 after two innings. With London’s strong defence the Hawks could not afford to concede any more runs. Bochan dug deep and over the next four innings shut down the Musketeers’ offence completely not allowing any runs, with the help of outstanding defence from his teammates including a diving catch by centerfielder Andy Cornish. Cornish also fired up the Hawks’ offence leading off with a single and coming around to reduce London’s lead to 3-2 in the fourth inning.
The game was entering the late innings and with Herts runners being stranded inning-after-inning they decided to take a risk. Sony Lama led-off the 6th inning with a single and went on to steal second and then third base against a strong-armed London catcher who had almost neutralized Herts’ running game up to this point. With Lama on third base, Cornish hit the ball deep for a triple to drive in the tying run. He was now on third with no outs, but pitcher Atkinson-Warne got out of this situation inducing two pop-ups in the infield and a strikeout to end the inning with the game tied 3-3.
Atkinson-Warne then took matters into his own hands in the 7th inning getting on base with a single and coming around to score putting the Musketeers in the lead again 4-3. This took the energy out of the Hawks, but only temporarily. They didn’t score any runs in the bottom of the 7th but in the top of the 8th catcher Hunter Devine produced a defensive display which reignited his team. He made two gold glove catches on pop-ups in the enormous foul territory of Farnham Park for the first two outs and followed that with an assist for the third out.
Despite trailing by a run the momentum was back with the Hawks as the game went into the bottom of the penultimate inning. Gilberto Medina singled and stole to put himself on second base. Jon Lewys then showed his power with a double which tied the game 4-4 and brought the noise level from the home bench even higher as Herts players found the top step of the dugout not quite high enough. With 1 out, Lewys advanced to third and came home to give the Hawks the lead for the first time in this game.
This left the Musketeers with just 3 outs to try to respond in the top of the 9th inning. From that point Greg Bochan took control from the mound. He closed the game with a strikeout, groundout and pop-out which he fielded himself to spark the wild celebrations.
The Final: Tonbridge Wildcats 9 Herts Hawks 20
The Hawks were still buzzing after Saturday’s semi-final, and there was an extra edge ahead of the final. A year ago Tonbridge eliminated the Hawks in the Semi-Final and there was a sense of defiance in the team from Herts not to slip up again at the final hurdles.
Both teams had brought a large number of travelling fans to Farnham Park who created the type of atmosphere which players thrive on in the postseason. Among the Herts fans were many former and current players of the club’s other teams, not to mention the Herts fans scattered around the world who were following game updates and posting comments of support thanks to the internet. There were also a large number of Guildford Mavericks and Guildford Millers fans which added to the occasion.
When the starting line-ups were announced it came as a major surprise to see Greg Bochan starting on the mound after having pitched a complete 9-inning game just 24 hours earlier. The Wildcats adopted the same strategy going with Jon Carter who pitched a complete game in the previous day’s Semi-Final win over the Durham Spartans. Usually a starting pitcher would need at least 2 or 3 days rest to recover before they can get on the mound again. But this was the last game of the season so the coaching staff of both teams essentially said to their starting pitchers “you will have the whole winter to rest”.
The Hawks got off the blocks much faster and took charge with a 10-1 lead after just 4 innings. Hits and quality at bats were coming from the top, middle and bottom of their batting lineup. Incredibly Greg Bochan was proving to be very effective despite signs of fatigue even during the pregame warm-up. The defence resumed their service behind him with more outstanding plays including a 5-3-6 double play involving Gilberto Medina, Jon Lewys and Louis Hare. The Hawks added 8 more runs in the 5th inning, but to the Wildcats’ credit they fought back scoring 3 runs in the fifth and 5 in the sixth inning. This wasn’t enough though and at the end the Hawks managed to win it without the nail-biting climax of Saturday’s semi-final.
The win was followed by wild celebrations at Farnham Park which continued late into the evening as the players, coaches and family members gathered for a celebratory dinner in St Albans.
This is the first national title for a Herts senior league team since the Herts Falcons won the club’s only other silverware when they became the Triple-A League National Champions in 2008, so it has been a long wait for Herts baseball fans.
It has been an unforgettable season for the Hawks, but this is not just because of winning the national championship. Co-managers Greg Bochan and Andrew Slater have managed to create such a fantastic atmosphere within the team that the team spirit would have been just as strong if they had lost every game this season. Even for the players who were left on the bench during these playoff games, this was always about being part of something bigger than just individuals playing baseball. There is a strong sense among the members of the team that this is more than just a baseball team and for them this is a second family.
So what’s next for the Herts Hawks? They dominated the League this year. Will they look for a challenge in the higher leagues of British baseball or will they go again in the Single-A League? The reluctance of some of the team members to go up to the Double-A League stems from the large number of double-headers which in this fast-changing world has put pressure on their ability to balance their family, work and baseball lives, but the hope is that the British Baseball Federation will recognize that this change is affecting every team and that a better balance can be struck by increasing the number of single games in the Double-A League.