The end of the baseball season is always a tense and exciting time for teams hovering around postseason contention, writes Matthew Jackson. For the Raptors, a win against the Essex Archers last Sunday was a must if they wished to keep playing in September.
The teams were no strangers to one another having matched up three times last season. With the Archers bringing an impressive 8-3 record this year into the game, the Raptors knew that they had a strong team once again.
Cat and mouse
Facing Archers’ pitcher Jim Hogge, the Raptors struck quickly in the first inning – leadoff hitter Zack Longboy hammering the first pitch he saw into the outfield for a base hit. Seven more batters stepped up to the plate in the inning, taking advantage of some timely hits to score three runs early on with Zack’s father Arnie contributing to a couple of RBIs.
Creating a lead early on has rarely been a problem for the Raptors this season, but the question was whether or not they could maintain it.
Paul Auchterlounie was back on the mound for Herts making his second consecutive start after a dominating performance against Guildford the week before. The Archers came out swinging and, with a combination of perfect placement and defensive mistakes, they were able to retaliate. By the end of the 2nd inning, both teams were tied 7-7.
And this pattern of cat-and-mouse scoring is how the game would continue. Bats were awake on both teams – stand-in Raptors manager John Kjorstad went 3-for-5 with a booming double to plate a couple of runs. Ben Sinclair, making his debut appearance as catcher, also had an impressive day both at and behind the plate, reaching base safely three times.
Essex were also proving to be tough outs, with one eleven-pitch at-bat ultimately going Auchterlounie’s way, only after the batter had fouled-off six pitches.
Herts had improved defensively throughout the game too. With the ball seldom reaching the outfield, the infielders were constantly tested with shortstop Zack Longboy and third-baseman Tom Carson making some terrific plays to prevent batters from reaching.
Even when the Archers had runners on-base, the Raptors were able to respond with Sinclair alertly throwing to third base to nab the runner attempting to steal.
However, the game was still unbearably close. By the middle of the 9th inning, Herts were tenderly holding on to a 18-17 lead, knowing that Essex need score only two runs for them to come away victors having trailed throughout – a feeling Herts knew all too well.
Arnie Longboy had replaced Auchterlounie on the mound for the final four innings, with his slower pitches effective at disrupting the Archers’ timing.
By the bottom of the 9th inning, however, the Archers had changed their approach. After showing bunt almost every pitch, their leadoff batter drew a walk and, two stolen bases later, the tying run was suddenly at third base with no outs recorded. The Raptors could sense another painful defeat heading their way. Or so they thought.
With another Essex batter reaching first base and then trying to steal second, the runner on third base made a break for home, only for shortstop Zack Longboy to quickly intercept and throw the ball back to catcher Sinclair who, after a leaping grab, managed to bring his body back down fast enough to tag the runner at the plate.
The run did not score, but the Raptors were not clear of danger yet. The next batter hit the Archers’ first fly ball to right field and right-fielder Darren Butterworth – who had not had many fielding opportunities up until this point – shuffled into position underneath the ball for the catch and the second out.
A base-running blunder for Essex meant that the runner on second base had strayed too far from the bag as the ball was caught, and Butterworth was coolly able to throw the ball to second base for the double play.
Herts had clung on somehow in extraordinary fashion.
The Essex Archers predictably put up a tough fight, and the Raptors will no doubt be buoyant after this win heading into their final game of the season against the Guildford Millers on 20th August. It will be another must-win game for the team in order to remain in playoff contention, but will there be as much drama?