The Herts Raptors hosted the Guildford Millers on the last day of the regular season in Single-A. The permutations for playoff qualification were fiendishly complicated. But they all boiled down to this — the Raptors had to win to stand a chance.
Guildford had already booked their place in the postseason. They had an 11-2 record so far, and would pose a serious challenge for the home team.
Although the game was being played at Grovehill, Herts were the away side, so they batted first. Three walks from the top three batters made the start look promising.
But the Millers’ starting pitcher, Lewis Bawden – one of the cadre of young pitching talents at Guildford, who had given Herts trouble the previous month when he turned out for the Gold Cats — fought back. He struck out two, and got the last out with a fly ball to right field.
Herts manager Paul Barton got the first hit of the day and the bases were loaded up again in the second. But the Raptors pushed only one run across before a base running error — a failure to tag from third – ended the threat.
Fortunately, Barton’s pitching and the Herts defense were keeping Guildford off the scoreboard. The manager dramatically recovered from a missed catch to get the final out of the first inning, and left fielder Ben Sinclair helped sit down two Millers in the second.
Sinclair added on another Herts run in the third, before third baseman Tom Carson took his turn at defensive highlights in the bottom of the frame. A smooth grab and throw which Manny Machado would have been proud of stopped a bouncing drive getting through; then he caught a sharply hit liner.
It was 2-0 to Herts after three.
The tight game faltered a little in the fourth, as the Millers were suddenly able to do some damage. They scored five runs to take the lead, and even added on an inside the park home run later.
But the Raptors chipped back into that lead consistently, and the game stayed tight. Paul Auchterlounie scored in the fifth, shortstop Rob Jones in the sixth. It was then 5-4 to the Millers.
Auchterlounie was in the game to relieve Barton by now, and was giving another strong outing on the mound. But the Millers extended their lead to 12-5 by the end of the seventh. The Herts defense wasn’t able to keep the visitors in check as effectively as they had in the first half of the game.
One notable exception was a supremely nonchalant over the shoulder catch by Raptors second baseman, James Emblow. Guildford had seen several of their bloop hits fall in the gap between infield and outfield, but when all seemed lost, Emblow snagged this one and ended an inning.
Herts hung tough against Guildford’s hard-throwing relief pitcher, working patient walks and making some good contact. The bats were more alive than they had been at the start. Jones scored, and catcher Ken Pike, and in all four runs scored in the eighth.
Come the top of the ninth it was 15-9 Guildford, though, and the Raptors needed a big rally. The chance to keep the playoff dream alive came down to this.
And Herts gave it a real shot. They went though virtually the entire order, with Pike and Carson both getting hits and scoring. First baseman Giuseppe Basilea and James Emblow both got their best hits of the day.
But Guildford did enough defensively to limit the damage. The final out was a fly to right, with the tying run on base. It was the Millers who got to celebrate, winning 15-13.
The Raptors end the year with a 7-7 record, a particularly excellent outcome as they were 2-5 at one point. They ran several good teams mighty close — not only the Millers but also London and the Cambridge monarchs. Rookie players had improved in leaps and bounds.
Earlier in the day, the Herts Hawks had played their last regular season game in the Double-A league. And in typical fashion, they ended it not with a full stop but an exclamation mark.
They scored 11 runs in the first inning against the visiting Southampton Mustangs. Joint manager Andrew Slater was on the mound, and had his unique pitching mojo working.
The Mustangs’ bats hit back quickly, with 4 runs of their own in the second. But — even with the help of the former Herts legend Kimiyoshi Saionji, who now wears a Southampton uniform – they could not find a way back.
The scoring did calm down a bit. The Hawks were actually held without a run in the second.
But by the fifth, it had advanced to 18-5, and Herts needed 2 more to secure a mercy rule win. They duly delivered, to secure a 20-5 victory.
Slater took the win, his sixth of the season. Jon Lewys and Gilberto Medina each drove in three runs, while Sonam Lama got three hits.
The Hawks had already qualified for the playoffs. They are seeded fourth out of nine teams, and will travel to Richmond to take on the Dragons in their first round game on September 3rd.