Going into the top of the ninth inning at Guildford, the Herts Raptors needed seven runs to save the game. It had been a hot, long day in the sunshine, and a tight game, but the Millers had suddenly taken a commanding lead in the eighth.
Herts heads had perhaps dropped a little, as the team’s pitching faltered in the late innings, they felt aggrieved about some strike calls, and the offense was unable to push across runs.
But — led by manager Matt Jackson — the Raptors gave it everything and nearly pulled it off. Jackson walked, stole second, stole third, then scored on Arnie Longboy’s single. With two outs and two strikes, Darren Priest singled to keep it alive.
In the end, needing seven, Herts scored six and had to endure a 24-23 defeat.
The early exchanges had been tight, and unusually low-scoring for a Single-A game. Raptors’ starting pitcher Paul Auchterlounie limited Guildford to just two hits and four runs in the first three innings.
Herts loaded the bases twice, thanks largely to walks, but couldn’t get the key hits against pitches which looked inviting — but which were frustratingly easy to pop up. The Millers led 6-3 after four.
And then in the fifth, the Raptors finally solved the pitching. Catcher Rob Jones led off with a strong single, John Kjorstad and Giuseppe Basilea both stroked doubles. The visitors batted around, scoring five runs to take back the lead.
Jones made the final out thanks to a spectacular diving catch by Guildford’s centre fielder Christian Schmidt, who should be in the queue for some postseason awards.
There was plenty of good fielding on show in this game, between two sides who seemed evenly matched. Guildford’s Miles Buckton made a dramatic leaping grab at second base to take away a hit in the eighth.
For Herts, Paul Auchterlounie had flashed his leather in the seventh to retire a runner, while Longboy at shortstop made several good, tough plays.
The Raptors piled on again in the sixth but then Guildford got their own bats going. When Giuseppe Basilea came on to pitch in relief, he struggled to make his strike zone match with the umpire’s.
Nobody is ever going to agree about every call, but frustration started to show with Herts as they felt this one slipping away. John Kjorstad, a multi-talented veteran with many skills, but not normally a pitcher, came in to try to simply lob in some strikes. But even that didn’t work.
Priest, coming off the bench after injury to pitch, finally ended it, but Guildford now led 24-17. Their young relief pitchers had also had struggles with control, but the last of them – Tom Sullivan – is a recent GB call-up and they were offering more of a challenge when in the zone.
So Herts had to get it together for a last stand. After Jackson and Longboy scored, Auchterlounie — who ended the day with 3 hits — drove one to the fence to bring in a fistful of runs, and it seemed the Raptors could do this.
But it ended with one last groundout. The Millers deserved their hard-fought win. The Raptors will feel disappointed that it slipped away, but there were lots of positives to take home.
Herts now move to 3-2 on the season, and will hope that Old Timers can fulfil their fixture this coming week. If they do, it will be the first time in 2018 that the team has managed to play games on two Sundays in a row.