The Herts Falcons’ season had already been eventful. New recruits. Big homers. A dramatic win over the defending champions. A trip to Europe.
The finale was to be the playoff weekend for the National Baseball League at Farnham Park. Herts were seeded third and would face the London Capitals, seeded 2. They had played some tight games in the regular season but the London side had the better of the results.
In the first game of the weekend the reigning NBL champion London Mets had beaten the Essex Arrows to book their place in the final. Herts were the only side to beat the Mets this year, so they would be able to draw on that memory — if they could make it through.
Unlike last year’s windswept Saturday at Farnham Park, this was a hot, still and dusty day.
The shortstop Miguel Rodriguez led off for the Falcons, and worked the count to 3-1 before grounding out to the second baseman. Carlos Casal and Ryan Trask both made good contact but the ball flew to the outfielders. A steady enough start, but no runs.
Dom Hill was on the mound for the Falcons. He was solid, but in many ways this first frame set the tone for the day. Everything would just work out well for the Capitals, and they would execute their plan in a way Herts simply couldn’t.
The first London runner got on base, but only by half a step with a soft infield hit. He stole second straight away, showing the aggressive approach which London would adopt all game.
The only solid contact of the inning, a single to left field, brought him home and the Capitals took a 1-0 lead.
Jarrod Pretorius was the first Herts base-runner of the day, talking a walk. But that was all the Falcons could manage, and in the bottom of the second frame some loose fielding cost them dear.
The Capitals’ leadoff man again got on base and stole second, the next batter reached on the first error of the inning. Hill fought back to get the next two outs, including his first strikeout. But another bobble on the infield allowed the third run to come in.
London were able to do more damage in the bottom of the third, helped by a scattering of walks. An excellent running catch by Casal in centre field helped hold the base runners in a tough situation.
But the Capitals were able to bring in four more runs, before Falcons manager Cris Hiche made his first pitching change. Gary Davison came on with two outs, and the bases loaded, and got a strikeout to close the inning.
London now led 7-0. In the top of the fourth, Herts got their first hit when Davison drove a ground ball up the middle. He was advanced to third by a double from Pretorius, before Walter Bates took a walk to load the bases and Herts threatened for the first time.
But remember that tone we talked about in the first inning? It could be seen here. Phil Clark grounded to the pitcher, who threw out the runner at the plate, and the catcher just – just – doubled off Clark at first. The roll of the dice did not go Herts’ way, and the Capitals executed perfectly.
Herts retired the side in order in the bottom of the fourth, throwing up their first donut of the day. And in the top of the fifth they got on the scoreboard.
Moise Vasquez came off the bench in to the 9 spot in the batting order, and hit a one-out double that roused the bench. After advancing to third on a single by Rodriguez he then went a step further in making things happen.
Rodriguez stole second and when the catcher tried unsuccessfully to gun him down, Vasquez took off for home. He slid in, in a cloud of dust, to score the first Falcons run.
Herts kept the line moving but a pair of fly-outs ended another rally. And the Capitals were able to respond this time.
A pair of walks and a flurry of hits padded the lead which had only recently seemed under threat. Davison was pulled with the bases loaded and one out, but reliever Carlos Casal then battled to throw strikes. Alex Deacon replaced him, walking his first batter before striking out his second to end the fifth.
The walks were part of the undoing of Herts on the day – 12 base on balls, compared with 6 strikeouts. The Falcons didn’t exactly agree with all the calls – in fact, manager Cris Hiche was ejected for arguing the point with the home plate umpire – but they couldn’t change them.
London scored six in the fifth, to take their lead to 13-1. But Herts showed spirit to rally again, and this time pushed some runs across the plate. Pretorius, Clark and Marco Pestana got aboard, with Moise Vasquez applying the blow to drive in the Falcons’ second run.
Another followed when Rodriguez was hit by a pitch, and more on an infield hit by Deacon. But the fairytale opportunity for a grand slam by Pretorius did not materialise, as he was struck out to end the inning.
The score moved to 13-5 but the Capitals couldn’t be kept quiet and they led 17-5 going into the top of the seventh. Herts needed something big to extend the game, and though Walter Bates led it off with a hit, and finally came round to score (driven in by Vasquez, of course) it wasn’t enough.
The Capitals sealed their place in the final 17-6 in seven innings.
The Falcons’ manager Cris Hiche was clearly disappointed, but also reflective: “Today just wasn’t our day”, he said.
“We were flat and, against a team that was firing on all cylinders, it was too much for us. Although we could have given the Capitals a much tougher fight, they executed every opportunity flawlessly.”
The Falcons were the only Herts team to make the playoffs, after some setbacks for the Hawks and a controversy about the Londoners. But it has been a tremendous year of growth for the club, and of success in other ways.
Hiche is already looking ahead to how to improve: “It’s a real shame for all our Herts fans and also the wider public who expected a close game, like we have always had against the Caps. No doubt we’ll learn from this loss though, and come back stronger next year.”
The focus now turns to youth baseball in September, with Herts looking to enter teams in the Youth National Baseball Championships at Farnham Park. The club will then host its own Herts Futures Tournament on September 21st, attracting clubs from around the country.