Author: Rob Jones

Baseball is the winner in a time of Covid

Baseball is the winner in a time of Covid

Four teams. Six weeks of games. One winner. And, perhaps fittingly, the name on the trophy after the first ever Herts Baseball Development League is the Raptors.

The League was the creation of the Raptors’ manager Mantas Poderys, when baseball received clearance to restart games after the coronavirus lockdown. The aim was to give the swelling ranks of rookie and inexperienced Herts players a taste of competition without the pressure of a formal BBF league.

Raptors B facing Londoners

Mantas split his roster in two – sharing out specialists such as pitchers and catchers – and teams from the London branch of the club enthusiastically came on board to join the league. So a schedule was created in which Raptors A and B would face the Eagles and Londoners in a round robin, then a medal series.

A series of new safety measures was drawn up and adopted, and everyone was ready to go.

The opening weekend of games in August was under baking sun at Grovehill. Raptors A got out to the best start with 2 wins. New recruits got their first taste of game action, and stars started to emerge. Cory English of the Londoners showed his slick skills, and Raptor rookie Declan Carlean made a great play from deep in the hole at shortstop.

After a rained out week, games resumed with Raptors B now taking strides forward. Ken Pike, a former manager and a champion at Single-A as a player, was one of the club veterans who returned for the HBDL. He was leading the Blues with typical gusto.

For the Londoners, Andrew Slater was the old hand with the magic, returning to the pitching mound with great results. He ended with several wins to his name.

Although there were a lot of laughs in these games, as friends got the chance to compete against each other in a relaxed setting, there was plenty of intensity too.

New Londoners recruit Kevin Abioye took a knee to the jaw as he desperately tried to reach first base on an infield hit, while Raptor B’s Laurence Currington took a tumble as he raced into the collision to help save the game for his team. (Everyone was fine afterwards, with maybe a bruise or two).

Collision! (Photo by Tony Small)

These games were also packed with dramatic walk-offs. In the third round of games, Londoners secured an 8-7 win over Raptors B when a run-down between third and home went awry and what looked like a terrible base-running decision turned into a victory moment.

The best of five championship series was between the Raptors B and the Londoners, as they finished in the top two slots of the League. The Eagles and Raptors A would play a best of three to decide the bronze medal.

The Blues took a 2-0 lead in the first week of playoffs, with the Eagles starting with a win. All to play for on the final Sunday.

Wily veteran pitcher Greg Bochan led the Londoners to a win in the first game on the last day, keeping the series alive. In Game Four, the Londoners took a 6-4 lead into the final frame. Great fielding plays from Matt Jackson and Rob Gibson had helped keep the Blues in check. The Londoners tacked on 3 more runs – surely the game was safe?

But Raptors B had other ideas. Manager Ken Pike had pitched the game, and delivered with the bat too. Once on base, he represented the winning run. In a match up of veteran pitcher (Nic Goetz) and rookie hitter (Pedro Martins) the youngster came through. He drove in Pike for a 10-9 win and plenty of celebrations.

Eagles v Londoners in August (pic: Tony Small)

In game 2 of the bronze medal series, the Eagles took a lead into the final stages. But again there was a dramatic Raptor rally. Raptors A scored a clutch of runs to tie it up.

And again, the final act was old hand against young star. Declan Carlean on the mound, Rob Jones at bat. This one was won by the veteran, with a hit to centre field clinching the 2-0 series win.

The idea of keeping the tournament in-house had been to keep the players as safe as possible at a time when travelling and mixing were both officially discouraged – but also to give the best chance for fun and competitive baseball. It succeeded on both counts.

Mantas Poderys said he was focused not on the victories for his players, but on their spirit and their development – and that, on that basis, all games were wins. They responded with equal warmth, praising his hard work, support and the welcome he gave players, some of whom had not even played organised sport, let alone baseball.

Mantas Poderys in action

While this League was going on, other elements of Herts were also staying active. The Falcons of the NBL held regular practices and scrimmage games, and also traveled to the Kent Buccaneers for a game which they won.

Youth training sessions resumed at Grovehill in July and continued throughout the summer. Coaches Lee and Colin kept as many age groups as possible active, and open sessions also received a great response when they began at Basing Hill in northwest London in August.

Some of the Herts youth players have been taking part in a Fall League organised by LYBL on the diamonds at Farnham Park, so their season looks to stretch into October. The club now turns its attentions to the winter and to preparing for what 2021 might bring.

The Raptors, meanwhile, polish their trophy!

Thanks to all who took part and helped the club through all aspects of a most extraordinary year. Coaches, officials, parents, fans and players all had a huge role to play. Herts is a family and we stay committed to each other, and to baseball.

The victorious Raptors B

2020 Herts Youth Baseball: Registration is Open

Herts baseball club has planned a range of options for 2020 for one of our great strengths, and our most important investment in the future — our youth players. The aim is to give plenty of chances for both training and game time for kids from ages 6 to 18.

We don’t yet know if the coronavirus outbreak is going to have a long-term impact, and affect the summer baseball season. If it does, Herts will lower all its youth fees accordingly. No money will be taken until the situation is clearer. But at this early stage, we are going ahead with registration so that everything is ready when baseball can be resumed.

We appreciate everybody’s patience, and we hope that we can all get back where we want to be — on the diamond — very soon. Those of you already on our mailing list should receive details via e-mail of how to register. If you are new to the club and the sport, please contact us through our website link and we will tell you all you need to know.

Since the Herts youth operation began over a decade ago it has seen success at the National Baseball Championships in several age groups. And, even more importantly, it has seen a steady stream of local boys and girls getting involved in a new sport, and making new friends.

In 2020, the core Herts Youth membership package will be a training programme, running throughout the year. Players aged between 6 and 18 will be able to work on all the fundamental skills of baseball, under the guidance of our new Head Coach, Colin Barrett. He has vast experience, most recently as the South Africa Under-12 head coach.

There will be a total of 18 sessions, including Saturday work both indoors and outdoors. And that also includes 10 midweek training sessions. These are most likely to be on Wednesdays, but our staff are currently pinning down a final confirmation. Each of those sessions will be at least 2 hours long.

Coach Colin has already been enjoying getting involved with the kids on fielding drills, on learning to throw the ball correctly, and on how to play the game. Players have enjoyed the experience of Baseball 5, a fast-moving game which helps put knowledge into practice.

Herts will then offer two separate options for games, with players able to make a choice depending on their goals and their circumstances.

One option is to play for the East of England team, competing in the British Baseball Federation (BBF) All Star leagues. This is a great chance to maximise playing time, and take on other teams from around our region.

East of England at the UKLLQ in 2019

In this programme, for players aged 8 to 18, kids from Herts will play alongside team-mates from Leicester, Cambridge, Lakenheath, Northampton and Essex Redbacks — and together they will face teams from other southern clubs including Guildford and Brighton.

Games will take place on Saturdays, both at our home field of Grovehill in Hemel Hempstead and also travelling to away games.

Kids who sign up for this game package will be automatically included in the extended roster for the Youth National Baseball Championships at Farnham Park in September; and for the UK Little League Qualifiers — a competition which culminates in a tournament in Williamsport, USA.

The final teams for these tournaments will be only 13 players, chosen by the coaches. But all who sign up will get an equal chance to compete for a place, and our emphasis remains on enjoying the sport, and learning.

Herts manages the East of England (EoE) programme with other clubs. Our lead on it will be Youth Commissioner, Lee Manning.

The alternative game package is Play Ball membership, which is intended as a recreational programme for more casual players aged 6 to 12. This team will not travel, so is a great opportunity for any players unable to make the trips to away games.

There will be a minimum of 10 event days in the season, running from April to July. The entire schedule will be announced at the start of the season, to help families to plan.

The sessions are on Saturdays at Grovehill, starting at 11am and lasting between 90 minutes and 2 hours. Players will work on a specific baseball skill for a time, and will then play games.

The Play Ball programme will be headed up by John Kjorstad, a club veteran who has been involved with the youth teams for several years.

The idea is that all Herts youth players join the core training programme, and then choose one game package. We aim to provide at least one game jersey for players, or a voucher to be used for a Herts cap for the Play Ball section, but due to the lead time on orders, we will need to finalise this once we know when the 2020 season will start.

Players cannot sign up for both game packages, chiefly because they can’t be in two places at once on any given Saturday! However, those who sign up for the East of England will be able to participate in Play Ball at no extra charge, if they have a weekend off from EoE games.

Herts baseball club is excited to be able to offer this range of programmes to help make it easier to play baseball in 2020, whatever your availability and ability. Our aim is to spread the word about the sport and offer the boys and girls who join us an enjoyable and rewarding time.

Herts at the heart of the London Series

When you’re old, and sit down to talk history with your grandchildren, you’ll be able to reminisce that 2019 was the first year that Major League Baseball came to the UK.

As if that wasn’t good enough, lots of Herts baseball members will be able to say they were there, and they were part of it.

One of our youth stars, Riley Manning, was right at the heart of things, acting as an on-field mascot. He has been good enough to put down in words some of the details of his experience, and we can share that with you here, along with some other Herts tales.

Herts fans and players at the Saturday game

A regular season clash in the UK between MLB teams had been in the offing for several years. But many feared it would stay a pipe dream. Too many obstacles, they said — a huge round trip for teams who usually play pretty much every day; no proper baseball stadium for them to use.

But in May 2018 a formal announcement was made that the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees would be bringing their fabled rivalry to London. Tickets were snapped up in a few days of frantic online clicking by British baseball fans – including plenty from Herts.

When the London Series finally came around in the summer of this year, extra events had been added to make it a festival of baseball. Riley got to participate in the most surprising event – a coaching clinic laid on by the Yankees:

“My dad and I got invited down to Finsbury Park to a training session and have a BBQ which was an event run by the New York Yankees. We didn’t know until we turned up that the Yankee legends would be coaching the training session. This was an amazing event and I learnt a lot.

Alex Rodriguez – known to the world as A-Rod – is a true legend of baseball and he hit 696 homeruns and is 4th on the all-time list of homerun hitters in the history of MLB. He taught me to hit the ball as hard as I can every time.”

 

 

 

Leon Gutowski of the Herts Under 13s also joined Riley in getting up close and personal with greats such as Reggie Jackson, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte at this event.

The London Mets had been instrumental in arranging what was an extraordinary experience for kids and parents alike.

In the week before the Red Sox-Yankees games, there was also a Play Ball event at the London Stadium where school kids of all ages were able to come along with their teachers and experience baseball for the first time.

Herts veteran Tim Elkins described how he was “among those lucky enough to be chosen to help out at this event”. Here’s what he had to say:

“Foolishly wearing my CrossFit t-shirt on day one, I was allocated the Agility Station involving ladders on the floor and inventing various exercises for people to run through, across, along, over, under etc the ladders. Much to the delight of kids, teachers and fellow coaches, I had to demo each exercise!!! Six groups, twice a day for 3 days, is a lot of hop scotch!”

The events at the Stadium helped build excitement and expectation of the big clash – while also spreading the word of the game to British school-children. Herts players and their families were fortunate enough to also get inside when the visiting teams had their workout day, and get a close-up glimpse of the stars in action.

When Saturday came, a capacity crowd turned out in baking hot weather (official game time temperature was over 90 degrees) to see history made.

Riley (bottom, centre) lines up with Aaron Judge

All around the London Stadium you could find enthusiasm, wonder, and a lot of replica shirts. You could find giant hot dogs, and flagons of beer, and the mystical aura of baseball.

In the thick of it all was Riley Manning:

“The Yankees choose me to be a Mascot and I got selected to stand in front of Aaron Judge, who is my favourite player of all time! We had to arrive at the stadium at 9am for rehearsals. We got to go on the field and see ourselves on the big screen inside the stadium. We had to walk under the stadium and I got to see the batting cages the players use for warming up in and I got to sit in the dugouts of the Yankees and Red Sox.”

Riley got a high five from Judge as the players ran on to the field. We are proud to say that he represented the club superbly throughout the weekend.

Close by, you could find Marianna and Carlos Casal, who formed part of the grounds crew for the weekend. Carlos, who has shown off his skills for the Herts Falcons during the year, got a to take a little batting practice in the Stadium earlier as a bonus.

He said everyone had been professional and friendly – and there was some magic in the air:

“I was on the grounds everyday and at the side of the field during the games. The atmosphere was electrifying, and it was amazing to see such a turn out to both games, and such a good crowd. I can’t wait to see how next year’s games go.”

Also in the house was Jake Caress, a former Herts player now serving with the Royal Air Force. On both days, he took part in pre-game ceremonies joining other members of the armed forces to hold Union Jack and Stars and Stripes flags.

Sgt Jake Caress, top right, joins ceremonies

The game, as you probably know, was a crazy one. The New York Yankees’ Aaron Hicks hit the first ever MLB home run in Europe, and plenty more followed. The score was tied at 6-6 after the first. Neither starting pitcher made it out of the inning.

New York took a big lead, but as a few fans in the crowd sneaked out to catch their trains, the Red Sox rallied. They left them loaded in the seventh, ending hopes that the drama could turn from ridiculous to absurd.

The Yankees won. And young Riley was happy:

“The game started at 6pm and finished at around 11pm. This was a very long game and was only 3 minutes away from setting a record for the longest game between these 2 teams. Both clubs started in the 1880s and have played against each other thousands of times.

The final score was 17-13 to the Yankees which made me happy but made my dad sad as he is a Red Sox fan. The highlights from the game for me was seeing Aaron Judge hit a home run and Aroldis Chapman throwing a 101MPH!!! fastball. We drove home and got back around 1am. I was very tired but I still couldn’t believe I got to meet Aaron Judge.”

Sunday’s Game 2 kicked off with home run fireworks too, with Boston hitting three to take the lead. The game then actually settled into a more conventional MLB contest and the score was 4-2 after six innings.

Then the Yankees blew it open. They scored 9 in the seventh, sending 14 batters to the plate. It ended 12-8 to New York.

Aaron Judge in the outfield during warm-ups

“The energy never let up”, said the Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “It felt like a huge event, these two games.”

Aaron, you don’t know the half of it. For Brits who had never seen an MLB game, it was a milestone in their lives. For British baseball fans who have felt neglected for years, it was a game-changer.

And for Riley Manning, it could have set him on a path to great things:

“When I grow up, I want to play for the Yankees because Yankees is my favourite team and I was inspired to train harder. I’m excited for Chicago Cubs against the St Louis Cardinals in the London games in 2020, as I like the Chicago Cubs. My favourite part of the whole experience was being a mascot for the New York Yankees and meeting Aaron Judge.”

Any doubt that this event would be a hit had been thoroughly dispelled.

The crowd for Saturday was the biggest for an MLB game since 2003, and Sunday was only a handful smaller. The sunshine – which can’t always be relied upon in England — shone brightly and ceaselessly. And fans, both old and new, were won over.

Let’s give a final word to Tim Elkins, for his impressions of the Play Ball sessions:

“The whole event was a huge success, with a number of schools already expressing an interest in next years event, even as as they left. It was great fun all round, the MLB event staff were great, and fellow coaches were great fun – I too am looking to return again as a coach next year!”

2020 should bring a second once-in-a-lifetime experience for British baseball fans. And Herts hopes to be at the heart of it all once again.

Marianna, Riley & Carlos

 

Riley & Leon with Nick Swisher

 

Falcons’ Ryan Bird elected to Hall of Fame

A former Herts Falcons star, who helped the team to its first ever National Baseball League pennant, has been given a deserved place in the British Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ryan Bird was a force both as a pitcher and a slugger in his years with Herts. He is one of four players, coaches and officials from across the game who have been inducted in the Class of 2019.

He is the first Herts figure to be given a place in the Hall, which is another milestone for a club which is now one of the strongest pillars of British baseball.

Bird (far right) in his final Herts game (pic: Richard Lee)

The South African native received immediate recognition in his first year in the British leagues, in 2008. He was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the NBL for his performances with the Richmond Flames. The achievement was all the more remarkable given that this was a time of total domination by the London Mets.

In the following year, Bird was once again voted league MVP, making him the first player to receive two such awards since the London Warriors were the big force in the game. He hit five home runs for Richmond, leading the NBL in that category.

In 2012, Ryan Bird made the high profile move to the Herts Falcons and had an immediate impact. He won a Defensive Award, as the best First Baseman of the Year, and helped Herts to the NBL final series against the Nationals, which they lost in six games.

He would win NBL MVP for a third time in 2013, but that bald fact — impressive as it is — didn’t really do justice to his performance. For one thing, he helped take the Falcons to a 24-4 record and their first ever pennant in the National Baseball League.

Bird drove in a career best 31 runs. And in August he chalked up the extraordinary feat of pitching two back-to-back no-hitters. His first victims were the South London Pirates. He struck out 15 batters and walked only 2 in that victory.

As the Herts report put it at the time: “Maybe it was the very unusual all-lefty battery (Ryan pitching and Cris Hiche catching), or the Bingo Bango written in a player’s forearm, that confused and maybe intimidated the Pirates’ lineup. But I think most likely it was the great command of Ryan’s fastball and his ability to constantly and accurately hit the corners of the plate.”

A week later, Bird did it again. This time the Essex Redbacks were on the wrong end of the no-hitter, with 9 strikeouts recorded. As far as we could tell, the feat was unprecedented in the elite level of British baseball.

The opening game of the 2014 season against the London Mets was Ryan Bird’s last for the Falcons before his move to the USA. He said goodbye to the Herts fans with another outstanding performance going 4-4 with a home run which, according to the game report, “probably is still hovering somewhere over St Albans”.

At the time of his retirement, Bird had the highest career batting average (.508), on base percentage (.578) and slugging percentage (.822) in modern British baseball history.  All told, he tallied 15 HRs and 119 RBI over the course of 385 plate appearances for the Richmond Flames and Herts Falcons (stats from Project Cobb).

Ryan Bird was elected alongside Jason Holowaty and Darrin Muller from the modern ballot, with Alan Asquith being elected by the historical vetting panel that was introduced in 2016.

At the London Series games in 2019 between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, an event honoured the previous round of inductees. The hope is that something similar can be done in June 2020 for this year’s class.

The guardian of the Hall, Matt Smith, said: “I’m delighted to see four such worthy candidates joining our Hall of Fame, all with different stories to tell but sharing a true commitment to the game in Britain and excelling at what they did.”

Thanks to Matt for sections of this article, which appeared first on the baseballgb website. You can read more about the Hall of Fame and its members at bbhof.org

A bright Futures at Herts

The British weather doesn’t always allow for those visions of long summer days at the ballpark to become a reality.

You know the vision – the sun beats down, the wind is still, the sky is blue. As far as the eye can see, there are baseball games being played. The smell of hot dogs wafts across the field.

This Sunday, the Herts Futures Tournament was able to deliver all of that. The final event of the year for youth players in England was blessed with a beautiful sunny day at Grovehill Ballpark in Hemel Hempstead.

14 teams from 10 baseball clubs from across the country descended on the home of Herts for the twelfth HFT.  They came from as far apart as Cartmel Valley in the Lake District, and Brighton on the south coast.

The competition this year would feature two age groups, Under-11 and Under-13, with teams playing a round of games in pools before each pool winner faced off in the finals.

The first feature of the day was the introduction of the teams to each other and to our four umpires for the day. Blake Taylor and David Jones were joined this year by two Herts volunteers, Mantas Poderys and Jack O’Brien, to oversee the games. The club is, as always, grateful to them for giving up their time to keep events running smoothly.

The teams are all introduced so they can high five the umpires and each other. They all then observed the national anthem, and gathered for a family photograph.

As a little something extra for 2019, all the youth players got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. All of them. Simultaneously.

Blake Taylor had volunteered to act as the catcher (or maybe just as the “target”?). Once he was in place, the players lined up in front of the mound. They jostled for prime position, like race horses at the start of the Grand National.

There was a dramatic countdown over the public address system, and then their air was filled with a torrent of baseballs. You could see on the faces of the pitchers that they had relished the experience!

Video of this wave of baseballs can be seen on our Facebook and Flickr pages.

It’s raining baseballs….

The first game of the day saw first-timers the Cartmel Valley Lions draw with the London Mets in the Under-13 category. Another debutant team, the Yankees from RAF Lakenheath, got their first win of the day against the Forest Glade Redbacks.

When they started their campaign for the day, it became clear that the Leicester Little Sox in the U-13 section were a force to be reckoned with. Their combination of pitching, speed and hitting beat Herts – who had joined forces with Guildford for the purposes of the day.

In the Under-11 grouping, London Sports powered off to a great start to beat Northants Centurions, before adding the scalp of the London Mets. The Brighton Fireballs showed their intent with a win over Cartmel Valley Tigers.

Cartmel Valley at bat

There were great plays across the four baseball diamonds. Leicester turned a double play to end one of their games; Cartmel Valley’s pitcher made an impressive diving catch. There were plenty of booming hits, and young kids learning the art of pitching performed admirably under pressure.

Back near the pavilion, the Herts concession team was working hard providing refreshments to the masses.

Coffee was the most popular demand during the morning but. once lunchtime came around, it was the traditional hot dog that came to the fore. In fact, a chili dog and an “Outfield Dog” were also on offer. In the afternoon, home-made cake and Krispy Kreme donuts were the thing to have.

Roll up, get your hot dogs here!

In the U-11 final, London Sports took on a mix of the Brighton Fireballs and LYBL. Many clubs joined up for these end of season tournaments, to ensure that players could get a game, and it was good to see them working together. London won this one 5-4 with a walk-off double, ending an excellent day for these teams.

The U-13 final saw the RAF Lakenheath Yankees take on the Leicester Little Sox. Both were undefeated. In the climax, it was the Sox who took the win 6-2 in a closely fought game.

A week earlier, Leicester players had also finished part of the East of England team which was runner-up in the U-10s at the YNBC, so this completed a successful tournament season for them.

Leicester v Guild-Herts

Since its creation in 2008, the Herts Futures Tournament has been a great day for the youth baseball community to get together at the end of the year. The club was delighted to see so many players, parents and coaches come along to enjoy it once again.

It has been a big year for British baseball, with the arrival of MLB games in London. The events at Grovehill on Saturday suggest that the future is bright and the game can continue to grow.

Our full photo album from the day can be seen on our Flickr page – please feel free to find yourself!

Falcons fall flat in final face-off

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.

Gary Davison pitching

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.

Capitals ran the bases aggressively

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.

Moise Vasquez at bat

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.

Relief pitcher Alex Deacon

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.

 

 

 

 

Honours even as Herts sides clash again

A Herts derby is not like a normal baseball game.

The national anthem was played as the Herts Eagles and Herts Raptors took their places along the baselines for a pre-game formality at Basing Hill Ballpark. The Herts Londoners got an opening ceremony earlier in the season, why shouldn’t the Eagles get one, too, at its tail end?

The usual Basing Hill playlist of Eighties rock classics was augmented by some new tunes. Lil Nas X made an appearance (on the playlist, not on the field). This would be a special day.

When these two teams met at Grovehill, the Eagles swept the double-header. Could they repeat for a season sweep?

Game 1 got under way with Yasu Ichige on the mound for the Eagles. It didn’t start as smoothly as he might have liked, with the Raptors’ leadoff man and pitcher Matt Jackson getting aboard with a single, and Oli Durer then hit by a pitch.

Laurence Currington drove in Jackson, while Callum Barwick — who had reached on a fielder’s choice – was brought home by GB youth player, Harry Quixley.

But the home side dug in defensively, with a catch by shortstop Rob Gibson and a groundout limiting the damage to two runs. When Ichige faced the lineup again in the second inning, he stepped up a gear and struck out the side. He ended with 7 K’s.

In between, the Eagles’ bats had given them the lead. Gibson took Jackson deep for his second home run of the year. This was just the first instalment in a dominant day at the plate for the rookie shortstop – only the time limit on Game 1 kept him from a chance at the cycle.

His team-mates helped build a big lead in the bottom of the second, bringing home the maximum 5 runs. Catcher Rob Jones drove in a pair, while there were hits for Andy Stratford and Louis Verman.

Laurence Currington at bat

The visitors did not surrender easily, of course. Dan Shaw hit a double, and the team totalled 8 hits, only one behind their hosts.

But the Eagles were mostly able to keep them from scoring. Alex Trautman applied a neat tag to get out a base-runner at third, while Zack Longboy made an improbable leaping catch to end the third inning and save a run.

It ended 10-5 to the home side. Yasu Ichige took the complete game win, his second victory of the year.

The second half of this double header – and the final quarter of the season’s derby drama – would see a measure of revenge for the Raptors.

They came out of the blocks fast, with Harry Quixley and Paul Barton among those scoring in the first inning. Matt Jackson — who didn’t make an out all day long – had started it all off.

On the mound for the Raptors, Barton was calmly dealing. After inducing two pop-ups, he got the key strikeout of Zack Longboy to end the first inning. Only one batter reached in the second.

Paul Barton pitching

A double from Laurence Currington helped to add on in the third and the Raptors led 6-0 in the middle of the third.

The pattern of this game saw the Eagles being effective on offense only in bursts. The inning was either scoreless, or was a maximum 5-run affair. So, in the bottom of the third, ground rule doubles from Rob Gibson, Adam Porte and Darren Priest were among the hits. The Eagles were back in it.

The Raptors were more consistent, though, scoring in every inning. Catcher Kai Rajah was the last man to cross the plate, giving them a 14-10 lead and the chance to close it out in the final, unlimited inning.

The Eagles hopes of a dramatic rally were high, especially when Kumail Jaffer got the last of his four hits on the day to lead it off. But Barton and his defense did what they needed to do.

Two force-outs at second base and a liner to Callum Barwick at third ended the contest. 14-10 to the Raptors, their third win of the season.

The day had delivered everything it promised – as did the season’s four derby match-ups. Both sides have one more fixture remaining, and will look forward to building on their foundations next year.

A round of applause for everyone

 

Herts come up empty after last inning dramas

Sometimes, sport can be a thing of beauty and can raise you up. Sometimes, it can be agonising. This one was an agonising weekend for the Herts baseball club.

The Herts Raptors of the Single-A league travelled to the Essex Redbacks, missing some regulars because of injury and summer holidays. But they were also bolstered by a clutch of Great Britain Under-15 stars.

Josh Jones and Harry Quixley joined regulars Alex Paterson, Dan Moran and Nico Durer. They all recently took part in a successful tournament in Germany.

Nico Durer at bat

Herts were able to get a run across in the first frame, before Durer took the mound as starting pitcher. He had trouble throughout the game getting his strike zone to match up with that of the umpire, but battled hard.

He was backed up by some good plays in the field – from Moran at third base, and nice saves from Jones at first. Mantas Poderys at second base also fielded calmly.

John Kjorstad again swung a strong bat for Herts and they were able to take a lead into the final inning. But the Raptors have suffered a series of final inning setbacks this year and this was to be another. The Redbacks hitting and persistent larceny on the bases helped them come back to win 10-9.

Game 2 saw the Herts visitors keep their noses in front from the off. Better base-running and hitting gave them a good lead. Dan Shaw and Nico Durer got hits, and Moran was on the mound this time, pitching solidly.

But Essex chipped back into the Raptors lead, and their reliever Sean Briscomb was again able to shut down the offense, as in Game 1. It was to come down to the final inning again.

Manager Matt Jackson stepped up to take the responsibility of the last outs, and made good pitches. But the Redbacks loaded the bases and a whiff of confusion after the fly ball which led to the second out was enough for them to capitalise. This time it was 11-10.

Raptors again played with good spirit and improved even as the game went on. Redbacks have a great record this year and earned their wins, but Herts can take many good things from their performance.

Also in Single-A, the Herts Eagles hosted the league-leading London Musketeers, with nobody expecting a home win. But Herts veteran Arnie Longboy pitched a gem which saw the Eagles take an early lead. It was 2-0 in the third.

London fought back, as you would expect them to. They had a couple of big innings. But Herts tied it at 10-10 to take the game to extra innings.

Co-manager and pitcher, Arnie Longboy

Longboy pitched a 3-up, 3-down top of the frame and the game was poised for Herts to secure a famous shock victory.

Then came the real gut-punch.

Adam Porte and Lewis Harrison got on base. They were both hit by pitch, surely a sign that the Musketeers were wobbling. Next came a scorching hit from Jamie Lang, only recently recruited to the Eagles.

But instead of being the walk-off, winning hit, as it first appeared, it went straight to the first baseman. He caught it – one out – stepped on the bag for two, and alertly threw to the shortstop at second base to get the final runner. In a flash, the threat was over.

London managed to score a go-ahead run in the top of the next inning, before retiring the Eagles and taking an 11-10 win. Their relief and delight was clear. This game had been a huge leap forward for the Eagles compared with the last time they faced the Musketeers, in week 2 of the season.

Mike Wakelam got the ball for Game 2 and turned in another excellent pitching performance, but the offense could not back him up this time. It ended 12-4 to London.

Co-manager Aspi Dimitrov was impressed with his players: “Ordinarily, two defeats might be demoralising, but the margin and the close nature of the defeats against such a good side were a huge boost for the Eagles. It really shows the progress everyone has made”.

Witter pitching for the Londoners

In Triple-A, the Herts Londoners were away at the Essex Redbacks. Like the Raptors, they had young talent to call on, with Chris Gregory and Aaron Witter among the pitchers in two close games.

Miguel Sarmiento continued to drive in runs, but Herts could not take the wins this time, going down 10-7 and 8-6 on a grey day.

The Herts Hawks made the long trip to the Bournemouth Bears to suffer a 16-2 defeat, while the Herts Falcons of the NBL saw their games rained off. There is a toss-up there as to who suffered the bigger agony.

Herts history: Eagles sweep Raptors on derby day

The first was in 2007. The most recent was in 2016. A Herts derby is a big and a rare moment. And it consistently delivers on the drama.

The club’s expansion into north west London this season meant that two Single-A teams would enter the BBF leagues for the first time since 2016. That was the year the Hawks won it all and moved up to Double-A.  On the way, they beat the Raptors in the playoffs at Grovehill.

This year, the match-up was between the Raptors and the Eagles. Both sides are packed with rookies and young players, and had found wins hard to come by despite their improving performances. So there was a lot on the line.

Game 1 saw Paul Barton take to the pitching mound for the nominal home side, the Raptors. He was one of the few holdovers from that 2016 contest. And, as on that occasion, he started out well.

His first inning was scoreless. In centre-field, Dan Shaw confidently made two catches deep in the outfield in the first two at-bats – a baptism of fire in his first time playing the position. Two runners did get on, but a groundout ended the threat.

In the bottom half of the inning, Eagles’ starter Arnie Longboy matched up well. He struck out two after the lead-off man Antonio Laurenco got on. But back-to-back big hits from Laurence Currington and John Kjorstad brought in runs to give the Raptors an early lead.

They tacked on one more in the second, while holding the visitors scoreless. But the Eagles strung together some offense in the third to tie it up. Darren Priest got a hit and scored, while shortstop Rob Gibson got the second of his 4 hits on the day.

Raptors moved back ahead with Rene Aschmann joining Currington and Kjorstad in doing the damage. Lee Manning then came in to pitch in relief and helped shut things down.

Paul Barton pitching

The visitors’ defense helped keep things close. At second base, Andy Stratford made a good play on a ball to his right to secure the out at first. Catcher Adam Collins did a great job blocking balls, so that the foul territory (so much larger at Grovehill than at the Eagles’ home of Basing Hill) did not become a factor.

Entering the fifth and final inning, the Raptors led 7-6 and the Eagles needed to score to extend the game. Manning claimed his fourth and fifth strikeouts to start the frame and, with two outs, things looked bad for the Eagles.

But then they shuffled their deck.

Co-manager Longboy came in to pinch hit and was intentionally walked. The next sub was veteran Mike Wakelam, who returned to baseball only last week after a few years out.

He cracked a ground ball sharply through the left side, then Aspi Dimitrov kept it moving before Gibson drove in his fifth RBI of the day. In all, the Eagles brought home 5 and now led 11-6.

Wakelam took the ball as the closer. One run did make it in, on a pass ball, but a strikeout, and groundout and a tag-out – on an attempt to score on another pass ball — ended the game. An 11-8 Eagles victory, their second of the season and one which was hard-earned.

The second Herts derby of the year followed after a short lunchbreak, and pitted Mike Wakelam against the Raptors manager Matt Jackson as starting pitchers. Jackson struggled to find the zone at first, surrendering two walks, and Darren Priest and Louis Verman drove in runs to capitalise.

Rob Gibson at bat

But the Raptors defense helped out. Jack O’Brien showed quick thinking to secure an unassisted double play, tagging the runner after catching a liner from Arnie Longboy.

When the home side came to bat, Laurence Currington hit a triple to add to his impressive tally for the day. He scored on a pass ball, but catcher Rob Jones was able to make some amends for that by throwing out a runner at third to end the inning and keep the damage at one run.

Eagles then stretched out their lead, with Stratford, Lewis Harrison and Gibson all scoring to help them to an 8-3 advantage after two innings. Wakelam had struck out five already.

But Nico Durer then took the mound for the Raptors and settled things down. Over his three innings of work he struck out 7 and gave up only one run. It was an excellent final warm-up for his trip to Germany with the Great Britain Under-15s.

The complexion of the game had changed, but that meant the score changed little. Just 4 runs were shared out over the final four innings – Alex Paterson scoring two for the Raptors and Mohamed Abdule driving one in for the Eagles.

Fittingly, a strikeout was the final action and the Herts Eagles secured a 9-6 win and a sweep.

It had been a competitive and enjoyable day of baseball, with both sides enjoying the chance to banter with each other — while also trying hard to win!

The last time the Raptors and Eagles played league games against one another was in 2013 and they took one each of the two games. The Raptors will be aiming to take revenge when the reverse fixture is played next month at Basing Hill.

 

 

 

 

Back in time: Herts young players help mark the dawn of baseball

Among the events featured in this British summer of baseball was one to mark the game’s origins right here in England. Herts’ own Robert Gregory was on hand to witness the day, and sent this report:

On Sunday July 7th a Blue plaque unveiling event was held at Walton-on-Thames to commemorate the first recorded baseball game that was held there. It took place at Ashley Park, what is now Walton cricket ground, in September 1749.

On that day, the Prince of Wales took part. As part of this year’s festivities a demonstration game was played by players that are either on GB team rosters, or are selected for the national development programme.  This included players of various age groups, among them 5 from Herts teams – Josh Jones, Pedro Gomez-Jones, Jack O’Brien, Lucas Lebrato and Chris Gregory.

Herts’ Chris Gregory in action

The day began with a wet start with the teams “warming up’ in a constant drizzle. All eyes were on the weather forecast and just before the start of the game the weather obliged and cleared up.

Managed by GB head coach Liam Carroll the players were split into two teams — one ‘Team USA’ and one ‘Team GB’. The former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read made the introductions, the two teams took the field and the GB and USA National anthems were sung.

A good crowd took their positions and it was ‘Game on’. 

It was decided that the older players should pitch and catch at a suitable level to provide a balanced game for the range of ages of the players. Chris Gregory of the Herts Londoners pitched first for Team GB.

Some good fielding allowed GB to take a 2-0 lead after the first innings. Team USA then put in two strong innings scoring 6 runs in each, this included strong hits by the younger Herts players.

The game progressed with the crowd enjoying the experience and being provided details of finer points of the game from the announcer, Cris Knoblock. Some young children were keen to play and so soon were playing a game of there own.

The game looked over in the 6th (and final) inning as Team USA stretched out to an 8 run lead. But Team GB came charging back from 18-10 down to tie the game. A final hit deep to centre field by Herts’ Lucas Lebrato provided the winning runs, much to the delight of the crowd.

The players could then relax and enjoy the rest of the festivities with batting and pitching cages run by BaseballSoftballUK. There were also food stalls, entertainment and various performances on the stages. VIP guests enjoyed a buffet lunch in the marquee that was decorated with USA and GB flags and baseball items.

In the afternoon, the blue plaque was unveiled by the comedian Bobby Davro and his father Bill Nankeville, who was a national and record breaker on the track and a two-time Olympian. After that a softball game was held with the celebs and special guests. A great day for promoting baseball in the UK.