It was a sad weekend for the NBL, with the announcement of Liverpoolâ€™s withdrawal from the competition. This leaves just two teams in the division, the high-flying Manchester Eagles (15-2) and the Menwith Hill Patriots (8-8). Manchester, along with the London Mets and the Richmond Flames from the NBL South, had already confirmed a place in the Finals, and Menwith Hill have now joined them – as a result of Liverpoolâ€™s withdrawal – despite forfeiting their scheduled double-header against the Eagles.
It is 10 years since a team from the North made it through to the last two at the National Finals, although Liverpool have twice lost by a single run at the semi-final stage in recent years (6-5 to Croydon in 2005 and 2-1 to London last year). Manchester look the more likely of the two qualifiers from the North to make it through to the last two – and a final between the Eagles and the Patriots is, of course, a possibility – but going by recent years it is anticipated that Richmond and London will win in the semi-finals. The National Finals will take place on 6 and 7 September at Roundshaw Playing Fields, South Croydon.Â
So with the forfeits in the North, all the NBL action took place in the South on Sunday, and of the four games played the average margin of victory was 2.5 runs. Looking back through the results from previous seasons (available from 2003 onwards here), I cannot find a weekend with four or more games played in which the average margin of victory was smaller. In other words, this was a classic day of baseball (perhaps making up for the Trojansâ€™ withdrawal).
The Bracknell Blazers, playing a double-header at Richmond, were aiming to get their first victory of the season against one of the top two teams (all four of their victories had been against the Croydon Pirates). In the first game, the Blazers came back from an early 3-run deficit to lead by 2 runs after 5 innings, but the Flames rallied for 3 more runs in the 6th inning and shut the Blazers down in the 7th to take the game 6-5 (line score). In game two, the Blazers held a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the 4th inning; however, Richmond crossed the plate four times in that inning and once more in the 6th, ending up 8-4 winners (line score).
At Roundshaw, the Pirates (4-18 going into the weekend) were determined to take at least a game off the London Mets (20-0), as they wished to preserve last seasonâ€™s 26-0 record as a unique feat (according to available records, no team in the history of British baseball apart from Dave Wardâ€™s Pirates has completed a top-tier schedule of at least 20 games with a perfect record). Two wins for the Mets would mean that they would just need a sweep at Richmond on 24 August to finish with a 24-0 record. As has been mentioned previously in this column, London – unlike Croydon last year – have had to play all their games against NBL opposition and have not benefited from any forfeit wins, but, at the same time, the Pirates were only able to prove themselves against those teams that the fixture list sent their way. Those points dealt with, letâ€™s get to the action.
Game one saw the pitchers with the most innings thrown in the league this season take to the mound: Croydonâ€™s Jared Uys (57 innings; 6.00 ERA) and Londonâ€™s Brian Essery (56 innings; 1.29 ERA). The Mets scored 4 runs in the top of the 1st inning, but the Pirates slowly eroded that lead, answering with a run in the bottom of the 1st, another in the 2nd (a solo home run from Kieran Clackett), and two more in the 3rd, after amassing four straight hits, to tie the game 4-4.
In the 4th inning, the Mets scored a run to regain the lead, but a second straight solo home run from Clackett restored parity once more before a bizarre play on the bases gave Croydon the lead for the first time in the game. With two outs and runners on first and second, Ty Touchstone got trapped between second and third in a run-down. Going first one way and then the next, he managed to scramble safely to third. Noticing that so many fielders had been involved in the run-down that home was now unguarded, Touchstone sprinted down the line, followed closely by the catcher, and crossed the plate for his second stolen base on the play. Touchstone is well drilled in evading the put-out on a run down, since at school he was always asked by the baseball coach to be the runner during run-down practice with the teamâ€™s fielders.
It was not long till the Mets regained the lead, with Phil Clark leading off the 5th inning with a home run to right field and Mark Rigby, the next batter up, repeating the feat. The Mets got two more baserunners in the inning, but both were caught stealing by Clackett. In the bottom half of the inning, Sam McMillan replaced Brian Essery on the mound and the see-saw game went Croydonâ€™s way once more: Guy Lidbetter drove in the tying run with a single, and then Billy Richardson hit a sacrifice fly to restore the Piratesâ€™ lead at 8-7.
Clackett took the mound for Croydon in the 6th inning and retired the first three batters. Looking to extend their lead in the bottom half of the inning, they got men on second and third with two outs, but Jeff McDonald struck out looking and contested the third-strike call so vehemently that he was ejected from the game.
In the top of the 7th, Clackett retired his fourth and fifth straight batters, leaving the Mets 1 run down with the bases empty and only one out left to play with to preserve their unbeaten record. Incredibly, they rallied for 6 runs before Clackett eventually struck out Callum Woods to end the inning, leaving the pitcher visibly dejected and the team seemingly dispirited.
The Mets, holding a 13-8 lead, brought in the very experienced Simon Pole to close the game. However, with the bases loaded and two outs, Kevin Brush hit his second home run in as many weeks and the first grand slam by a Pirate since the end of last season to reduce the gap to 1 run. This brought Ryan Barwick, in the three spot, to the plate, but his fly ball to the right fielder was the last play of the game. He smashed his helmet into the ground, reflecting the teamâ€™s frustration at coming so close to beating the league leaders (line score).
Londonâ€™s Ernesto Bolufer and Croydonâ€™s Guy Lidbetter took the hill in part two of the double-header, which was the last game of the season for the Pirates. Like in the first game, the Mets took an early lead – scoring 2 runs in the top of the 1st – but the Pirates clawed their way back into the game. Touchstone, their lead-off hitter, drew a walk and then stole his fourth and fifth bases of the day before coming home on a throwing error from the catcher (on an attempt to prevent Touchstone stealing third). Croydon did not score again in the 1st inning, but Clackett led off the bottom of the 2nd with his third solo home run of the day to tie the game 2-2 (this was all the more amazing given that he had not hit one out of the park in his 21 games for the Pirates prior to this weekend).
Neither team scored in the third inning, although that might not have been the case had Barwick, in right field for Croydon, not taken a diving catch and then doubled up the runner off first (for his league-leading sixth outfield assist of the season). In the next inning, the Mets edged ahead courtesy of a sacrifice fly by Jonathon Cramman, but the Pirates hit straight back. After the first two batters were retired, Touchstone and Brush cracked back-to-back singles and Barwick, the next batter, connected to send the ball over the left field fence, giving the Pirates a 5-3 lead. This would be the last official at-bat in Barwickâ€™s 2-year stint with the Pirates, before he returns to the States (having won the batting title with his last at-bat in 2007, this was a great way to end 2008 for him).
At the end of the inning, Bolufer was replaced on the mound by Woods, and this was the first time the Mets had trailed by more than a run all season. Both teams got runners as far as third in the 5th inning, but neither plated a run. The Mets did score in the 6th, however, with two outs and McMillan at the plate; the run scored on a double steal in which Cramman took second to induce the throw, allowing George Lintern to scamper home. McMillan finished his at-bat by driving the ball into the outfield. Cramman (representing the tying run) rounded third and sprinted towards home, as Touchstone released the ball from his position at centre field. Lidbetter cut off the throw near the mound, turned, and fired the ball to the catcher just in time for the lead-preserving out. This play had everybody at the ground on their feet (except, of course, for the sliding Cramman and the squatting Clackett).
The bottom of the 6th saw the sixth home run for Croydon (and the eighth in total), a 3-run shot from Maikel Azcuy, which gave the home team an 8-4 lead. Clackett stroked a double in the inning, which was his fifth hit of the day and what he perhaps thought would be his last major contribution to the game. However, Barwick, the teamâ€™s manager, asked him to take to the mound once more, offering the perfect opportunity to put the Metsâ€™ 6-run, two-out rally in the first game behind him. And this time he managed to hold the Mets scoreless (line score).
I wonâ€™t be at any more games before the National Finals and so this will be my last report from the regular season. Everything is now decided except for third place in the NBL South; the Blazers will need to sweep the visiting Flames on 31 August to overtake Croydon.