by Simon Fitzjohn, BaseballSoftballUK, www.baseballsoftballuk.com
Richmond Flames won their first national title since 2006 when they defeated Bracknell Blazers in the final at the National Baseball Championships played at Grovehill Ballpark in Hemel Hempstead over the weekend of September 4-5.
The London Mets and Southampton Mustangs, the other National League teams to qualify for the Championships, had bowed out earlier in the weekend.
It was a day of surprises as the Richmond Flames, who finished third in the National Baseball League regular season standings, advanced straight to Sunday’s final by dumping both the London Mets and Bracknell Blazers.
Both Bracknell and the Mets eased past Southampton on Saturday, eliminating the Mustangs in the process and setting up a winner-takes-all semi-final showdown on Sunday.
The NBC got off to an entertaining start as Richmond disposed of Bracknell by a score of 6-3. The Flames jumped out to an early lead, and with a strong pitching display from Ryan Bird, held on despite a Bracknell rally. Cody Cain clubbed a home run for Richmond, and Michael Osborn slapped a two-run single to pace their offense. For the Blazers, Reiniel Martinez was the tough-luck loser, giving up four runs in six innings of work, while Henry Collins singled in their only earned run.
There was no such surprise in Game Two, as the London Mets cruised past the underdog Mustangs by 8-2. Southampton actually took the lead in the top of the second inning thanks to a Ben Davis RBI, but that merely stunned the league leaders into action. With Alberto Casciello, Dan Williams and Alex Pike all contributing two RBIs each, London moved into a 7-2 lead after three innings and never looked back. Reid Wilson pitched the first known top-tier postseason no-hitter (according to the GBBSA archives dating back to 1994), which was a complete game win for the Mets. Mustangs pitchers Chuck Truelson, Lee Ralph and Dave Wrigley each had two innings of work, and each were hit around by the mighty London offense. Wilson‘s no-hitter was achieved despite throwing nine walks!
In the second round of Saturday games the Flames tangled with the Mets, with London expected to move to the final by disposing of Richmond. But the Flames jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, and with Michael Osborn pitching a gem they continued to keep the Mets at bay. Carlos Manchino went 3-for-4 for Richmond, launching a home run in the process as the Flames kept picking away at London starter Bryan Anderson. The Flames scored runs in five of the seven innings to earn a fully-deserved 8-2 verdict.
With Richmond and London having advanced, the final game of Saturday was a do-or-die struggle as Bracknell clashed with Southampton with the losers set for an early exit. The game began as a pitching duel between Matt Maitland and Gary Davison and was tied at 1-1 after four innings. But Bracknell broke through late on, scoring six runs in the final innings thanks to home runs from Mike Trask, Ryan Trask and Matt Maitland as they finally prevailed by a score of 7-3.
The NBL’s top two sides as far as the league standings were concerned opened Sunday’s action as Bracknell and London met with a final spot open for the winner and a hasty exit for the loser.
And befitting the occasion, the teams produced a thrilling contest, which required ten innings to find a victor.
The Blazers got off to a fast start, scoring two runs in the top of the first, thanks in part to a Mike Trask triple that drove in Leo Nogami. But the Mets responded with four runs of their own in the bottom of the frame, with a two-run throwing error from Ryan Trask aiding their cause.
Both sides began to settle down after that, but Ryan Trask got Bracknell back on the board in the top of the third with a two-run blast, only for the Mets to respond with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning, pitcher Jason Roberts stroking an RBI double.
Back and forth the game went, with Jason Roberts and Henry Collins matching each other pitch for pitch. And once again the Blazers hauled themselves level at 6-6 in the top of the sixth, scoring two runs triggered by Ed Jeffrey’s RBI double.
And it was Jeffrey at it again in the top of the seventh, beating out an RBI single on a bang-bang play at first base to put Bracknell ahead by a score of 7-6.
So Bracknell had the lead, but Henry Collins couldn’t close out the game and Jonathon Cramman lifted a sacrifice fly to the outfield to score Dan Williams with the tying run.
On to extra innings it went, with both pitchers continuing to produce the goods on the mound.
It was the tenth inning before there was any further scoring and it was Ed Jeffrey once more, smashing a solo home run to deep center field to take the score to 8-7 in Bracknell’s favour.
This time Collins was able to hold the lead, striking out the Mets’ Will Lintern to end the game.
Bracknell coach Rob Rance – ejected mid-game for arguing with the home plate umpire – said: “We certainly did it the hard way. But to be honest I do not think these guys know any other way. We were a little bit flat and I got a little bit upset, but I hope my ejection put a bit of fire in their belly.
“There are no real words to describe what Henry did on the mound for us,” Rance continued. “He is a real machine and he pulled us through when we needed it.”
Alex Pike, the dejected London Mets coach, said: “It is bitterly disappointing to not even make the final, but the fact that we went down fighting takes away some of the bitterness. We really wanted it today and I think that performance showed it. We had opportunities, but we left far too many people on base and that killed us.
“Obviously we came here thinking we could win,” Pike added, “but baseball is a funny game and today showed how unpredictable it can be.”
So after two days of thrilling action, the Flames met the Blazers in the final, with Cody Cain and Brendan Cunliffe facing off on the mound.
Bracknell were looking to secure back-to-back titles, while Richmond were seeking their first championship since 2006.
Richmond had a great chance to take an early lead when Cain launched a deep fly ball in the bottom of the first inning, but Bracknell centre fielder Mike Trask made a superb throw to the plate to nail Rob Unsell.
Both sides were relying on strong pitching and defense, with Cain and Cunliffe keeping the scoreboard blank through the first two innings.
But a succession of walks allowed the Flames to load the bases in the third, and Ryan Bird laced a two-RBI single to give Richmond the lead.
The Blazers immediately ate into that deficit when Ryan Trask doubled home Mike Trask in the fourth inning.
The Flames were growing in confidence, though, and they opened up a 4-1 lead with a succession of hits in the bottom of the fourth. With Cody Cain in dominant mood, Bracknell were struggling to get anything going and their exertions earlier in the day seemed to be taking their toll.
Richmond moved further ahead as pinch-hitter Chris Cook singled home Grant Delzoppo in the fifth inning, and a wild pitch allowed Richmond to tack on another.
With the light fading, the Blazers were unable to make any further impression on the scoreboard, while the Flames helped themselves to four more runs in the sixth inning to run out 10-1 winners.
Cody Cain claimed MVP honors after a dominating pitching display that saw him register 12 strikeouts.
Victorious coach Grant Delzoppo said: “It feels great. London and Bracknell have been the form teams all year so to come through as underdogs was great. We hit form at the right time and doing well on Saturday gave us that extra rest which was important.
“We have some older guys here,” Delzoppo continued, “and I think that experience pulled us through. We had some great pitching, especially from Cody, and we are absolutely delighted to be back on top.”
Bracknell coach Rob Rance said: “I think the London game pretty much killed us and the final was a game too far. We were carrying a couple of injuries and that really hurt us.
“But we should not be too disappointed,” Rance concluded. “We have had the best regular season in our history and if we had come through again and did what we did last year it would have been amazing.”
Go to www.baseballsoftballuk.com for recaps of the other championships in British Baseball and some pictures.