2014 Season Edition No. 14 July 22, 2014
Although it will be hard to top last week’s titillating and cerebral guest edition of The Crimson Chirper (that would be sarcasm, Jim Ed), I will offer up a few morsels in this week’s issue of From the Bullpen. First, the standings through games of Sunday night, July 20:
The Blessed Butterflies maintain their hold on 1st place, their 7766.60 points affording them a 161.2 cushion over the Wahoos, who remain within striking distance. In 3rd place are the surprisingly resilient Tigers, who in spite of very little talent and a pilot not accustomed to winning, seem determined to have a say-so in the outcome of the 2014 campaign.
After that, there is a chasmic gap separating the top three from the 4th place Chiefs and several other middle-of-the-roaders, and then at the bottom of the cistern we find the Senators, Blues, Skipjacks and Bronx Bombers, all hoping to avoid the indignity of last place.
TOP 10 PITCHERS
WHO’S NOT: HITTERS
But enough about league business. Let’s talk about what I want to talk about.
My boy Will concluded his Mount Michael baseball career this month, capping three wonderful years on the Senior boys Legion baseball team and three years on the Mount Michael Varsity squad. The conclusion of his career coincided with the end of the coaching career (at least for now) of Brent Suing, who has been at the helm at Mount Michael, spring and summer, for the duration of the Ernst boys’ combined six-year tenure with the Knights.
On July 8, in the final home game of Coach Suing and Will’s Mount Michael baseball careers, Will and his teammates sent Coach Suing out with style, besting the always tough Ralston Rams by the score of 2-0. The scribe from the Douglas County Gazette captured the occasion in last week’s edition.
The following weekend, on July 12, Will got a chance to close out a Knights victory against the Lincoln Southeast Knights in the Elkhorn 9-Inning Wood Bat Tournament, coming in pumped with adrenalin and gassing out three of the five hitters he terminated with strikeouts, finishing the last batter off with a knee-buckling breaking ball, preserving the win and garnering a save.
The Knights headed into Districts last weekend seeded 4th in the six-team field. Will got the nod for the Friday evening start against Ft. Calhoun, and led the Knights to a 6-2 opening game victory over the Pioneers, helping the Knights advance to the winner’s bracket semi-finals. The next night, the Knights toppled the 2nd-seeded Omaha Roncalli Crimson Pride by the score of 7-0, moving the Knights into the winner’s bracket finals and satisfyingly knocking the Pride into the loser’s bracket.
On Sunday, the Knights faced top-seeded Bennington and jumped out in front in the top of the 1st by the score of 1-0. However, a misplayed fly ball and an error by a Knights fielder allowed the Badgers to plate three runners in the bottom of the 1st, a lead they would never relinquish in a 4-1 loss for Mount Michael. The defeat meant that the Knights would have to rally back the following (Monday) night and face Roncalli on the Pride’s home field for the second night out of three, as Roncalli is the host of this year’s area tournament. The winner of this game would then go on to face Bennington on Tuesday night, having to win a pair from the Badgers to earn a trip to State at Blair.
For the fourth night in a row, the Knights lost the coin flip and played the contest as the visiting team.
The elimination game against Roncalli got under way at 7:00 p.m. on Monday night, July 21, under the brand new lights at Roncalli. It was a dog day evening, with the temperature soaring around the century mark, and the humidity at about the same level. As the game began, the late-to-arrive crowd was sparse and quiet, many fans seemingly dreading leaving the air conditioned comfort of their homes and cars to witness what could be the final game of their son’s career or season.
The game began with the Knights going down in order in the top of the 1st on three harmless fly balls. In the bottom, Knights pitcher Chris Riddle walked the first batter on five pitches, seemingly a harbinger of bad things to come. After inducing the next batter to fly out to center, the Pride employed a hit-and-run, but the batter lined out sharply to right field and the base runner was already around 2nd and heading for 3rd when the ball was caught, leading to an unconventional 9-3 double play.
In the top of the 2nd, Will led things off but flied out to left for the first out, and two groundouts later the Knights were down in order again. The Mount Michael bats seemed listless.
In the bottom of the 2nd, the Pride’s clean-up hitter hit a loud out right at our shortstop. The next batter, Pitcher Crawford, then smoked a line drive missile that may still be rising somewhere, clearing the center field fence for a home run and a 1-0 lead for the Pride.
Neither team could score in the 3rd, and so the game proceeded to the 4th frame with Roncalli ahead 1-0. With two down and nobody aboard, on a 3-and-1 count, Will the Thrill lived up to his nickname and hit a soaring fly ball to the deepest part of right center. The Pride’s athletic center fielder, Jonah Holzapfel (a pal of Will’s), tracked the ball as it was exiting the ballpark, and then leaped into the outfield fence at the last second. Both his glove and the ball disappeared over the fence for a moment before Holzapfel snapped his glove back into fair territory á la Luis Polonia, leading every other player and all of the fans to believe that he had caught the ball. He had not. Home run, game tied at 1 apiece, game headed to the bottom of the 4th.
Unfortunately, the Knights’ joy was short-lived, as Roncalli clean-up hitter Jake Tyrakoski took advantage of a stiff wind blowing out to left and crushed a 2-out, no-doubter over the left field fence to retake the lead for Roncalli.
In the top of the 5th, the resilient Knights knotted the score after a runner reached 1st on an error by the shortstop (the only error in a very well-played game), took 2nd on a wild pitch, and scored on a single. Game tied at 2.
After the Pride went down in order in the bottom of the 5th, the Knights started things off in the top of the 6th with their 3-hole hitter at bat. A come-backer to the pitcher resulted in the first out of the frame for the Knights, and brought up clean-up hitter Will Ernst. On a 3-and-2 count, Will scorched a smoking double to the fence in the power alley in right center, putting a Knight on 2nd with one out. The next hitter reached on a single to shallow left, but Will had to stop at 3rd because the ball wasn’t deep enough to chance it. The next Knight hitter, Kevin Jewell, hit an RBI single to give the Knights the 3-to-2 lead, but a double-play ball by the next hitter ended the rally.
After a pitching change by the Knights, the Pride lead-off batter scorched a double to left center to lead things off in the bottom of the 6th. A sacrifice bunt moved the runner over to 3rd, and a ground ball to short was enough to score the run, evening the tally at 3 apiece. After a single and two passed balls put another runner on 3rd, the final batter of the frame grounded out to 2nd to leave the game tied at 3 all after 6.
After the Knights went down in order in the top of the 7th, Roncalli came to bat in the bottom with a chance to win the game at home. Nerves got to our first relief pitcher as he walked the first two batters on four pitches apiece, leading to another pitching change. With two aboard and no one out, it seemed certain that Roncalli would be able to take the lead and win the game. However, the next batter laid down a bunt with our 1st baseman roaring in like a man possessed. He scooped up the ball, attempted to tag the runner going to 1st, and then wheeled and fired the ball to 3rd, seemingly forcing out the lead runner. Since the umpire hadn’t called the batter out, our 3rd baseman alertly fired the ball over to 1st for what appeared to be a double play. Or at least that is what the umpire called. At first.
The Roncalli coach came flying out of the dugout, arguing that the runner at 3rd was safe because the 3rd baseman had not tagged him out, since the tagging of the batter by our 1st baseman eliminated the force out. After two separate huddles by the three-man umpiring crew, the home plate umpire—a hefty Tony Gwynn look-alike with attitude who goes by “Chili”—reversed himself and called the runner at 3rd safe. Mount Michael Coach Suing then came roaring out of the visitor’s dugout to argue that the home plate umpire hadn’t signaled the batter to be out on the tag, and so the Knights’ 3rd baseman assumed that the force was still on. Valid point, but the plea was to no avail, and so the Pride had runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out.
The next Roncalli hitter, batting in the 9-hole, hit a ground ball to short, but with the infield pulled in, the play was made to 1st and the runner on 3rd did not attempt to advance. With two outs and two aboard, our pitcher was able to induce the final batter of the frame to pop up to 1st, ending the threat.
In the top of the 8th inning, after our 2- and 3-hole hitters made outs, Will again stepped to the plate, facing the starting Roncalli pitcher for the fourth time. Working him carefully, Pride hurler Crawford got his 2-and-1 pitch just a little too much over the plate and Will ripped at it with another mighty hack. It seemed as if the ball traveled the exact same trajectory as his home run in the 4th, and once again the Pride center fielder Holzapfel timed his leap and reached over the fence to try to rob Will of a home run, again snapping his arm back over the fence, but this time with the ball in it. Out number three. An incredible play. Grand larceny.
In the bottom of the 8th, our second relief pitcher gave up a lead-off single to Roncalli’s 2-hole hitter, and Coach Suing came out to the mound and signaled for Will to come in from left field and pitch in relief. Oh, for a flask of Jack Daniels to calm the Old Man’s nerves. Pitching on only two days’ rest, I had to wonder how much gas Will had left in the tank.
Will’s first pitch to the 3-hole hitter was wild, allowing the runner to take 2nd. On a full count, he then induced the batter to ground out to 2nd, but the runner advanced to 3rd. With the 4- and 5-hole hitters for Roncalli coming up—and with each already with one home run to their name, and a strong wind blowing out to left—Coach Suing called for back-to-back intentional walks to load the bases. The call almost backfired when two of Will’s intentional balls almost got away from our backstop, as nerves were running high.
With the bases loaded and one out, Will fanned the Pride’s 6-hole hitter on a 2-and-2 count for the second out. Exhale. Now inhale. With the 7-hole hitter up at bat and Chili the umpire starting to put the squeeze on, Will was faced with a 3-and-1 count, meaning that one more ball would be the end of the game. With ice water in his veins, Will threw a ball on the outside edge which the batter could only manage to pop up meekly to 1st, ending the frame with the score still tied at 3.
After the Knights could not put anyone aboard in the top of the 9th, Will came back out on the mound for the bottom. Facing his old Dirtbag buddy, Matt Morrison, Will placed the first three pitches just exactly where the catcher was set up at the outside corner, only to have the umpire call all three of them balls, continuing the squeeze job that he started the inning before. With Chili wilting in the heat and humidity of the extra innings and looking forward to a cold post-game ale, the strike zone was now the size of a Folger’s coffee can.
After a called strike, Will threw another horsehide on the outside corner that Chili called a ball, and Morrison was on 1st with a walk. After a sacrifice bunt pushed the runner to 2nd, Will faced the Pride lead-off hitter, Mr. Holzapfel, who had robbed Will of his second home run just one inning before. Continuing to try to adapt to Chili’s now jar-sized strike zone, Will pitched his way to a 3-and-2 count to Holzapfel, but then caught a little too much of the plate and the batter hit a ball hard and straight in the left center gap, scoring the run and ending the game, with Roncalli the 4-3 victor.
The teams lined up for the team handshakes, and Will congratulated his two good friends who had contributed to the Knights’ defeat. After the game, Will was positive and reflective, saying that he was glad that he was the one on the mound to take the loss for the Knights, and that if he had to be beat, he was glad that it was his friend Matt who scored the winning run. Much more gracious than his Old Man would ever be in defeat, to be certain. Matt benevolently offered to Will that all five of the pitches that he threw to him were strikes, even if the Chili man called them balls. So there’s that.
The end of a long, great run. A couple of great final thrills from Will. Memories that will last forever. Great competition, great camaraderie, great character in defeat. Who could ask for anything more?
Will the Thrill. My boy.