(August 28, 2018 – Plano, TX) It was a slow start and another come-from-behind affair for the Spirits (35+) squad on Tuesday night, but a huge fourth inning propelled the ghosts past the Thunderbirds by a score of 13 to 5.
The game was essentially an opportunity for payback as the Thunderbirds upended the Spirits just a week ago to end the regular season. The difference this time was that the offense was able to get to Thunderbirds starter, Bode Wilson and the combination of timely hitting and a handful of fielding miscues proved costly for the Birds as the Spirits were able to charge forward and move to the next round of the winner’s bracket in the NTABL Veterans League double-elimination playoff tournament.
Spirits starter, Jason Bottenfield looked good in the early going and quickly set Brian Synatzske and Wilson down on strikes to start the game. Solid-hitting, Brent Smerczynski wasn’t having any of that however, and he belted a single off of the first pitch he saw. Brad Bode also started hot for the Thunderbirds and his two-out double down the line scored Smerczynski before the Spirits were able to retire Fabian Mendive, and the Thunderbirds had an early, 1 to 0 lead.
The Spirits bounced back quickly in the bottom half of the first after Cliff Brade singled and then advanced to second when Bottenfield reached on an infield single. Kirk Sipila also singled and the Spirits were in business with bases loaded and nobody out. Patrick Bilgere followed with a short fly ball to center and the sacrifice fly was good enough to score the speedy Brade from third on the tag. John Mahalik then grounded out, but pushed both runners to second and third and Brant Finchum was called out on strikes to kill the rally.
The Thunderbirds opened the game up in the second with the help of some untimely Spirits fielding errors. Nathaniel Larmon reached on an error and advanced to second after Justin Toone singled. Jody Nicewonger followed with a single to load the bases and Bottenfield rallied to strike out Jeff Whanger. Felipe Luna then appeared to ground into what might be an easy 4-6-3 double-play, but Eric McPherson tried to bare-hand the toss from Mahalik to save time to complete the twin-killing and lost control of the ball and all runners were safe. Larmon was able to score on the play and a single by Synatzke to right field scored Toone. Jonathan Duran‘s throw back to the infield was errant, which also allowed Nicewonger to score and the Thunderbirds had a quick, 4 to 1 lead before Wilson lined to Finchum at third. Finchum was able to snare the liner and made a great play diving to third to complete a double-play on Luna who had broke for home on contact. The play likely saved additional runs and provided the squad with a some relief as tension started to fill the air.
Both teams went in order during the next two frames, but in the bottom half of the third the Spirits offense awakened. Wilson was able to get McPherson to fly out to start the inning but Chris Lewis reached base on a fielding error to put a runner on with one down. Wilson then was able to get Brade to fly out and it appeared that the Thunderbirds might get out of the inning unharmed. But two outs never seems to discourage the Spirits and a walk to Bottenfield seemed to spark a rally within them. Sipila followed Bottenfield’s walk by reaching on a fielding error that allowed Lewis to score and a wild pitch from Wilson proved to have poor timing as Bottenfield, who had scampered to third on the previous blunder was able to score and cut the lead to, 4 to 3. Bilgere struck gold with a single that allowed Sipila to score and tie the game, and after Bilgere swiped second he was able to score on an RBI single by Mahalik. Wilson was able to get Finchum to line out, but the Spirits grabbed the lead, 5 to 4.
After getting Larmon to fly out to start the fourth, Bottenfield struggled momentarily and walked both Toone and Nicewonger. He regrouped however, and was able to strike out Whanger and Petty to kill the Thunderbirds half of the fourth. From there, the Spirits offense put the game out of reach with a 6-run fourth inning that started when Shawn Lee popped up to the infield. The Thunderbirds defense failed to communicate and then watched their shortstop mishandle the catch and Lee was on due to another fielding error. Earl German used his experience to selflessly sacrifice bunt Lee to second and Lee was able to swipe third when Bode mishandled a pitch from Wilson. Duran drew a base-on-balls and went on to steal second and McPherson drew a walk to load the bases. Lewis then singled to score Lee and Duran later scored on a fielding error by Mendive. Bottenfield reached on a fielder’s choice that allowed McPherson to score, but Lewis was squeezed at third and a single by Sipila loaded the bases a second time. Bilgere drew an RBI walk to score Brade and a single by Mahalik opened things up as Bottenfield and Sipila were able to cross the plate. The Thunderbirds decided to rest Wilson the rest of the way and turned to their shortstop, Mendive to stop the bleeding. Finchum was able to reach on another Thunderbirds fielding error that loaded the bases for a third time for the Spirits offense, but the Birds were able to get a gasp of relief as Mendive caught Lee looking to end the inning.
The Thunderbirds picked up a run in the fifth after Smerczynski slapped another two-out single and later scored on a deep single by Bode. Mendive kept things interesting with another single, but Bottenfield and company were able to get Larmon to ground out to halt any thoughts of a rally. The Spirits then made it 13 to 5 in the fifth after Duran reached on a one-out single and advanced to second when McPherson reached on the sixth error on the night by the Thunderbirds defense. Lewis followed with a single to load the bases and error number 7 by the Birds allowed Brade to reach base and Duran to score. Bottenfield then reached on another fielder’s choice that squeezed Brade, but McPherson was able to score on the play and the game was nearly over, less the crying.
Bottenfield was able to strike out the side in the top half of the sixth to end the game as time had expired based on the league’s time constraints for games and the Spirits prevailed over a very frustrated Thunderbirds squad. Bottenfield finished with a complete-game victory after allowing 2 earned on 8 hits, while walking 2 and striking out 11.
“Slow start for us tonight,” Lee commented following his team’s win. “I’d prefer not to start games that way, but a lot of us played in a pretty dramatic game the night before, so I’m sure there were some aches and pains going on. Regardless, we have to be ready to play. I’m thankful that the Thunderbirds had a tough night fielding the ball, but more importantly, I’m proud of my guys for taking advantage of situations, being aggressive, and for timely hitting. Despite my inability to be patient, these guys almost seem unshakable at times. German, Bilgere, Sipila, all of them. They’re crazy patient and that makes them one talented group of ball players. Bottenfield was great tonight, and despite a few errors, so was the defense. Having him in the pitching rotation is going to be key for us in this tournament. The Thunderbirds are a solid team, and there’s no doubt we’ll probably see them again, but right now we put our focus on the Cardinals.”
The Spirits squad advances to the next round of undefeated teams in the double-elimination tournament next Thursday night. They’ll face a solid Cardinals team that earned the number one seed for the tournament, and a team that they split the regular season with, despite only earning 3 hits in two games against. The winner of that game will advance to the tournament championship game and will need to be defeated twice in order to be dethroned. Click here for schedule details, to obtain driving directions, or to download the iScore Central app to watch and listen to the game live, online!