(August 27, 2018 – Plano, TX) We see games played, playoffs, and even championships that come and go. Every sport, every season provides a new story and a new victor, but there’s those certain moments in history and certain ways that games turn out that leave an impression on a competitor’s soul, and on Monday night one of those games revealed itself under the lights at Graham Field.
Based on season results one may believe that the Spirits (45+) squad held favor in the big game, but history between the two ball clubs tells a different story. Reds pitcher, Dan Sosa has seen success against the ghosts on a number of occasions and Monday night proved to be one of those occasions. The unfortunate side to Sosa’s solid performance was that Spirits pitchers, Brant Finchum and Sean House had slightly better evenings, respectively.
Looking at the regular season results between the two clubs, the Spirits held a huge advantage with a 6-1 record over the Reds, but down the stretch things were much closer than those results show starting with the only loss the Spirits saw all season. The Reds took game four of the season series by a score of 7 to 2, and two out of the next three games were much closer than the previous match-ups including a 9-8 win for the Spirits and a 4 to 2 victory in the second round of the playoffs. During last year’s match-ups between the two clubs, you could typically expect a 2 to 1 score by the end of the evening with either Sosa or a Spirits pitcher being at the end of a tough loss.
Monday night’s NTABL Masters League Championship was no exception as Sosa took on Finchum in what proved to be a pitcher’s duel from the get go. Finchum took the hill to start off the game and set the three hitters he faced in order and Sosa returned the favor in the bottom half of the inning by getting Finchum to ground out and then both House and Kirk Sipila to fly out in 5 pitches of work.
Finchum was able to get Sosa to ground out to start the second and then struck out Brett Baker. Stacy Scott drew a controversial walk in what appeared to be a rather tight strike zone, but Finchum didn’t let it bother him. Scott swiped second to give the Reds a runner in scoring position, but Finchum promptly struck out Chris Duty looking to end the threat. Unfortunately for the Spirits offense, preservation of Sosa’s work continued in the latter half of the second as Patrick Bilgere, Guy Koenig and Shawn Lee were retired in order and only required Sosa to waste another 6 pitches in doing so.
In the top half of the third, 3 ground outs on 7 pitches from Finchum all but guaranteed a game of baseball that may find itself over within an hour of work. The Spirits offense returned in the bottom half of the third and that feeling you get when you try to fire up an engine that’s sat for a year crossed the minds of the regular season champs as they were able to muster a few base runners, but once again came up scoreless. Eric McPherson and Earl German flew out to start the inning and Chris Lewis finally broke Sosa’s spell on the offense with a soft line drive good for a single. Jack Nash made things interesting by wearing one of Sosa’s pitches on the foot and the Spirits had two on with two out. The rally died quickly however, as Sosa refocused and was able to get Mark Leemaster to ground out and after 3 full innings of play, both teams finally made it through their batting orders eagerly awaiting what round two might have in store.
Finchum sent T.K. Hayes back to the dugout on called strikes before Rob Medel reached on a single. Finchum was able to get Marc Fagon to fly out and after Medel stole second to give the Reds an ounce of hope, Finchum was able to then get Sosa on a fly ball to end the Reds half of the inning. Sipila reached on a one-out single in the bottom half of the fourth, but it was a bit of the same for the Spirits offense as Sosa found the right combination of pitches to stall the Spirits offense and to close out the fourth inning with a scoreless tie.
After getting Baker for the first out in the fifth, the Spirits defense was put on notice after Scott found a gap in left-center field to record a double. With a runner in scoring position and one out, Duty returned to the plate looking to add a big swing to make the game more interesting. What he found was an unfortunately-timed, 12-6 curveball from Finchum that was called for strike three and a collective sigh expelled from a tense defense waiting to make a play. Finchum and company were able to get James Roberts to ground out and the pitcher’s duel remained intact.
Koenig returned to the plate for the Spirits in the bottom half of the fifth and created an awesome foreshadow by belting a line drive over the head of the Reds left fielder to lead off the inning with a double. Lee returned to the plate and squared to bunt in what appeared to be a solid move to advance the runner in a close game, but then appeared to change his mind on the next pitch. Sosa’s 1-0 pitch was delivered to the warning track but right to the Reds left fielder.
“I probably should have laid one down,” commented Lee after he was questioned on his decision. “I really felt it was a great opportunity to move Guy over. We’d have a runner in a position to tag and in a close game like this, perhaps that’s the difference. The next pitch I saw came straight down the middle and I was confident I could put it into play. I hit it hard, but unfortunately right to someone. It’s one of those you kind of beat yourself up about after the fact, but I felt we were here to step on the gas so I tried to make something happen.”
The offense sputtered a bit after Koenig’s big hit as Sosa was able to get McPherson to fly out just past the infield grass and German hit a solid ball to right that was caught on the run by the Reds right fielder.
The game moved into the top half of the sixth and Sammy Vives battled Finchum against a 2-2 count and was able to reach safely on a single. Finchum continued his excellent work by striking out Bobby Michaelides, but Hayes returned to the plate and dropped a perfect bunt in front of home to sacrifice himself in order to push Vives to second. With a runner in scoring position and two down, the Spirits were confident they could get out of the inning, but Sipila decided to turn to House to put a stop to any opportunity the Reds had in mind. House appeared to have gotten the job done as Medel slapped a medium line drive toward right field that Nash gave chase to. Nash ran up on the ball and it looked like he would make the catch on the run, but the ball hit the heal of his glove and Medel reached safely and Vives made his way to third on the error. The Spirits tried to save face, but Fagan became the Reds hero after he singled off a 2-1 pitch to score Vives and the Reds had a 1 to 0 lead and the momentum. House as able to eventually get Sosa on a ground out, but the damage was done and the momentum appeared to be in the Reds dugout.
“We remained confident going up to bat down a run,” commented Sipila after the game. “We opened the season with a last inning comeback win against the Hurricanes and the very next week we did it against these same Reds. Playing under pressure is nothing new to these guys and I was confident in every one of them that we could still get it done.”
The Spirits offense did in fact make things dramatic moving into the bottom half of the sixth after Nash reached on a one-out error to give the ghosts a base runner. Nash was later squeezed at second in a bang-bang play that allowed Leemaster to reach on a fielder’s choice. Finchum followed up with a single to once again give the Spirits a runner in scoring position, but the opportunity was slammed shut after Sosa made an incredible play to leap at a ground ball delivered from House up the middle. Sosa was in the middle of his follow through and House sent a high-bouncing ground ball straight up the middle. Sosa jumped out of his shoes in what appeared to be a sure single, and likely a game-tying single and then easily made the throw to first to end the Spirits hopes.
House didn’t appear too thrilled with the play and showed that by striking out the first two Reds he faced in the seventh and then was able to get Duty to ground out to set them down, 1-2-3. Enter the storybook and sometimes cliche bottom of the seventh inning. Much like its cousin, “the bottom of the ninth” the bottom of the seventh represents the very same setting of a nine inning game as the Masters League only plays seven innings. The Spirits appeared poised to remain in the game, but if all efforts were to fail a second game was slated on the schedule as the Reds needed to defeat the undefeated Spirits twice to earn the title in the double-elimination postseason tournament. It’s not a place the team wanted to go and baseball certainly favors no one, just ask history.
So in an attempt to make something out of nothing, the team headed to the plate and focused their sights on Sosa. With 2, 3, and 4 coming to the plate the Spirits knew something had to happen, but Sosa had other plans. Sipila battled a 2-2 count before grounding out and out number one was recorded for the Reds. Bilgere stepped in with a hot bat and he too battled Sosa to 1-2 before flying out and giving the Reds their second recorded out. With one out remaining for the Reds to force a game two and final championship opportunity, Koenig took to the plate and watched a called strike followed by a ball. What happened next sparked a fire and burned memories into Spirits heads that will likely last a lifetime. Koenig took the next pitch he saw to center field; a hard line drive. Baker, the Reds center fielder appeared to have a solid jump on the ball and was playing a few steps back based on the fact that Koenig went to the left field wall during his last plate appearance. As Koenig raced to first for a sure single, Baker lunged toward the ball in an effort to catch it and the ball blew past him and raced to the center field wall. From here, it was quite literally a foot race. As Baker gather and turned, racing to the ball in center, Koenig completed a race of his own making it all the way around for an inconceivable, two-out, bottom of the seventh inning inside-the-park homerun to tie the game.
We asked Koenig what he was thinking and if he could take us through the at-bat. “I was just looking for a pitch to hit the other way since he (Sosa) throws me a lot of off speed pitches. I was hoping to find a gap,” he commented. “After he wasted a fastball, I was looking for a curve ball away and that’s what he threw me. I made solid contact and broke for first hoping the liner was going to drop and I saw that the center fielder (Baker) was running up to make a play, but I also realized the ball was tailing hard and away from him. My instinct was to hope for extra bases and after I saw him diving and missing, I knew I had to get to third. I turned on what I had in the tank and was stunned to see Earl (German, who was coaching third base) waiving me home. I just kept my head down and felt like I was going to give. I was exhausted, but I stumbled to the plate and dropped out of gas to Shawn (Lee) and a few other guys celebrating and trying to pick me up off the ground.”
Koenig’s unbelievable trip around the bases was good enough to tie the game and at least force another inning. With the momentum now shifted toward the Spirits, Lee entered the box and delivered an 0-2 pitch from Sosa to the hole at short. Lee was able to beat out the throw for an infield single and the Spirits were still in business. The count went 1-1 to McPherson when the Reds catch mishandled the pitch and dropped it in front of him. Lee picked up on the confusion and broke toward second and was safe after the throw landed in his torso. McPherson battled Sosa to a full count and waited for the payoff pitch, which appeared to cross low and outside. McPherson started his trip to first when the plate umpire suddenly made a delayed called third strike to punch McPherson out and to end the inning. The damage was done however, and with momentum on their side the Spirits took the field for extra frames.
House wasted no time with Reds hitters as his momentum-driven pitches were each delivered with an exclamation point. It wouldn’t be a storybook ending if he didn’t strike out the side and he did so quickly and without a concern. The Spirits returned to bat where they had just a moment ago celebrated new life and they made sure to do something with that extended time. German calmly awaited a 1-1 pitch and drove the ball hard down the right field line for a lead off double. The Reds then chose to intentionally walk Nash to create a force and a few pitches into the count of Leemaster, German took off for third. With a huge lead and an incredible jump, he was able to easily swipe third and everyone watched the Reds gasp as Duty made an incredible diving play at third to catch the throw and to save a run. Nash was able to move to second on the play and Sosa worked against Leemaster hoping for a ground ball. Leemaster, a former Naval Commander calmly worked the count to the proverbial 3-2 setting. Sosa delivered the payoff and the switch-hitting utility player slapped a medium line drive into a drawn infield and outfield good for an RBI, walk-off single and the Spirits were champions over the Reds, 2 to 1!
“What a great game!” continued Sipila after his team finished celebrating. “We came full circle tonight. As I explained before, we started the season with come-from-behind wins and tonight was that same feeling. First and foremost, I want to take my hat off to the Caddo Reds. What a great effort from them tonight. Bill Macey and his group of players should be proud of their effort. Sosa was a witch on the bump tonight for 6 and 2/3 innings, before Guy delivered with that last chance inside-the-park homerun to tie it. Watching House come in and strike out the side was huge for us momentum-wise in the eighth. Then we watch Earl hit that double and essentially breaking unwritten rules of the game to take a chance at stealing third with nobody out? That was crazy! You’re in the dugout yelling, ‘no, no, no, no,’ followed by ‘YES, YES, YES!” The drama made this game a lot of fun. And finally, Leemaster’s hit. I think every player dreams of having that opportunity and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. He’s such a patient player and hitter. It was an awesome moment to say the least. And we have to give a shout out to Big John (Holmquist). He didn’t factor in tonight, but a 7-0 record and an ERA just over 2 helped pave the way to this opportunity. He had a heck of a season. Lastly, I’d like to thank God and also share a special thank you to all of our loyal fans and our ladies that all support us while we play the game we love. Michelle Sipila, Angie Biggs, Aimee Peketz, Cybil Taylor, Lily Nash, and the gang from the Hackney family, we love and appreciate you guys so much. Thank you!”
The victory gives Sipila and the Spirits (45+) squad their first title as the team finishes the season with a record of 20-1, with the only blemish being to this very same Reds team. The game wraps up the summer season schedule as the ball club as a whole continues to support and await the outcome of the Spirits (35+) squad currently battling for a trophy in the NTABL Veterans League. The 35 squad is in action tonight as they host the Thunderbirds at Graham Field at 8:45PM. 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.