(September 20, 2021 – Plano, TX) Baseball rivalry was alive and well in NTABL Masters League playoff action Monday night, as friendly foes and the top-seeded opponents in the form of the Dallas Spirits (45+) squad faced off against the Dallas Cardinals. The Cardinals came into the game as the top-seed and with a 3-0 season edge against the Spirits. The birds previously set down the ghosts by scores of 7 to 4, 2 to 0, and 9 to 4.
The road to the championship was clearly going to go through the Cardinals so the Spirits headed into the game knowing they had some work cut out for them. The Cardinals started with Steve Stone as pitcher, and the Spirits turned to club ace, Duane Aponte.
The Spirits, hot off of a pair of playoff wins and a 5-game winning streak that saw them outscore opponents by a margin of 45-11, struck first in the top half of the first inning after leadoff hitter, Eric McPherson drew a walk. John Hefner reached on a fielder’s choice that squeezed McPherson at second and he later advanced to second after Eric Goetz collected the first of his 4 hits on the night. Hefner was able to move to third after Kirk Sipila reached on a fielder’s choice that forced Goetz out at second, and with two outs and three pitches into Sean House‘s at-bat, Hefner was able to cross the dish on a wild pitch delivered by Stone. House eventually went down swinging, but the Spirits had an early 1 to 0 lead.
The Spirits defense combined with a solid outing by Aponte would turn out to the be the storyline and that was reflected in the bottom half of the inning after Aponte started off by striking out Joe Lowry. Unfortunately, Aponte’s next pitch went into the body of Kevin Fought and the Cardinals had a runner aboard. Jerry Anderson followed with a single, the first of his 3 hits on the night and Fought was able to move to second. The Spirits then seemed to be in trouble after Jerry Gamez took strike one and then saw 4 straight balls before walking and loading the bases with just one out. Aponte was able to remain poised however, and was able to force Chris Cec to fly out without any runners advancing. The Spirits were then able to turn a ground ball by Stone into a force out at second to exit the inning unscathed and with their 1 to 0 lead intact.
The Spirits went down quietly in the second, despite a single by Brant Finchum and the Cardinals once again sought out scoring opportunity after Mark Tierny reached on a one-out double. Jason Powell flew out to make it a runner in scoring position with two down and a 4-pitch walk to Troy Key kept the Cardinals alive in the bottom half of the inning. Both runners then advanced on a wild pitch from Aponte and the mistake was exacerbated by a fielding error that allowed Juan Mollinedo to reach base safely and allowed Tierny to score. Aponte was able to get Lowry to ground out, but the game was tied, 1 to 1 before moving into the third.
The Spirits then used the third inning as a stepping stone as the ghosts rallied for 4 runs to take a 5 to 1 lead. Earl German reached on a Cardinals fielding error and the Spirits made it hurt after Aponte aided his own cause with an RBI double to score German. A follow up single by McPherson scored Aponte and he moved to second after Hefner drew a base-on-balls. Goetz loaded the bases with his second hit on the evening and Sipila rewarded those who all reached safely with an RBI single that scored McPherson. Fought and the Cardinals team had seen enough of Stone and then turned to Anderson to shut it down. Anderson, a hard-throwing and crafty veteran has had solid success against the Spirits club over the years, but the ghosts were able to put up another run after House welcomed Anderson with a fly ball deep enough to score Hefner. The sac fly gave the Spirits a 5 to 1 lead and opportunity remained present after an error by Anderson allowed Chris Lewis to reach safely and to reload the bases. Anderson recovered however, and was able to get Brian Hackney on swings and Finchum to ground out to kill the rally.
Despite a pair of base runners to lead off the Cardinals half of the inning, Aponte was able to get Gamez and Cec to fly out and Stone to ground out after Fought drew a leadoff walk and Anderson singled. The Spirits then made it 6 to 1 in the fourth after Shawn Hunt led things off with a single. German’s sacrifice bunt moved Hunt to second and the old school method to manufacture a run paid off after Aponte reached on an error that moved Hunt to third. McPherson went down swinging, but a wild pitch by Anderson paved the way for Hunt to reach home and the Spirits were up by 5 before Hefner eventually flew out.
Aponte was able to get the Cardinals in order to end the fourth and it appeared the Spirits may add some additional insurance in the fifth after Goetz and Sipila started off with back-to-back singles. House was able to reach on another Cardinals error that squeezed Goetz at third, but the thoughts of scoring soon disappeared after Anderson was able to get Lewis to ground out before setting Hackney down on strikes.
A lead off walk in the bottom half of the inning to Troy Key would prove to be a mistake as Lowry advanced Key to second with a single after Mollinedo lined out. Key was able to advance on a fly out by Fought to put runners at the corners with two down, and an RBI single by Anderson cut the lead to 6 to 2 before Aponte was able to get Gamez to ground out.
Finchum drew a walk to start the sixth, so the Cardinals turned to Cec to give the Spirits yet another look at the plate. The defensive moved appeared worthwhile as Cec was able to get the next three Spirits hitters in order. Despite a one-out single by Stone in the latter half of the inning, Aponte remained solid and set down Jason New and Tierny to keep the game 6 to 2 heading into the final frame.
Goetz was able to pick up his fourth hit on the night, but Cec and the Cardinals defense were able to set the Spirits down without scoring and the game went into the bottom half of the seventh with the Spirits holding a 4 run lead. Powell opened the bottom half of the seventh with a single, but Aponte was able to strike out Key to record out number one. Mollinedo reached on a fielder’s choice, but the Spirits were able to cut down Powell at second for the second out of the inning. Lowry kept the Cardinals hopes alive with a single that pushed Mollinedo to third, but Aponte added the exclamation point against one of the team’s best hitters after he struck out Fought to end the game.
The victory puts the Spirits into the driver’s seat as they head to the NTABL Championship awaiting the winner of the loser’s bracket. The team that advances to face the Spirits will be required to beat the team twice in order to claim the walnut and bronze.
“This was a great victory for us,” Sipila commented afterwards. “The guys played great tonight. Everybody was in it to win it. It’s sounds cliche, but after losing all three of our regular season games this year, none of the guys took the field like we were facing Goliath. They played hard every play on both offense and defense and it was just a solid team win. Hats off to the Cardinals. They’re a great team and we’re happy to be in this position moving forward. I have an idea we’ll very likely be seeing them in a week. In the meantime, we’re going to enjoy this one and look to come out fighting to earn ourselves a title next week. Great effort from Goetz tonight at the plate and hell of a job by Aponte going the distance for us. The defense played really well tonight.”
The Spirits advance to the league’s championship game starting with a 6:30PM first pitch next Monday night at Graham Field. In the event that they lose, the team will have a second chance to play in a winner-take-all game two of the series should it be necessary. That game would be played at 8:45PM, also at Graham Field. Click here for championship game details or to listen online through the iScore Central app.