(August 31, 2017 – Dallas, TX) Following a five week stint that recorded only one game, the Spirits (35+) rebounded and picked up where they had left off following a slow start to Thursday night’s NTABL Veterans League playoff game against the Astros. With a variety of contributions leading to a number of weeks off, including an unprofessional forfeit by the same Astros team they were facing, the Spirits eventually found their offense and needed little work on defense to send the Astros back into playoff loser’s bracket.
The Astros turned to pitcher Chris Brooks in hopes of slowing down the Spirits offense and the game plan seemed to work initially as Brooks showcased above average speed and command of a few pitches before eventually struggling to find the strike zone. The Spirits on the other hand, relied on old trusty, pitcher, Craig Molldrem to keep Astros hitters at bay. Molldrem struck out lead off hitter, Marcus Vidal before Kevin Hill found a patch of grass behind second base with a one out bloop single. Hull eventually stole second base and reached third on a ground out by Aaron Lowe. Before getting Wes Kirby to ground out to kill the inning, one of Molldrem’s pitches got out of the reach of catcher, Patrick Bilgere and Hill was able to score on the wild pitch and the Astros had a 1 to 0 lead in the first inning of play.
Brooks was able to get the Spirits in order in the bottom half of the inning and Molldrem repeated the favor in the second to the Astros, including a pair of strikeouts. Shawn Lee drew a walk in the bottom half of the second to become the Spirits first base runner, but the opportunity was short-lived as Brooks caught Lee leaning toward second and picked him off to end the inning with the Astros still up, 1 to 0.
Molldrem once again set down the Astros, 1-2-3 in the third and the Spirits offense finally came alive in the bottom half of the third inning. Bilgere led things off with a walk and David Tipton quickly followed with a single to put two on with nobody out. Brant Finchum also drew a six-pitch walk and the bases were loaded for John Showalter with opportunity to make some noise. Showalter also battled Brooks with a six-pitch, 3-2 walk and Brooks’ struggles to find the strike zone resulted in the Spirits plating their first run to tie the game, 1 to 1. Outfielder, Cliff Brade then reached on a fielder’s choice, which squeezed Showalter at second, but was good enough to score Tipton and to give the ghosts a 2 to 1 lead. Brade was able to swipe second, once again putting two runners in scoring position for slugger, Jason Bottenfield, however Brooks found a few crafty pitches to strike out Bottenfield and the Astros appeared poised to get out the inning. Kirk Sipila dug in for a scoring opportunity, but it was Brooks himself that provided the next run for the Spirits, allowing Finchum to score from third on a wild pitch that reached the dirt in front of the plate and made it’s way to the backstop. Sipila ended up drawing a walk, but Brooks and company were able to get John Mahalik to ground out to end the Spirits rally.
The Spirits never looked back as Molldrem quickly set the Astros down in order to start the top half of the fourth. With a 3 to 1 lead heading into the bottom half of the inning, the offense picked up where it had left off starting with a walk to Molldrem. The Astros turned to Kirby for a pitching answer and Lee quickly welcomed the new man on the hill with a hard line drive up the middle to put runners on first and third with nobody down. Lee swiped second and Bilgere drew a free pass to load the bases for Tipton, who promptly followed with a single to score Molldrem. Finchum hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Lee and the Spirits were up 5 to 1. Kirby made an attempt to pick off Tipton at first, however the throw was errant and Tipton was able to take second easily and Bilgere scored on the defensive miscue. Tipton advanced to third on a wild pitch and later scored after Brade was hit by pitch and Astros catcher, James Schrieber attempted to pick Tipton off at third. The throw made its way down the left field line and Brade was able to replace Tipton at third on the play. Brade’s visit to third was short and sweet as he was able to score on a double from Bottenfield that found the left field wall. Bottenfield was called out attempting to stretch the big hit into a triple and after four complete, the Spirits led 8 to 1.
With the exception of the bloop single in the first, Molldrem was brilliant in setting the Astros in order each and every inning for the rest of the game. Molldrem completed the shortened complete game allowing the one hit, giving up the one run, walking none, while striking out 6. Molldrem needed just 73 pitches in his night’s work, 52 of which were strikes. The Spirits were able to pick up an additional pair of runs in the bottom half of the fifth when Sipila singled to start the inning and Mahalik followed by sending the first pitch he saw from replacement pitcher, Aaron Lowe, deep into the Reverchon Park night over the left field wall for a two-run homerun.
“The guys looked great tonight,” commented Lee following the victory. “We had a significant amount of time off over the past five weeks and I was a little concerned we might be rusty. Brooks looked pretty good for them in the first couple of innings, but the guys settled in and we never looked back once the bats started going. Defense was solid, and even in a night where it looks like Craig (Molldrem) is just getting his work put in, you realize later just how solid he was. You take away the little bloop hit in the first and the guy essentially threw a perfect game. Hell of a night for Molldy. We’re focused and excited for the opportunity to be here. We look forward to finishing this run off on top.”
Lee’s club will return to the diamond next Thursday night as they’ll host the Cardinals, who upset second-seeded Modoc in the nightcap by a score of 8 to 7. The Spirits won the season series over the Cardinals, 2-0, winning 5 to 1 in the first meeting and 8 to 0 in the second. Next Thursday’s playoff match-up will take place at Reverchon Park in Uptown, Dallas with a 6:30PM scheduled first pitch.