(September 3, 2020 – Plano, TX) In what started as an incredibly fast start for the Spirits (35+) squad this past Thursday night ended up turning into a street fight as the ghosts went toe to toe with on of the league’s best on Graham Field in NTABL Veterans League action. With a big lead early, the Spirits could only watch as the Thunderbirds chipped away and eventually took control of a game that the Spirits could have easily let slip away. But the gang stuck with it and put in the effort to rally only to see the contest finish in a tie due to league limits on game times.
The Spirits exploded for 4 runs in the top half of the first inning off of Thunderbirds starter, Fabian Mendive after lead off man, Cliff Brade led off with a single. Brade swiped second base and stayed there after Eric McPherson flew out. Then suddenly, with a 1-1 count to one of the team’s best hitters Kirk Sipila, Brade inexplicably took off for third base. Thunderbirds catcher Brade Bode rifled the ball to third and in what appeared to be Brade sliding in and being out by a mile turned to controversy as the league’s field umpire was tardy to the field. The consequence was the appearance of an easy out called by the home plate umpire. The fact on the play was that Thunderbirds third baseman Rob Carroll missed the tag and just like that, the Spirits were facing two outs with nobody on.
“The call was fair,” Spirits manager, Shawn Lee commented after the play. “Cliff looked like he was out. There was no opportunity for the plate umpire to get a good call on this. He’s behind the dish calling balls and strikes and the play is bang-bang from pitcher to catcher to third. Even with a field up I’m not sure Cliff gets the call. Fact is, we have one of our team’s best hitters up and he’s the fastest runner on the team. He knows he should have stayed at second. He’s going to score when Sip (Sipila) gets a hit and he knew it coming back to the dugout. Mental mistake but unfortunately it cost us in the long run.”
Lee’s referral to the call was the fact that the Spirits unloaded with 4 straight hits and went on to score 4 runs with two outs after Sipila ended up doubling to the left-center field wall. He then scored on the next pitch after Travis Hitzeman hit an RBI single to give the Spirits a 1 to 0 lead that should have ended up to be 2 to 0. Lee then followed with a single and both runners advanced after Brian Hackney singled to load the bases. David Tipton drew a base-on-balls good enough to score Hitzeman and after Shawn Hunt reached on an error, Lee was able to cross the plate to make it 3 to 0. Brant Finchum followed with an RBI single to score Hackney but Grant Martin grounded out with the bases loaded to end the inning with the Spirits leading 4 to 0.
Spirits starting pitcher, Duane Aponte set the Thunderbirds in order to closeout the first inning of play and the Spirits followed with another run after McPherson reached on a two-out single and then scored after Sipila picked up his second double on the night, this time crushing one to the right-center field wall. The Thunderbirds saw enough of Mendive and turned to their ace, Brent Smerczynski to stop the bleeding and he was able to get Hitzeman to fly out to close out the top half of the second. Aponte once again made short work of the Thunderbirds in the latter half of the inning despite a single from Carroll.
Smerczynski quieted the Spirits offense in the third and in the bottom half of the inning, the Thunderbirds offense awoke to get the team back in the game. Aponte struck out Ron Short to start the inning but Jeff Whanger, Mendive and Jared DeRusha each singled to load the bags. The Spirits were in need of a ground ball and hit the jackpot after Jody Nicewonger slapped an easy roller to Jonathan Duran at second. Duran fielded but then backhanded to Finchum covering second and the errant toss required Finchum to bobble and recover the ball while laying on second. To add insult to injury, the field umpire who finally had arrived and was in place to make a call indicated that Finchum was off of the bag and called the runner safe.
“Honestly, I haven’t a clue what he saw,” continued Lee referring to the field umpire and the call. “The toss was bad, but Brant recovered the ball while literally laying on the bag with both knees. The moment he puts his hand on the ball, that’s a force out. There’s nothing else to talk about. But the ump felt that Brant was ‘off the bag’ and just like that a chain of events was in action.”
Whanger was able to score on the play and more importantly for the Thunderbirds, momentum was building. Brian Synatzke followed with a sacrifice fly that allowed Mendive to score and after Smerczynski hit an RBI single to score DeRusha, it was 5 to 3. John Menth also singled to keep the inning alive but Aponte was able to get Bode to ground out to end the inning.
Smerczynski was able to slow the Spirits offense and in the bottom half of the fourth inning the Thunderbirds offense rallied again, this time for 2 additional runs to tie the game at 5. Aponte lost track of a pitch and led off the inning by beaning Carroll. Carroll then swiped second and advanced to third after Bo Vaculick grounded out. Carroll was then able to score on a ground out by Ryan Karonka and the inning stayed alive after Aponte hit Short with a pitch. Short reached second on a wild pitch and the recipe for disaster was fulfilled after Whanger singled to score Short and tie the game. Aponte was then able to get Mendive to line out to end the inning.
Tied at 5, the Spirits appeared to be rolling in the fifth after McPherson led off the inning with a double. Sipila drew a walk and Hitzeman singled and the Spirits had bases loaded with nobody out. Lee took his shot at hero and failed with an infield pop-up that held the runners in place and after Hackney struck out looking, Tipton followed with a ground out and the cheers from the Thunderbirds defense leaving the field left a few heads down for the Spirits as they frustratingly returned to the field for defense. Aponte and company were able to set the Thunderbirds in order to stave off some of the frustration but the Thunderbirds returned the favor in the bottom half of the sixths leaving the game tied at 5 and moving into the game’s final inning of play.
That’s when disaster struck for the Spirits in the form of a Thunderbirds rally. Smercynski singled to lead of the bottom of the sixth inning for the birds and Menth flew out to leave one on with one out. Bode was then able to reach on a fielder’s choice that squeezed Smerczynski at second and with two outs the Spirits were ready to head back to the dugout to take a shot at winning. But enter the cliche, “hold please” moment as the theme of the game appeared to continue in the form of two-out rallies from both squads and this time for the Thunderbirds. Carroll was able to reach on a single to put two runners on and after Vaculick fouled off 6 straight pitches he followed with a single that scored Bode and allowed for Carroll to reach third on the throw. Karonka then turned the Thunderbirds dugout into a cheering section after he tripled to the right-center field wall allowing both Carroll and Vaculick to score and just like that, the Thunderbirds held an 8 to 5 edge. Aponte was able to get Short to strike out but the damage was done.
“Honestly, I thought it was over at that point,” continued Lee. “Nothing against our guys, but when you trade blows all game and then leave the bases loaded with nobody out and then watch the other team celebrating with a pretty solid lead, it’s tough to swallow. My guys are competitors, but we’re also human.”
Lee’s concern appeared it may turn to reality as the Spirits headed into the game’s final inning. Aponte was able to draw a lead off walk, but Brade flew out and 3 pitches later, McPherson replaced Aponte on first after Aponte was squeezed at second from a fielder’s choice. With one runner on and two outs, the only good news the Spirits had left was that their top two hitters were due up next and they did not disappoint. Sipila was able to single to push McPherson to second and Hitzeman followed with a hard single through the left side that was too hard to give McPherson room to score so the bases were loaded. Lee took the first pitch he saw to left field for a single to score McPherson and the Spirits dugout was absorbing the momentum as the two-out rally was unfolding. Smerczynski followed by delivering a pitch into Hackney’s left knee and the RBI hit-batsman allowed Sipila to score and the rally continued. Tipton showed the patience of a surgeon, battling Smerczynski through an 8-pitch at-bat that saw Tipton draw a base-on-balls to tie the game at 8 to 8 but Smerczynski was able to keep his composure despite his obvious frustration and he was able to get Hunt to fly out to end the inning.
The Spirits then turned to Duran to pitch in the bottom half of the seventh and things didn’t start off very well. Duran went on to walk Whanger and the Thunderbirds had their first runner aboard. Duran dug in and was able to retire both Mendive and DeRusha, but Nicewonger kept the Thunderbirds hopes alive after earning a single to push Whanger to second. To keep things good and dramatic for the Spirits, Synatske also drew a walk and the Spirits were in for a challenge as Smerczynski made his way to the dish with 2 hits on the night and poised to be the Thunderbirds hero.
“At this point, it was worth the price of admission,” Lee relished in the moment.” Brent (Smerczynski) is their go-to guy. An absolute great hitter, a warrior on defense or when he’s pitching. It’s the storybook ending a game should have and we were just waiting to see which side of the story we were about to fall on.”
Duran challenged Smerczynski right away with a fastball down the middle and Smerczynski accepted the challenge with solid contact to center field that ended in a fly ball harnessed by Tipton and the game ended in a tie, 8 to 8.
“Great game all the way around,” Lee continued. “Ties suck but this one turned out fun. It’s always great to be in a game when you’re playing against a solid team. We know we can play with anyone in this league but there are always one or two mistakes or calls that seem to magnify the outcome and until we can get that under control it’s going to be difficult to be in the winning side. But what a great job by my guys. Tipton had two great walks showing great patience and what can you say about Sipila and Hitzeman? They carry us, period. Finchum and McPherson also had some key hits and great job by both Aponte and Duran on the mound tonight. We can be proud of hanging in there and still working after two outs. We play a perfect game tonight and we walk away with a win, but we’ll take the tie. It’s not a loss and it’s not a beat down after leading 5 to 0. This is a good lesson for us to know that we have to play out every inning to win.”
The Spirits next test comes in the form of the solid hitting Dallas Cardinals. The Spirits host the Cardinals next Thursday night on Graham Field at 8:45PM. Click here for scheduled details or to download the iScore Central app to listen to the game live!