(September 27, 2021 – Plano, TX) It was a great evening for baseball in Plano, and the Dallas Spirits (45+) squad was ready to go toe to toe with a friendly foe in the form of the Dallas Cardinals for walnut and bronze in North Texas Amateur Baseball League (NTABL) play. After dropping 3 regular season games to the Cardinals, the Spirits found themselves in the driver’s seat as the Cardinals were making their way back through the loser’s bracket to the championship game through the league’s double-elimination tournament and needed to beat the Spirits twice in order to become champions.
The teams took to the diamond on Graham Field at Prestonwood Academy with the ghosts fresh off of a 6-game winning streak where they outscored opponents by a margin of 51-15. One of those wins included a semifinal playoff win over the very same Cardinals they were about to square off against. The Spirits sent out multi-squad ace, Duane Aponte to pitch against a solid hitting Cardinals team and the birds sent out veteran pitcher, Troy Key, who essentially owned the Spirits during the regular season. Key, as it would turn out would become a story all his own as the night progressed.
As expected, the game started off slowly with the solid pitching being delivered by both pitchers. The Cardinals saw just one base runner in the first three innings in the form of lead off hitter, Joe Lowry as he was hit by a pitch, but he never advanced further than first base. For the Spirits, it was a two-out triple by Travis Hitzeman in the bottom of the first that resulted in a missed opportunity as the Spirits failed to score him before the inning ended.
Fast forward to the fourth inning and the Cardinals bats suddenly came alive. Lowry singled and then scored on an RBI double by manager, Kevin Fought to give the Cardinals a 1 to 0 lead to break the ice. Fought moved to third on a single by Jerry Gamez, and after Gamez swiped second both runners scored on an single by Chris Cec. Cec advanced to second after Steve Stone singled, and after Aponte was able to strike out Jason New, Mark Tierny followed through with a single to score both Cec and Stone to give the Cardinals a 5 to 0 lead before Brent Smerczynski and Key recorded outs to end the Cardinals half of the inning.
The Spirits rallied for a pair of runs in the latter half of the inning after Kirk Sipila led off with a single and moved to third on a double by Hitzeman. Shawn Lee lined a single to left-center to score both runners, but unfortunately for the Spirits it turned out to be the last time they would score in the game. Key was solid from the mound the rest of the way and the Cardinals added another 3 runs to take game one by a score of 8 to 2.
“The game one loss was tough on us,” Lee, the Spirits manager noted following the game. “We know they’re a solid team and we didn’t want to give them the opportunity to push us into a second game given they’ve had the edge on us this season. We weren’t feeling out of it by any means, but there was a small sense of doubt floating around that we would have been happy to do without.”
Hitzman and Chris Lewis led game one for the Spirits offense, each recording a pair of hits while Lee accounted for the 2 runs batted in. For the Cardinals, Lowry, Gamez, and Stone each led the box score with 2 hits apiece, with Gamez, Cec, and Tierny each recording a pair of runs batted in.
Heading into the second game and following a short break, the Spirits took to offense first. The team made a little noise in the top half of the inning after Eric McPherson led things off with a double and moved to third on a two-out single by Lee, but a ground out ended an opportunity to score and as it turned out, scoring would be a cause of concern for most of the game for the ghosts as play continued.
The Cardinals were quiet in the bottom half of the inning despite a single by Lowry, and the Spirits again started the next inning well after Lewis and Brian Hackney hit back-to-back, one-out singles. Unfortunately, John Hefner grounded into a double-play to end the inning and the game remained scoreless with the Spirits up 4 to 1 in the left-on-base category.
With hard-throwing and crafty pitcher, Sean House dealing for the Spirits, the Cardinals were again held scoreless after placing another pair of runners aboard in the second inning. New reached on an error and Tierny singled to provide signs of life, but House was able to get Smerczynski to fly out and Key to strikeout to keep the game scoreless.
Heading into the bottom half of the third with no score, the Cardinals were able to turn a Spirits mistake into a run. Juan Mollinedo struck out but was able to reach after Hefner dropped the third strike and didn’t recover. A single by Lowry moved Mollinedo to third and two pitches later, Lowry swiped second. Fought then grounded to third and was able to reach on a fielder’s choice after Hitzeman made a play at the dish to gun down Mollinedo. Hefner’s attempt to turn two at first wasn’t in time and Lowry was able to advance to third on the play. The Spirits then tried to roll another pair on a grounder by Gamez that forced Fought out at second, but the turn wasn’t in time and after Gamez landed safely at first on the fielder’s choice, Lowry was crossing the dish to make it 1 to 0, Cardinals. House was then able to retire both Cec and Stone in order to get out of the inning.
The extra out provided a run opportunity and the Spirits repeated this mistake in the bottom half of the fifth inning when Mollinedo once again reached safely following a Spirits fielding error. He later stole second and a follow-up double by Lowry provided the ammunition to give the Cardinals a 2 to 0 lead before Fought drew a walk and Gamez grounded into a 6-4-3 double-play to end the inning.
“At this point it in the second game it was pretty frustrating,” continued Lee. “Both teams were competing and the stress level from our lack of offense was growing. That stress was then exacerbated by small mistakes and unfortunately at that point in the game, those mistakes were only coming from us. We were pretty quiet at that moment, but we were trying to keep our heads up.”
The silence in the dugout was carried back onto the field after the Spirits went 1-2-3 in the sixth. With innings and time running out in the game, the only developing story for the NTABL Masters Championship as this point was Key, the Cardinals pitcher. Key was still pitching and pitching well in game number two. The veteran right-handed pitcher actually started and completed both games, and at this particular moment during game two, Key was keeping one of the league’s best hitting teams to just 2 runs over 13 innings.
“We were kind of amazed,” mentioned Lee. “He didn’t seem to be losing any velocity and he was still hitting all of his spots. He made very few, if any mistakes and he was keeping most of us on our heels. We all know Troy very well, so despite being frustrated for lack of offense on our part we knew we were watching something pretty awesome go down for him and the Cardinals. He’s a heck of a competitor.”
In the bottom half of the sixth inning, things only appeared to get worse for the Spirits. Cec led off the inning with a single and later advanced to second on a ground out by Stone. Another ground out, this time from New, moved Cec to third and with only 3 offense outs remaining the rest of the way, the Spirits were doubling-down on keeping Cec from scoring in hopes of getting back into the contest. House went ahead, 1-2 in the count against Tierny and during the delivery of the payoff pitch, things went South. House’s pitch hit the turf and got passed Hefner, who was catching. Cec was able to score easily and the free run gave the Cardinals some additional insurance, and more importantly a 3 to 0 lead. House retired Tierny with a strikeout on the next pitch, but the damage was done. The Spirits knew they had a mountain to climb in front of them as the game headed into the seventh and final inning.
“At this point, I just thought to myself, this really sucks,” continued Lee. “The Cardinals are pretty good. It’s not that I didn’t think we can rally, it just felt unlikely. I hold more of a doomsday mindset than that of my teammates. Fortunately several of them kept their heads up, or were at least good at faking it. Three runs just seemed like a lot based on how quiet our bats were all night so part of me was already resigned that we’d probably finish as runners up again.”
The Spirits took to offense behind the cliche, “last inning in need of a rally scenario.” However, to the team’s surprise, that rally is exactly what happened. Sipila started things off by taking a 1-1 pitch from Key to left field for a single. Hitzeman wasted no time by following with a single on the next pitch and just like that, the Spirits had two on with nobody out. The dugout was much louder than it had been for the previous 14 innings and nearly 4 and a half hours of baseball, and signs of life began to appear. The decibels dropped momentarily as Lee took to the dish and the call of “infield fly” filled the air giving the Spirits just two more outs to get back into it after he popped out. As that tension began to climb, House took to the dish and remained poised and he was able to follow with a single to reinvigorate hope and to load the bases for the Spirits. David Tipton then headed to the plate looking for his hero opportunity, but it fell a bit short as he grounded into the infield. Tipton was able to reach safely but it came at the price of Sipila being squeezed on a force out at home for out number two.
Getting back to a cliche scenario that most baseball players practice as kids in their backyards blurting out, “2 outs, final inning, bases loaded,” became a reality as the Spirits were now down to their last out. Lewis was up next to the plate with bases load and two down. Lewis swung at the first pitch delivered by Key and grounded to second base. Gasps of the Spirits players in the dugout let out into the air, but Lewis was not finished competing. He charged out of the batter’s box knowing he had everything to lose and it seemed moot to attempt to beat out a ground ball hit to second base, and as the Cardinals second baseman fielded the ball cleanly and lifted his head to make the throw, he saw Lewis coming in hot and forced the throw. The Spirits dugout broke out into a small celebration as the team knew it still had a shot at keeping the game alive. The game was now at 3 to 1 as Hitzeman was able to score on the play, and bases remained loaded for the Spirits with two outs.
Now batting, Hackey, the Spirits first baseman. Hackney was 0-for-3 in game one and up to this point, was 1-for-2 in game two. He would tell you that he probably wasn’t having his best night at the plate, but he took to the box quietly and patiently and a moment later, cheers again erupted from the Spirits dugout after he took the first pitch from Key to the opposite field gap toward right-center. Spirits runners were off at the crack of the bat and just like that both Lee (running for House) and Tipton crossed the dish and the game was tied 3 to 3 after Hackney’s big hit. With Lewis on third and Lee now running for Hackney, who advanced to second on an error by the Cardinals right-fielder, Hefner became the hitter presented with a hero opportunity. Hefner didn’t disappoint. In what would prove to be the game winner, Hefner crushed a double down the left field line that was good enough to score both Lewis and Lee and the Spirits had an improbable 5 to 3 lead before Key retired Earl German on a fly out as the game headed into the bottom of seventh.
“We were a bit hyped one could say,” Lee later commented. “It reminds of you of the intensity of some of the playoff baseball we all watch on TV in October. It was simply great to be part of it, and man, that agony of thinking it’s over for a second and then you realize you have new life? Insanity. Don’t want to feel that way every time you play, but man. It’s exhilarating when things go your way. After I ran for House and scored on Hackney’s hit, I momentarily ran toward him at second to celebrate. I paused for a moment, realizing we hadn’t actually walked off but was fortunate enough that time had been called and I was actually his courtesy runner as well. I was so amped to be out there with my guys coming through as heros. These two came up just huge for us! Hackney’s hit felt like coming back from the dead and Hefner’s hit felt like a jailbreak to freedom. It sounds silly, but in the moment it was pure joy.”
As the Cardinals took to offense and the Spirits buckled down in hopes of holding off at minimum a pair of runs, it was House versus Smerczynski to start off the game’s final half-inning. Smerczynski is well known for being a great hitter, but the Spirits continued to have his number on the night as House was able to get him to ground out for out number one. Key then took to the plate, not typically known for his hitting and followed with one of the hardest hit balls on the night to reach safely with a single to left. Key was then able to advance to second on a wild pitch and that tense feeling from earlier once again began to seep in a little for the Spirits. House lost his control momentarily and Mollinedo was able to draw a walk to put two on with one out. Lowry was also patient at the plate and 5 pitches later, he was at first with a walk and suddenly the bases were loaded for the Cardinals with one out.
“You honestly cannot make this stuff up,” Lee continued. “At this point I’m in left field and Sipila is having a chat with House on the mound and I have no idea where this game is headed. All I can think of is that we can’t let anything get behind us and we just have to do our best to keep them from scoring three. They get two, we go to extras and win it, but they can’t get three. I then adamantly yell out to my outfielders that the play is at third and to hit the cut off. We can’t afford to give up any extra bases. We get a little silly most of the time with trying to throw guys out. Heck, we’re successful a lot of times as well, but I’m just trying to visualize and communicate so we’re all on the same page and we don’t give them extra bases or extra scoring opportunities. I’m not a second into my inhale after yelling and the next Cardinals hitter hits a deep fly in my direction…”
At the plate is Fought and he did just that. Hard hit fly ball to left field and Lee hauls it in and sends his throw safely into third as Key tags and scores on the sacrifice fly. 5 to 4, Spirits. Two outs. Runners on first and second. Due up is Gamez. He can hit the ball in any direction. He’s not the fastest guy, but bound for a good decision at the plate. As many would expect, perhaps this is an at-bat that could face a little song and dance between him and House. Veteran pitcher. Veteran hitter. But unlike his normal fashion, Gamez jumps on the first pitch he sees and who knows? Maybe it’s a pitch he wants to drive over the infield to get enough contact to score a run. However, the result is a ground ball to the right side Spirits infield. The entire Spirits defense hears the words so often yelled out from Aponte as he normally does whether he’s pitching or elsewhere on the diamond. “STEP and THROW!” someone calls out” The ball is corralled by Aponte. He rises, steps, and makes an easy throw to Sipila at first base. The Spirits are your NTABL Masters League Champions for 2021!
“It was so damn fun,” Lee finally summed up. “There was just so many factors and working parts. I guess it’s always fun when you review them in your head. Guys who weren’t playing very well coming up huge. Guys who were playing really well and not coming up with that hero moment. It really took all of us. And when it’s in doubt and you come back and steal it? Well, that’s just story book. I say it all the time. I’d rather play and lose with these guys than play anywhere else. Fortunately the baseball Gods were working in our favor and when you sum up all of the little parts, the mistakes, the highs and lows; it just makes it special. Hats off to the Cardinals. A class organization and a great set of baseball players. We didn’t just win the title. We beat a hell of a good team to earn the title.”
Lee and Hackney led the Spirits offense for game two, each finishing with a pair of hits. Hackney finished with two runs batted in and Hefner’s double paved the way for the winning runs. McPherson and Tipton each finished with a double, and House went the distance to pick up his second Spirits Masters League Championship win (2018) as a pitcher, dealing all 7 innings while allowing 3 earned on 6 hits; walking 3, and striking out 3. Lowry led the Cardinals in game two, finishing 3-for-3, while also drawing a walk, scoring once, and knocking in a run. Key takes the unfortunate loss after pitching 14 innings, allowing 6 earned off of 19 hits, while walking only one, and striking out 4.
The 2021 title is the 7th for the Dallas Spirits Baseball Club overall. The Spirits would like to thank all their supporters including the women who let them play, the NTABL, corporate supporters including Core Physical Medicine of Coppell, Waxahachie Autoplex in Waxahachie, and DJ Sean Lee of Dallas/Fort Worth.