The Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League season is nearing its end, and last night’s game was the penultimate regular season game for the Redbirds. (Next week is the league’s postseason.) The Redbirds, with the league’s North Division’s best record at 27-11, were playing the Big Train, the owner of the league’s South Division’s best record, also at 27-11. At stake in this game was seeding for the playoffs; this game and tomorrow’s games would determine if the Redbirds or the Big Train had the regular season’s best record and the playoff’s top seed. The league’s top two teams, jockeying for position. This had the potential to be epic.
For the Redbirds, this game was also special — it was Host Family Recognition Night. The Redbirds had a special ceremony that recognized the host families, who took the Redbirds’ players into their homes and lives for the summer. (As college players, the players aren’t paid, so they live with local families who support the team.) Four families were recognized along with the players who lived with them this summer. There were flowers. There were hugs. There were photographs taken. It was a lovely moment, and the ceremony received polite applause.
The crowd at that point, about quarter past six, was thin, under twenty people, and that includes the media and management team from the Big Train, in their matching green polo shirts and white baseball caps, in the seating section where, for the games I’ve attended, I’ve sat — in the grandstand to the first base side of home plate. I ended up sitting on the opposite side of the grandstand. Not because I’d have felt weird sitting where I was, but I didn’t want to be in the way of the Big Train media squad. Where I sat I could hear their radio play-by-play announcer talk; from what I heard, he did a fantastic job conveying the story of the game.
Bethesda traveled well. The crowd topped out at about fifty, three innings into the game, and eventually that side of the grandstand was filled with Big Train partisans. All told, they were about forty percent of the crowd, so around twenty people were there, cheering loudly for the away team.
Pitching for the Redbirds was North Carolina’s Cole Aker. He had a little difficulty locating the plate in the first inning, but not to any real damage, stranding a runner at second.
On the mound for the Big Train was San Francisco’s Chase Gardner. He gave up a lead-off single to Cam Simmons, who was sac bunted over to second by Wake Forest’s Jake Mueller. When Ole Miss’ DJ Miller then showed bunt with a runner on second and one out, I thought this strategy was downright odd — why start the a game playing small ball and giving up productive outs? Miller failed to move Simmons to third, and then Maryland’s Marty Costes ended the threat with a groundout to short.
In the third inning, the Big Train loaded the bases with one out. Sacramento State’s Vinny Esposito drilled the first pitch he saw into the right field corner for a double, scoring two runs. Then Mississippi State’s Cody Brown struck out, and Maryland’s Justin Morris drove the wall to the warning track in left for the inning’s final out.
Also in the top of the third, the umpire took a foul ball off his face mask. The umpires conferred, the Redbirds’ trainer came out to talk to him, and he stayed in the game.
The Redbirds made a pitching change to start the fourth, bringing on left hander Tyler Blohm from Maryland. Blohm retired the side in order.
Going into the bottom of the sixth, the Redbirds’ offense was so anemic against Gardner that even iron wouldn’t have helped; down two runs, they were also outhit by the Big Train in the game thus far, 9 hits to 2.
UNC’s Utah Jones started off the inning with a walk. Cam Simmons then had the night’s longest at bat against Gardner, working the count full, fouling off several pitches, then hitting a ball to left that bounced over the outfield wall for a ground rule double, putting runners on second and third with no outs.
The Big Train made a pitching change, bringing in left hander C.J. Schildt from Bowling Green. Jake Mueller dropped a bunt along the third base line, but it rolled foul. He swung and missed at the next pitch and then, down 0-2 in the count, dropped a single into left that scored Jones. D.J. Miller then hit a ball weakly in the direction of the mound; Schildt fielded the ball and threw it to third for a force out on Simmons, but the throw was late and the bases were loaded. Martin Costes hit a ground ball to Clayton Daniel at second for a 4-6 force out, but Simmons scored to tie the game and runners were at the corners with 1 out.
UNC’s Kyle Datres struck out, but the Redbirds executed a double steal — Costes to second, then Mueller home — to take the lead, 3-2. The Redbirds threat ended when UVA’s Ryan Karstetter hit a fly ball to the warning track for the inning’s final out.
In the top of the seventh, the Redbirds brought in right hander Hunter Parsons to pitch. He retired the side in order.
The Big Train threatened in the eighth. Mississippi State’s Cody Brown hit a ball toward first that first baseman Matt Rowland of Tulane, ranging to his right, was unable to field. (I believe this was ruled as an error.) Justin Morris then drove a ball into left. Martin Costes backpedaled on the ball, his glove thrust over his head, and somehow made the catch. Brown, however, read the ball off the bat as going over Costes’ head, and broke for second. Costes, with a powerful throw from medium depth in left, was able to double off Brown at first, ending the Big Train threat. In Brown’s defense, I’d made the same read on the ball off the bat, assuming it was going over Costes’ head, and would roll to the wall.
The Redbirds had two men with two outs in the bottom half of the inning, but they were unable to add an insurance run.
Left hander Andrew Miller of Maryland came on in the top of the 9th to close out the game to the accompaniment of Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”
He gave up a lead-off single to designated hitter Michael Emodi of Creighton who was then lifted for pinch runner Fox Semones of James Madison. Moorpark’s Garrett Kueber went up showing bunt; he took two balls and a called strike, then dropped a bunt for a 1-3 sacrifice that moved Semones, the tying run, to second. Left fielder Cam Daugherty battled Miller, eventually hitting a grounder weakly to first that was handled unassisted by Rowland and advanced Semones to third. Now, with the tying run 90 feet from home and with the Big Train down to their last out, Virginia Commonwealth’s Logan Farrar stepped in.
Farrar hit a single into left to tie the game. The save was blown. The Big Train crowd went wild.
The inning then ended when Jacksonville State’s Clayton Daniel struck out.
Leading off the bottom of the 9th for the Redbirds, Ryan Karstetter battled Schildt, then doubled off the wall in center-right. A wild pitch to Manny Pazos advanced Karstetter to third, then Pazos struck out. The Big Train then intentionally walked Matt Rowland to set up the double play to get out of the inning.
Into the box stepped Utah Jones.
Schildt’s first pitch was low and outside. He was obviously trying to induce Jones to flail wildly at a pitch nowhere near the plate or, if Jones somehow made contact, ensure weak contact that stayed in the infield. Jones let it pass.
The second pitch was exactly the same, low and outside. Again, Jones let it pass.
The third pitch? Similar, but not so far outside. Jones made contact. It wasn’t hard contact, but neither was it weak. It was contact enough to lift the ball over the infield, but not enough to send it deep into the outfield. The ball dropped in to shallow right, Karstetter crossed the plate.
The Redbirds stormed the field. The Redbirds crowd went wild.
Redbirds 4, Big Train 3.
The game was tense. The final inning had all the excitement and drama you could imagine a baseball game could have.
The Redbirds took an edge in the race to be the post-season’s number one seed. A win today or a Big Train loss today would seal it.
I’ve enjoyed the handful of Redbirds games I’ve attended in the last few weeks. There’s something charming about a baseball game that’s about baseball in these over-amped times. There’s no Racing Presidents (much as I love them), no t-shirt toss. There’s no silly between innings games. Just young men, bats and balls, and a field — well, turf — of green under the lights on pleasant summer evenings with a crowd that’s enthusiastic and focused on the game.
Tonight’s the final regular season Redbirds game. No, I’m not going; I have other plans for tonight.
I may attend the first playoff game on Monday, though. Opponent, as far as I know, still undetermined.