After a topsy-turvy regular season with some great performances offset by some heavy defeats, the Durham Spartans found themselves sitting at the top of the Single A Northern Championship play off pool along with Oldham North Stars, Bolton Robots of Doom and Manchester Torrent.
The Spartans were drawn against Oldham in the semi final, leaving Bolton & Manchester to do battle in the other half of the draw.
Initially scheduled for a full day of baseball at Wythenshawe in Manchester on August 20th, the weather, as is so often the case, didn’t play ball and the mini tournament was put off to the following weekend. However, Oldham pulled out of the play offs, handing the first semi final win to the Spartans, giving the Durham side a clear shot at the title against the winner of the Bolton vs Manchester match.
Spartans fingers were crossed that the weather would be good enough for the games to go ahead as Sunday approached, and despite heavy rain in the North East, on the other side of the Pennines it was dry.
Bolton breezed past Manchester 27-6 in the semi final, setting up a repeat of the AA final from 2014, in which Bolton came back to pip the Spartans, defeated only once in the regular season, to a hard fought title crown. With this still firmly lodged in Spartan memory, and a number of players from that 2014 final taking the trip to Manchester, it was with a keen desire not to repeat the result that the Spartans took the field for the first inning.
It started off well with Bryan Dunkel striking out the first two visitors to the plate and the third batter grounding out at first. Spartans lead off Gus Taglio got a walk and a stolen base to put him in a scoring position, ready for Toriz-Garcia to bat him round to third. With a single by Dunkel, Taglio came home to score the only run of the first inning.
A recurring theme in the Spartans games this season has been that one bad inning which has put the team under pressure to recover, and this game was to be no different. Coming out hard at the top of the 2nd, the Robots got their next four batters across the home plate before Dunkel finally broke the trend with a strike out on Bolton’s 8th in the line up. As they were competing with only 8 players, their number 9 to bat was an automatic out, giving the Spartans a much needed boost. They couldn’t prevent another run coming in though before a ground out to first base ended a valiant and productive inning for the Robots. The bottom of the inning saw the Spartans unable to claw anything back and with 3 strike outs, they left a man stranded on base. At the end of the second inning it was 5-1 to Bolton, leaving a lot of work to do for Durham.
The third inning saw a shift in the game’s momentum with Dunkel claiming the Spartans’ first out, connecting on a 1-3 play from a mis-hit grounder. He followed this with 2 strike outs to turn it around quickly and prevent the Robots from extending their lead.
Dunkel brought the Spartans inching closer to Bolton with the only run of the third inning bringing the score to 5-2.
In the fourth the Robots started at the bottom of the order, meaning that the automatic first out from the missing 9th man gave the Spartans a head start as they took to the field. Bolton’s Entwistle managed to cross the plate for a run, but Dunkel took another K, and with Santana and Di Bartolo hooking up perfectly on a 5-3 play, this ended Bolton’s inning. Sensing the game was coming to them the Spartans looked like a different team as they went up to bat. Wayne Dixon got two runners home with a great hit and the rest of the Spartans dug in as they made their way through the line-up, managing to score another three times, bringing the score to 6-7 in their favour.
In the final inning the Robots managed to temporarily even the score when Hargan crossed the plate. Unfortunately for them another 5-3 play and a pop up resulted in the first 2 outs and, at the bottom of the order again, the automatic out ended Bolton’s time at bat. Spartans needed 1 run and to bat beyond the 2 hour time limit to win the game, but with the confidence boost of the previous inning the runs just kept coming in. Capping off a stellar day for him, Bryan Dunkel set the wheels in motion with the first RBI. Gus Taglio ended it with the last one, and with consistent contributions through the order, Durham bagged 7 runs and ran the clock out to end the game 14-7 victors despite a Bolton side who absolutely played their hearts out and gave no margin. Respect to them.
Durham Spartans were 2016 Northern Single A Champions!
The victorious team from the Northern Championship playoffs
Farnham Park in Buckinghamshire, west of London, was the next destination for the National Championship Tournament over the weekend of September 3rd & 4th.
Two semi finals were to be played on Saturday, with the Final and 3rd/4th place playoff taking place on Sunday. The Spartans represented the Northern Conference, with Tonbridge Wildcats, Herts Hawks and London Musketeers qualifying from across the southern divisions.
Durham were drawn against Tonbridge in the second semi final, played directly after the Herts/London match which ended in dramatic fashion when the previously unbeaten Herts team looked like going down to London Musketeers until a late rally saw the Hawks claw it back and claim a 5-4 win, putting them into the final.
As the clouds gathered and the wind picked up for the second semi final, the teams took to the field. Tonbridge made the better start, with the Spartans unable to get a foothold in the first three innings, mostly being struck out or succumbing to tight fielding by the Wildcats defence, and going into the top of the fourth, the score was 4-0 to Tonbridge. Initially it didn’t look like the Spartans would get going at all, with Bryan Dunkel going down swinging as he led off the inning. But with Alex Fisher getting his second visit to first base in the game courtesy of another four balls, Jesus Toriz-Garcia stepped up and punched it into the infield, which thanks to an error by the Tonbridge 1st baseman allowed both him & Fisher to advance two bases. Jose Luis Santana and Ricky Scott followed this up with solid at bats and brought in the first two runs of the afternoon for Durham. Tonbridge added another three to their tally, bringing the score going into the 5th to 7-2, but the Spartans had made a start.
Austins made a solid lead off to the 5th inning, hitting a single, but some tense banter between him and the Wildcats lefty pitcher caused enough of a distraction for him to react too slowly to get back to the bag from his lead and he was easily picked off at 1st. Ian Porley got to 1st base on some more inconsistent pitching for the next Spartan at bat, and when Dunkel smashed one to the outfield between centre and right, Porley was signalled to sprint for home as he rounded third base bringing the score to 7-3. The drizzle that had started earlier began to increase as Fisher came to bat. He took a ball, and then Dunkel, who had made it round to third attempted to steal home, colliding with the catcher and getting called out on the tag. 2 down. After some more off target pitching, Fisher was signalled to take his third walk to first of the day, and in frustration at not being given the chance to hit again, threw his bat to the ground in the direction of the Spartan dugout. The umpire, seeing this, immediately ejected him from the game which brought the inning to a sloppy, undignified end.
With the rain getting worse a delay was called before Tonbridge took to the plate, but when they did, some solid Spartan pitching from Dunkel and tight defensive work dismissed them with no runs added. The rain again broke up the sixth inning although with the Wildcats pitcher tiring the Spartans added to their tally with Santana & Rob Warrilow, who had taken over catching duties after Fisher’s ejection, being batted in by Scott & Toriz-Garcia. Tonbridge also managed another two runs through in the sixth, bringing the score to 9-5. Hopes were high in the Spartan dugout that the rain would ease and the momentum would see them begin to shut down Tonbridge, but with three innings left to play and the heavy rain looking set in, making the home plate area too boggy to continue, the game was called, having had the regulation minimum amount of innings played. This meant the result stood and it was a win for the Wildcats. Frustrated at the weather, the Spartans could only rue their slow start and 3 ‘give-away’ outs in the 5th inning as they wished the Wildcats the best of luck for the final the following day.
Sunday’s weather was much more like baseball weather as Durham stepped up to take on London Musketeers in the third place playoff.
London started strongly, knocking 4 runs through the Spartan defence in the top of the 1st but the Spartans came out fighting too. Porley led off with a triple blasted to left centre field, Dunkel got a walk and then Fisher carbon copied Porley’s hit with another triple, driving home the first two runs for Durham. Estile Peniche struck out swinging, and Warrilow popped one up for the Musketeers catcher to take a running catch in foul territory. Mark Austins was next up and steadied the ship with single, batting in Fisher, followed by a stolen base with rookie Al Sullivan at the plate. Sullivan singled to right field which gave Austins time to get round third and score the Spartans fourth for the inning, matching London. Santana lined one to the second baseman for the third out, stranding Sullivan, but it was a much better start for the North East side. The second inning saw London add one to their tally, and with Franco Di Bartolo & Porley both getting hits for the Spartans, it looked like an answer was coming. Two good catches at third base and left field stopped the flow though and with Warrilow grounding one to the Musketeer short stop for a 6-3 play, the inning was over quickly.
London put more pressure on Durham through the third, getting another four runners across the plate and with the Spartans coming in to bat the score was 9-4. Austins, Sullivan and Santana were the first three up, and all three got on base, with Santana batting home Austins. Di Bartolo cracked one straight back at the Musketeers pitcher who reacted quickly enough to stop it and convert the out at first base. Sullivan, Santana, Porley and Dunkel all made it home to tie the scores in a flurry of solid hitting, with Fisher the only scalp, caught by the second baseman. Austins came to bat again after Peniche and Warrilow got on board and looked likely to score, but he was the last out, ending the inning 9-9. The momentum was solidly with the Spartans now as 3 quick outs in the top of the fourth gave them a chance to get straight back into bat and capitalise on a productive third inning. Sullivan & Santana both got on base and stole forward, then Bartolo was given a walk which loaded the bases as Porley came up to bat. He took the first two strikes and then hammered one deep into left field to drive home three runs, settling for a safe double himself as the ball was returned. Dunkel was next up and after Porley stole 3rd, he followed with a monster hit to right field. Playing short, the London fielders had no choice but to turn and head to the boundary to retrieve the ball, relaying it back to home plate, but not quickly enough to prevent Dunkel from claiming an in the park home run. Fisher then doubled and made it home on a passed ball and a wild pitch as Peniche’s patience at the plate paid off, ending his at bat with a single himself. Another wild pitch and an error at third base saw Peniche sprint home for the Spartans 7th run of the inning. Three quick outs with a catch by the London short stop, runner interference to first and a strikeout quickly ended the inning, but the damage had been done. The Spartans led 16-9.
London came back hard and with a couple of fielding errors by the Spartans, they clawed it back to 16-14 which was maintained as they took three quick outs in the bottom of the fifth. Similarly the 6th inning saw the consistent Musketeers gain a one run advantage and strand Fisher on second base with another quick turnaround of the Spartan hitters. They added another in the top of the 7th to gain a two run lead but then the Spartan bats came alive again. Ricky Scott led off with a single, substituting for Mark Austins, followed by Sullivan and Santana with walks. A costly HBP on Di Bartolo moved the runners round, which Porley continued with a single. Dunkel collected a walk and then Fisher nailed another to the outfield bringing home the two runners in front of him. That was the end of the scoring for Durham as two strikeouts and a catch brought the 7th to a close, the Spartans regaining the advantage 22-18.
Then the wheels fell off. Costly fielding errors, and a solid hitting London team that were digging deep, saw them pull back level then squeeze another two in for a six run frame. The Spartans couldn’t reply and went three up three down in the bottom of the eighth, meaning it was all or nothing going into the last inning with the score standing at 22-24 to the Musketeers. A tighter, more focussed defense allowed one more run through, leaving the Spartans needing four to win.
Porley led off with a single and stole to second before another good hit by Dunkel dropped straight into the left fielders glove. 1 down. Fisher then cracked one to right field, but again the fielding from London was well positioned and they claimed the second out as Porley tagged up. Peniche came to bat. Porley stole 3rd, then with a head height cannonball off the bat from Peniche, he set off for home. But the 3rd baseman raised his glove and the ball smacked into the webbing, ending the inning, and the game and earning the Musketeers a battling, well deserved 22-25 win.
A few costly errors in the field had seen the game slip from the grasp of Durham, but a great experience was had over the two days, this being the team’s first visit to the National Championships and they returned to the North East weary, but with heads held high.
The final later that day was won by Herts Hawks, 20-9 against Tonbridge. Crowning them British Baseball Federation’s National Single A Champions. Congratulations to them and all the teams that made it to the playoffs.