Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Oh! What a Series!

Last night, the Vermont Mountaineers defeated the Sanford Mainers 3-2 and won the Northern Division championship series of the NECBL. They will now take on the Southern Division champions, Torrington (CT) Twisters, in the NECBL championship series.

Here's the highlights of the very closely played best-of-three series between Vermont and Sanford:

Game 1: On Saturday night, Vermont won 2-1 when Mountaineer outfielder Robbie Nickle gunned down the tying Sanford run at the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth. Walk-off home runs are exciting but a game-ending play-at-the-plate is equally dramatic.

Game 2: On Sunday night, Vermont was leading 5-2 in the top of the eighth and had the bases full with nobody out. It clearly looked like a Mountaineers sweep. However, Sanford got out of the inning without any runs scoring. Sanford then scored three runs off the Mountaineers and their star reliever, Mark Murray (15 saves, 0.00 ERA), in the bottom of the eighth to tie it up. Sanford then went on to win the game in the bottom of tenth to force a decisive Game Three back in Montpelier.

Game 3: On Monday night, Vermont fell behind 2-0 before scraping two runs back. Then the skies opened up in the bottom of the seventh. The downpour only lasted about 15 minutes but was heavy enough to turn the infield into a mudpit. After putting my daughter to sleep, I headed back to the field in hopes they would restart the game. However, after a friend and I waited for about an hour, they called the game and announced it would continue on Tuesday at 6:30.

Well, to the credit of the fans about 1,500 of the 2,000 fans that had been there the night before returned last night to watch the last two and half innings. And what a two and a half innings they were.

In the ninth inning, Sanford had the bases loaded with only one out. They then hit a perfect double play ball to second baseman, Troy Krider. Krider, who plays at Evansville with VT shortstop, Robbie Minor, double clutched with the ball which caused a collective gasp in the crowd. But Minor came flying over the second base bag, took the toss from Krider, turned the ball around in a flash and gunned out the runner at first. Great play. The Mountaineers' bench came pouring out onto the field to congratulate the team for getting out of the jam.

In the bottom of the ninth, Curt Smith, who has been the best hitter for VT all year (.323 bat avg, .419 slg pct), led off the inning with a slicing double down the right-field double. After an intentional walk, the Mountaineers tried to advance the runners to second and third with a sac bunt. The Sanford pitcher fielded the bunt, spun to third and fired. I thought Smith was toast. However, the ump called him safe. Bases loaded. Since the Sanford coach had argued a few other calls in the series, I thought for sure, he'd be screaming out of the dugout. But he never budged an inch. The only thing I can imagine is that the third baseman's foot must have been noticably off the bag.

That's a brutal mistake in that situation. He probably got cross-footed while scrambling back to the base after coming in for the bunt. Regardless, between his mistake and Minor's quick turn on the double-play in the top of the inning, the entire series had come down to two defensive plays. One perfectly executed and the other not.

After a strikeout, Kyle Massie lifted a fly ball to centerfield. It wasn't a deep ball but the throw was still a little late and up the third base line. Smith crossed the plate and was swarmed by his teammates. The crowd which had been louder than I had ever heard it, exploded with cheers. A great and fun moment.

As the players celebrated on the field, fans were allowed to go on the field to congratulate them and join in the celebration. That's one of the great parts of small-town baseball. Going on the field at Yankee Stadium following a World Series win would get you a billy club to the back of your head from some NYPD on a horse. Here, they just opened the gate.

So, tonight, Vermont starts the the Best-of-Three championship series against Torrington. Game Two will be down in CT tomorrow night and Game Three would be back here on Friday night if it's needed. Torrington won both of their games against Vermont this season and have not dropped a single game in the playoffs so far.

Since I'll be going down to Boston for The New Year show on Friday, I'm hoping the series gets wrapped up in two games. I can imagine myself calling home for updates.

By the way, if you can't make it to the ballpark for the games, you can listen to them online via the NECBL website.

Photos courtesy of the Times-Argus.

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