The Varsity Baseball team resumed hostilities with rival North Springs for a three-game series played in three consecutive days March 15-17. Long, warm friendships were set aside for the week as arctic temperatures blew in and two winning baseball teams collided.
Game One, Wednesday, March 15 at Riverwood
On the frostiest night of the baseball season, the Raiders hosted the Spartans and sent Sophomore pitcher Brett Thomas to the mound. Thomas forced two quick outs to start the game; however, a walk, followed by an error and a hit, plated an early run. The Raiders came right back in the bottom of the frame taking advantage of a Spartan error to tie the game. Chase Engelhard reached on the Spartan error, Patrick Hope's hit moved Engelhard into scoring position, and Joseph Tobia singled in the run to tie the game.
In the top of the second, Thomas surrendered two hits and another costly Raider error allowed North Springs to score twice more. At this point, the Raider bats fell silent and North Springs held onto a 3-1 lead until the bottom of the fourth.
In the fourth, Tobia and senior Bobby Hope led off with walks. Next, Arthur Burrell reached on an error and Brandon Moore singled. When the dust settled, the game was tied at 3.
However, North Springs answered in the top of the fifth when their lead-off batter reached for the fourth consecutive inning. This time, Thomas could not dance through the raindrops untouched. When senior Reis Vierson tripled, the Spartans were back in front 4-3.
Two innings later, North Springs padded their lead to 5-3 when the first batter reached again, this time on a triple, and soon scored. In the bottom of the inning, the Raiders tried to mount a final charge. Although Patrick Hope singled and moved to 3rd on a double by Tobia, the game slipped away on Dawson Vainer's game-ending fly ball out to the second baseman. Game one final score: Spartans 5; Raiders 3
Game Two, Thursday, March 16 at North Springs
"Exquisite tension" is a phrase coined by a baseball writer to describe the kind of gut-churning moments that fans of the game love. Game two, hosted at North Springs, was filled with such moments.
Two of the best pitchers in the state faced off against one another: North Springs started senior Reis Vierson and the Raiders started senior Coleman Flom. Both pitchers were brilliant. Through five complete innings, Vierson gave up no runs and only one hit, an infield single by Patrick Hope in the fourth. At the same time, Flom surrendered one run and only three hits as he mixed his fastball with breaking pitches and struck out six batters. It is no exaggeration to say that every pitch was big in the tight game; every baserunner was a potential game winner. The game and players were edgy. Everyone could sense that North Springs, who held a 1-0 lead for five innings, was aching to deliver a knock-out blow.
Nevertheless, the Raiders are proving themselves to be a team with character. They would not go quietly. Finally, the Raiders showed an offensive spark in the sixth inning. Arthur Burrell led off with a triple and scored on Brandon Moore's follow up single. Moore and Joseph Tobia, who reached on an error by the 3rd baseman, then scored on Patrick Hope's line drive up the middle. After Vierson plunked clean-up batter John Beckley on the shoulder, Vierson was done for the night. As he headed to the dugout, the Raiders were ahead 3-1.
Alas, games like this one simply are not supposed to finish easily. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Flom continued to look strong, but the Spartans finally began to knock him around a bit. With two runs scoring on two hits and three walks, Flom turned the now tied game over to Junior reliever Griffin Brown. Brown stepped to the mound with only one out and the bases loaded. Remember the phrase "exquisite tension?"
Brown was electric, even with runners all over the place and the Spartan's dugout in his ear. It took Brown only eight pitches to strike out the next two batters and hold the score at 3-3 going into the seventh.
The relievers controlled both the seventh and eighth innings. Neither team sent more than four batters to the plate in either inning. It felt like whoever could score next would win. Finally, in the third extra inning, North Springs blinked. Batting with two out in the ninth, Arthur Burrell, who had been an agitation to the Spartans all evening, was drilled by a fastball in the batting helmet and took first base. Next up, Brandon Moore saw just enough pitches to cause a passed ball ,which moved Burrell into scoring position. When Moore drove a clutch liner back through the box, Burrell came home to put the Raiders up 4-3.
With a one run lead, Griffin Brown returned to the mound in the bottom of ninth to try and close the game. After inducing the first batter to pop out, Brown broke form and walked the next two batters on eight pitches. For the second time in the game, Coach Santoro went to the bullpen with runners on second and third and the game on the line.
This time, the call went to Senior Ben Miller and Miller was spoiling for the chance to save the game. With one out, North Springs intended to do everything to get the runner at 3rd home. A bunt…a passed ball….a balk….a failed pick-off play….anything less than perfect could score a run. Miller was, in fact, perfect and perfectly calm. He struck out the #2 hitter in the Spartan lineup on three pitches; he finished the game against the #3 hitter, getting him to pop out to Burrell in shallow centerfield. Game two final score in 9 innings: Raiders 4; Spartans 3
Game Three, Friday, March 17 at North Springs
The final contest of this pivotal series was played at North Springs. The rubber game meant more than just the series. Indeed, Head Coach Mike Santoro was sitting on 299 high school coaching victories and the whole tone of the series insisted that both the Spartans and the Raiders believed they were the better team. Both squads were eager to claim the series.
The Spartans started Junior Benny Moses, who gave up only a double to Raider first baseman Patrick Hope in the top of inning #1. Likewise, Raider starter Mikey O'Connell, coming off his virtuoso performance against Carver, got the Spartans out in order in his first inning.
The Raiders drew first blood in the second inning when Sophomore Brett Thomas lashed a lead-off double down the 3rd base line and scored on Senior Erick Castro's line drive single to right. Remember Castro's name; his night was just getting started.
In the top of the third inning with the Raiders ahead 1-0, they added another when seniors Joseph Tobia, Patrick Hope and John Beckley storked back-to-back-to-back singles with two outs already recorded. The Spartans began to show some life in the bottom of the third when Jack Gerston drove a double off the wall over Beckley in right field. Gerston scored on Evan Cohen's liner to left field, which also drove in Spencer Cannon. Mickey OConnell then rallied and was helped by a pitcher's best friend. Sophomore shortstop Connor Sewell speared a hard ground ball near second, stepped on the bag, and gunned down the batter, Ries Vierson, who was racing to first. The double play ended the inning; however, the Spartans managed to tie the game at 2.
Both teams were held scoreless in the fourth inning. In the top of the fifth, centerfielder Burrell walked and scored on a double by left fielder Brandon Moore. Both Moore and Patrick Hope, who drew a walk, scored on consecutive singles by Thomas and Castro (yes, that name again) and the Raiders were back in front, 5-2.
In the bottom of the inning, Junior Jordan McCord came on in relief of O'Connell and held the Spartans to one run on three singles. The Raiders were clinging to a 5-3 lead.
Fireworks began to pop in the sixth inning when Freshman Chase Engelhard reached on a walk, stole a base, and was sacrificed to 3rd by Burrell. Unfortunately, Engelhard was cut down trying to score on a passed ball. Nevertheless, Brandon Moore who was at the plate tried to make the most of the situation and drove a pitch into the gap in left field. Despite his extraordinary speed, Moore was narrowly thrown out stretching a double into a triple and the Raiders left their half of the inning empty-handed.
In the bottom of the sixth, the determined Spartans, trailing by two runs, emptied their tanks. Lead-off batter Gerston turned on McCord's first offering of the inning and drove it over the left field wall for an electrifying home run to bring them within one run, 5-4.
For the second night in a row, Coach Santoro called upon senior reliever Ben Miller. Having thrown some of the most intense pitches of the season less than 24 hours before, Miller was not quite as sharp as Thursday, but he was every bit as crafty. Miller walked his first batter. When Spartan shortstop Ty Millner, who was trouble the whole series, singled to left, it looked like an easy RBI. Moore came up gunning and threw a seed to Castro at home. While every Spartan believed the run scored, Castro applied the tag for out number one. Miller subsequently surrendered a run on a couple of hits and a fielder's choice before closing the inning down tied 5-5.
The teams entered the final inning knotted and it seemed likely that this contest would see extra innings for the second night in a row. Fortunately, the Raider lineup is stacked with seniors who deliver in the tightest of circumstances. Joseph Tobia started the seventh by drawing a walk. Patrick Hope followed him with a walk of his own. John Beckley hit into a fielder's choice which cut down Tobia at 3rd. Thomas flied out to center which brought Senior catcher Erick Castro to the plate for the final time of the evening. Batting with two outs and the game still tied, Castro went down 1-2 in the count before he saw a pitch he liked. And he liked it a whole lot. Castro jacked a line drive into the gap which cleared the left fielder's glove and came to rest at the fence. Two runs walked home as Castro slid into 3rd with a clutch two-RBI triple. Five pitches later, Castro scored when 2nd baseman Keino Robinson doubled over third.
The Raiders now led 8-5 going into the bottom of the seventh. Miller returned to the mound to lock down a crucial victory against a Spartan team that was stunned to silence by Castro's huge hit. On Miller's first pitch of the inning, the batter hit a pop to center that nearly fell in no-man's-land. Burrell stole the hit on a beautiful diving grab. Miller plunked the next batter and smartly walked Gerston whose bat had already accounted for a double off the wall and a homer. With two runners on base, Miller tricked the next batter into a pop fly to Hope at first; however, the Spartans recorded their sixth run of the evening taking advantage of an error at second base. Miller proceded to end the game with a three-pitch strike out of Cohen. Game three final score: Raiders 8; Spartans 6
The game three victory was significant in so many ways. Not only was it the twelfth win of the season, but it was also a sweet comeback series win over a tough and spirited North Springs team. Additionally, it was #300 for Head Coach Mike Santoro. "Bravo" Coach and "bravo" to the Raiders….great series….great character.
Region play resumes Monday, March 20th with a three game series vs. Grady. The Raiders host the Monday and Friday contests and travel to Crim High School for Wednesday's game. Friday evening, March 24 is Raider Legacy Night -- welcoming Raiders of the past, present, and future to a special evening of celebrating Raider baseball (view schedule)