The way this NECBL Northern Division Championship Series has gone, Tuesday’s Game 3 at Alumni Field was fated to finish in a wild, down-to-the-wire nail-biter.
The Keene Swamp Bats beat the Valley Blue Sox — punching their ticket to the NECBL championship round — but they suffered for that win.
Specifically, they suffered through 11 innings of play, blowing a three-run lead when Valley incredibly struck for three straight homers with two outs in the ninth, two of them with two strikes. It looked especially grim when the Blue Sox went ahead with a two-out, RBI single in the 11th. But the gritty Bats had one more comeback up their sleeves, tying the game in the bottom half on an RBI single by David Bedgood and then winning it, 7-6, on a walk-off single by Kyle Ball.
It was the third straight game of the series to be decided by a single run, and the second to go to extra innings, as Keene dispatched the two-time defending NECBL champs in the best 2-out-3 series.
“You can never count yourself out, especially playing on a field like this,” Ball said. “It was pretty neat watching them hit three home runs, but we’d done it before and we had faith in ourselves to come through in a big spot, and that’s what we did.”
The Bats advance to the league championship, another best-of-three series against the Southern Division champion Martha’s Vineyard Sharks. The Sharks, in their first season in the league, defeated the Newport Gulls in their Game 3 Tuesday, 3-2.
Tonight’s Game 1 will be played in Martha’s Vineyard at the Shark Tank in Oak Bluffs, Mass. It’ll be an especially familiar sight for Keene catcher Ryan Hogan, who began the summer with the Sharks before transferring midway through.
“I like all those guys. I didn’t think I was going to see them after the last time I played them,” Hogan said of his former teammates. “I’m definitely not looking forward to the trip, but besides that, it’ll be cool to go back there and play them ... finish what I started.”
The Bats’ walk-off win staved off what could have been a crushing loss.
Going into the ninth inning, Keene led 5-2, having added two runs to its lead in the eighth. Closer Justin Willis took the mound and quickly struck out the first two batters.
But with just one out to go, the Bats aniticipated celebration became a nightmare.
Cody Littlejohn, Joe Lomuscio and John Marti hit back-to-back-to-back solo homers — Littlejohn to right field, Lomuscio to left and Marti to center — to come back from the brink and tie it.
Despite the blown lead, Keene Manager Gary Calhoun chose to stick with Willis, who went on to pitch three innings and strike out six, ultimately ending up with the win.
“Two of [the homers] were routine pop-ups [at a normal field],” Calhoun said. “It’s hard to fault the pitcher as far as the pitch and the contact, and to be honest, he throws more strikes than some of our other guys at times. I felt our best chance to win was to [stick with Willis].”
Willis nearly lost the game in the top of the 11th, giving up a sharp two-out single to center to Marti that drove in Collin Mathews for the go-ahead score.
But the top of the Bats’ order came up in the bottom half and got to work. Kevin Welsh and Randall Bednar drew back-to-back walks, then David Bedgood hit a single through the right side of the infield to drive in Welsh with the tying run.
After a defensive-indifference steal by Bedgood and an intentional walk to Will Wagner, Ball stepped up and slapped an 0-2 pitch into right field, driving in Bednar for the win.
“I was just trying to put the ball in play, see what happens,” Ball said. “The infield was in, so I was just trying to hit it to the outfield, and that’s what happens. It’s all I could ask for.”
The insanity of the last three innings buried Keene’s highlights from earlier in the game.
David Johnson started on the mound and threw a seven-inning gem, giving up one earned run (on a seventh-inning single by Marti), six hits and three walks while striking out eight.
“He’s got a strong fastball,” Hogan said. “I really enjoy catching him. He’s got a really good fastball and he can use that to get ahead [in the count], and when you can get ahead with the fastball, you can do a lot of things to a lot of guys.
“That’s one thing that Gary [Calhoun] taught me this summer, just getting ahead with the fastball and using it effectively, you can control a lot of situations you’re in.”
Hogan got the scoring started for the Bats with a two-run homer to left in the second. After going hitless in his last five games and 0 for his last 21, it was a welcome change of pace.
“I’ve been in a little bit of a slump, so just trying to stay consistent with my approach and just try to let things fall,” Hogan said.
Tommy Joseph hit a solo shot of his own to left-center in the fourth to expand Keene’s lead. The Blue Sox chipped away at the lead with Marti’s single and an eighth-inning solo homer to left by Isaac Alexander — his third of the series — off reliever Michael Bacica.
But the Bats pulled away in the bottom of the eighth with a single to left by Hogan that scored Ball and a fielder’s choice by Andrew MacNeil that brought in Logan Mathieu. It turned out they would need every run they could get in this game.
Keene went 0-2 against Martha’s Vineyard in the regular season, losing 8-7 in a July 12 road game and 3-1 at home on July 27. While the Bats aren’t exactly thrilled to be taking the long bus-and-ferry trip down to the Vineyard, they are excited at the prospect of bringing Keene its first NECBL title in six years.
“I’m ready to go back to Martha’s Vineyard,” Ball said. “It’s a great place, and I’m ready to win this thing.”
The Bats will try to win their first title since 2013, and it begins tonight, with a road trip and a ferry ride.
This article has been changed after Kyle Ball's walk-off was officially changed from a fielder's choice to a single.