The Keene Swamp Bats will be sending a large group of players to Sunday’s NECBL All-Star Game, with two starters, five reserves and one pitcher.
Some of those stars showed why they were selected on Tuesday, providing clutch hits to lead the Bats to a doubleheader sweep of the Valley Blue Sox at Alumni Field.
Keene won the first of two seven-inning games in regulation, 4-3, but needed nine innings to win the second, 6-5, with one of its all-stars providing the heroic finish.
Randall Bednar — who was selected as a reserve outfielder — hit a walk-off single up the middle in the bottom of the ninth, driving in David Matthews for the winning score.
“Guys in front of me just did a great job getting on base, putting together good at-bats,” Bednar said. “Walking up the to plate, we’ve got guys on first and third, one out, so I’m just trying to put something in play. I’m not trying to do too much, just stay within myself, keep things simple, because when I’m just relaxed up there and having fun, that’s when I’m doing my best.”
The winning hit was one of three clutch plays Bednar made throughout the day, with the other two coming in the field. He gunned down a runner at home from right field to end the third inning of the first game, and robbed a potential go-ahead home run by Valley’s Isaac Alexander in center field, ending the top of the seventh in the second game and preserving a 4-4 tie.
The reason Bednar even had a tie to preserve was thanks to the efforts of his fellow all-stars.
With Keene trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Will Wagner — the Northern Division’s reserve second baseman — hit a two-run home run to right field to tie the game.
Wagner’s dinger was one of two for the Bats that day, with the other coming from another all-star in the first game.
Ryan Hogan — the North’s starting catcher — broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the sixth with a two-run blast over the trees in center field.
“Just trying to put a good swing on it; just trying to stay up the middle, like I’ve been working on,” Hogan said. “Just got a good pitch to hit and just tried to stay through it.”
Among the team’s other all-star efforts: David Bedgood — North’s starting left fielder — tied the first game with an RBI double to left-center in the fifth, scored the game’s first run on a throwing error at shortstop by Alexander and scored in the second game on Wagner’s homer; Logan Mathieu — the reserve first baseman, and Keene’s representative in the home run derby — scored on Hogan’s round-tripper, and also scored the team’s first run of the second game on another throwing error by Alexander at third base.
Kyle Ball — the reserve third baseman — scored the Bats’ second run in the second game on a sacrifice fly by Mitchell Golden — who, incidentally, was a reserve all-star for the Bats last year. Andrew MacNeil — who is up for the North’s final spot in this week’s fan vote — scored on Bedgood’s double in the first game, then scored the equalizer in the ninth inning of the second.
After Valley took the lead in the top of the ninth on an RBI groundout, Alexander — who was moved to shortstop in the bottom half as part of a defensive substitution — committed his third throwing error on an attempted double play, allowing MacNeil to come around and score the tying run.
“That’s what they’ve been doing pretty much all year, once we got to know each other,” Bats manager Gary Calhoun said. “It’s great to have them up in that situation, and the majority of times they get up into that situation they seem to perform.”
Sitting on top
The Bats’ two wins improve their record to 23-14, increasing its lead in first place of the Northern Division.
Keene went from a half-game to a one-game lead over the second-place North Adams SteepleCats, and from a one-game to a two-game lead over the Upper Valley Nighthawks. The Blue Sox drop to 18-15, and go from one game to three games behind the Bats.
Keene plays at North Adams tonight at 6:30, then gets a much-needed day off to rest up for the season’s final stretch.
“Every game counts,” Hogan said. “When you have a six-team Northern league like this, those top four teams kind of mesh together and it all comes down to the last few weeks, so that’s where the grind really starts.”
Stellar on the mound
While the all-stars in the field produced many of the big-moment plays, the Bats’ pitchers produced two of the team’s best performances in some time. After Keene gave up less than six runs just once in the past 10 games, the hurlers had a long-overdue course correction Tuesday.
Luke Albright started the first game, and earned his first win in three outings, going five innings and giving up two earned runs on seven hits and one walk with six strikeouts. Sean Heine pitched an inning of relief, allowing one earned run on one hit with one strikeout, while Justin Willis earned his sixth save after throwing a 1-2-3 seventh with one strikeout.
In the second game, David Johnson started and also went five innings, giving up four runs (three earned) on eight hits with three strikeouts. Michael Bacica pitched four innings of relief, giving up one run on no hits and two walks with two strikeouts to earn the win.
“We showed some excellent pitching today,” Calhoun said. “The second game, they probably hit two balls hard; they had some hits, but Johnson pitched great, and then Luke figured it out and threw well, and if it wasn’t for the pitch-count stuff that we do, both of them probably would have had complete games.”
Willis was the North’s all-star closer last year, but lost out on the spot this year to Upper Valley’s Aaron Haase.
Haase leads the league with eight saves — double the amount Willis had at the July 19 cut-off — and holds a 3.00 ERA. Since the cut-off, Willis has improved his ERA from 2.46 to 2.04 with three shutout innings, and increased his save total from four to six.
“He’s doing fine,” Calhoun said of Willis. “He was one of the three [final closer candidates], and it was just a matter of who goes. So it’s not disappointing that he didn’t make it, he was right in the mix.”