Why this year?
What made the 2019 Keene Swamp Bats the team to win the franchise’s fifth NECBL championship, first in six years and first at Alumni Field?
Well, it was a lot of things, according to team President Kevin Watterson: an explosive offense, timely pitching, dedicated role players and a smart coaching staff to bring the group together.
“I would put this team in the top three of any teams we’ve ever had,” said Watterson, who’s been with the franchise for all of its 22-year history.
The Bats’ bats were the headline-makers for much of the season, and the numbers speak for themselves.
Keene broke six single-season team records — hits (438), runs scored (316), RBI (279), slugging percentage (.467), most strikeouts (383) and at-bats (1,562, NECBL record) — and tied one more: doubles (74). On the individual side, infielder/outfielder David Bedgood broke four records — hits (58), runs (47, NECBL record), games played (44) and at-bats (175) — and tied one — home runs (14) — and outfielder Randall Bednar broke one more: doubles (15).
Bedgood and Bednar were two of seven Bats position players to receive All-Star nods — the others being catcher Ryan Hogan, first baseman Logan Mathieu, second baseman Will Wagner, third baseman Kyle Ball and shortstop Kevin Welsh — displaying just how stacked the lineup was.
The offense kept things up in the postseason, averaging more than seven runs a game, tallying double digits twice and winning two games on walk-off hits in extra innings: one by Wagner in Game 1 of the Northern Division finals last Sunday, and one by Ball in Game 3 on Tuesday.
“I do think we had a very seasoned, veteran team,” Watterson said. “There were almost never any [rising] freshmen or sophomores on the field; we were almost all juniors-to-be and seniors-to-be.
“They’ve all played summer ball before, they know the grind that it is and why they’re here, and I think that that veteran presence … that’s a huge, huge advantage over previous years.”
According to Watterson, the additions of Hogan and Welsh midway through the season was a turning point.
Hogan came from the team Keene beat in the NECBL championship series: the league newcomer, Martha’s Vineyard. The Sharks had a surplus of talented catchers and first basemen, and simply didn’t have room to give the St. John’s rising junior a full-time spot.
So, when Watterson put out the call for a catcher following a season-ending arm injury to Matt Trehub, Martha’s Vineyard President Russ Curran called and asked if he had a spot for Hogan.
“You know what? They did right by their player,” Watterson said. “[Curran] said, ‘I’ve got this kid Hogan. He’s good player; it breaks my heart to even think about him going somewhere, but I don’t have any at-bats for him.’ ”
Welsh was an even bigger example of right place, right time.
Needing one more piece to add to his infield, Watterson put the call out for a shortstop in late June. By a twist of fate, Welsh’s school, Rutgers, had just hired Bryant’s Steve Owens as its new manager, and Owens just happened to be a friend of Watterson’s.
“[Owens] said, ‘Kevin, you still looking for a shortstop?’ I said, ‘I am,’ and he said, ‘I got one for you. My shortstop at Rutgers. I don’t know if you heard, I took the Rutgers job today,’ ” Watterson said. “He said, ‘I got a call today from the starting shortstop who’s in summer school, he finishes up Friday. He calls me today and says, ‘Coach, I need a place to play this summer.’ ”
The Bats’ pitching staff came into the season with high expectations, and while the hurlers started well, many faltered down the stretch.
The pitchers broke multiple team records as well, but in all the wrong categories: most hits allowed (394), most runs (280), most earned runs (236), most home runs (65) and most hit batsmen (54), with the latter two breaking league records.
While their numbers were only slightly better in the playoffs, with an ERA of 4.60, the pitchers stepped up when needed.
Cristian Sanchez pitched three shutout innings in three relief appearances, shutting the door on two important wins, and David Johnson threw a seven-inning gem in Tuesday’s divisional series clincher.
But the greatest show came in Thursday’s championship-clincher, from some unlikely suspects.
Reliever Marc Davis started just his third game, and turned in a solid 4.2 innings. He allowed just two earned runs and two hits. Jonathan Edwards took over and threw 4.1 scoreless, hitless innings with a whopping 10 strikeouts to earn the win.
“In spite of the team that had record offensive numbers, I thought our pitching staff was the difference between the Swamp Bats and the rest of the league,” Watterson said. “It may have been that guys had a mid-season slump. They were far better pitchers than those mid-season slump numbers were producing, and at the end we saw who they really were.”
Of course, one of the Bats’ biggest acquisitions came before the season started, with the decision to promote assistant coach Gary Calhoun to the position of manager following the departure of Lyndon Coleman.
Watterson praised the efforts of Calhoun and his staff — assistant coaches Shaun McKenna and Frank Miller — in creating a comfortable yet professional team culture for the players.
“Our coaching staff is one for the ages,” Watterson said. “Number one: they put people in the right positions in order to succeed. Number two: they treated our players in a fashion almost like professionals ... always focusing on them getting better individually.
“Our guys loved playing for that coaching staff, and they played hard.”
But Calhoun himself said this particular group made instilling that culture all the easier.
“I’ve done this in this league for four years, and this team has probably been the easiest to deal with as far as discipline and just doing the things we ask them to do: the little things — cleaning the dugout — that kind of stuff,” Calhoun said. “It all worked out where they stayed tight enough to win it.”
Watterson also complimented Calhoun’s ability to make a spot on the roster accessible to as many players as possible.
In particular, he pointed to his management of the platoon of David Matthews, Tommy Joseph and Justice Lucas.
The trio rotated between who took the Bats’ final starting spot, and also consistently filled in as pinch hitters late in games, and all three stepped up in their own way this postseason.
Joseph hit a solo home run in Game 3 of the Northern Finals, a game ultimately decided by one run; Lucas went 2-for-5 with two runs scored and an RBI in Game 1 of the NECBL finals Wednesday, helping Keene to a 14-10 win; and Matthews had perhaps the biggest contribution, smashing a three-run homer Thursday that delivered the winning runs in the Bats’ final game.
“Down in Martha’s Vineyard [Wednesday], [Calhoun] inserts Justice Lucas, who hasn’t played that much, he has a big game as the DH,” Watterson said. “So, they come back [Thursday], you figure he’ll put him in again? No, he doesn’t put Lucas in there, he puts Dave Matthews in there, who’s been struggling lately. And what’s Matthews do? He gets a three-run homer in the third inning to put us up by two.
“[Calhoun] was willing to give guys a shot, and I think players knew that, so they never gave up on themselves; they knew their day was coming.”
Whether it was clutch hits, timely pitching, well-managed lineups or key mid-season acquisitions, four words can describe how the Bats won it all this summer:
Right place, right time.
“I always say that you need a little bit of luck to win a championship at any level,” Watterson said, “and I think we got a little bit of that.”