Baseball in the bigs these days is all about big boppers, big innings, launch angles and one-swing game-changers. Not so at Alumni Field Thursday.
The tiny ballpark on Arch Street was small-ball central in the first round of the Division I Tournament, where for eight innings Keene High and Portsmouth High grinded for each and every base attained, where runs were so precious that sacrifice bunts and stolen bases were significant feats.
It also meant that mistakes, even relatively minor ones that on other days would disappear into box-score oblivion, were magnified. Alas, for the Blackbirds, those little miscues were factors in a taut 2-1, extra-innings loss to the Clippers.
No. 10 Portsmouth (11-8) advances to the quarterfinals Saturday, where it will host No. 15 Dover ((10-11). Had Keene won, it would have hosted the Green Wave, which upset No. 2 Exeter Thursday, 7-2. Instead, the No. 7 Birds finish their season 13-8 and mulling a bases-loaded of “what-ifs,”
Specifically, they will relive the bottom of the seventh, a Jekyll-and-Hyde inning if there ever was one. Trailing 1-0 and down to their last out of the season, they gamely tied it when Owen Fauth squared up on a fastball and hit a screaming liner over the head of Portsmouth left-fielder Oscar Laline. Kristian Hutchins came around from first to score and send the game into extra innings.
“I was sitting fastball the whole way,” Fauth said. “We were all looking for that first hard fastball down.”
But the Birds will rue what preceded Fauth’s blast. Portsmouth righty Ryan Minckler had pitched a gem to that point, giving up only two singles, one an infield hit. Minckler (116 pitches) struggled with his command early, elevating his pitch count, and was pretty much out of gas by the bottom of the seventh. He hit No. 7 hitter Alex Charles, walked No. 8 hitter Gabe Fletcher and walked No. 9 hitter Hutchins.
Yet instead of bases loaded, none out, leadoff batter Fauth came up with a runner on first and two outs. Missed signs, missed bunts, a successful pickoff throw to first base by Portsmouth catcher Jacob Grant and a caught stealing at third all cost Keene golden opportunities for a walk-off victory.
Afterward, Coach Dan Moylan searched for words. “All things considered, we managed to tie the game,” he said with a small smile. “I feel bad for the kids. That whole inning, you go ‘what if, what if,’ because Minckler was clearly tired. And then Owen bails us out in that crazy inning....”
The euphoria of Fauth’s bail-out didn’t last long. Keene right-hander Noah Timmer had matched Minckler pitch for pitch, giving up just four singles and a run in the fourth inning. He pitched his way out of a big jam in that frame and retired 12 batters in a row into the top of the eighth.
“He was phenomenal with his breaking ball today,” Portsmouth Coach Tim Hopley said of Timmer. “He made us look silly at times.”
But Timmer, like Minckler, went over the 100-pitch count and fatigue set in. After striking out Grant, the No. 9 hitter, to start the eighth, Timmer skimmed a pitch off leadoff batter Calvin Hewett’s wrist. The junior speedster, who has verbally committed to play baseball at Vanderbilt, had been 0-for-3, but is a terror on the base paths.
“Cal knows he has an opportunity to run when he sees it. His speed set the table for the rest of the inning,” Hopley said.
Moylan said once Hewett got on base, there was little the Birds could do to stop him from stealing second and third. Even when Hewett took a huge lead off first, Moylan wanted Timmer to concentrate on the batter rather than worry about Hewett running. “Reality is, he’s going to Vanderbilt, he’s going to steal second base regardless. Steal second, steal third, he’s that kind of player speed-wise,” Moylan said.
Moylan ordered two intentional walks to load the bases, then brought in Marcus Soucia to relieve Timmer. Coming in cold from third base, Soucia threw four straight balls to Justin Bleumenthal that forced in Hewett with the winning run.
Keene’s only other scoring opportunity came in the third when Fauth lined a single to right and hustled to second after right-fielder Aaron Lundgren briefly bobbled the ball. He went to third on a groundout, and tried to score with two outs on a ball that got away from Grant, the catcher. Grant recovered quickly and made a perfect toss to Minckler covering the plate.
“It was the right play,” Moylan said. “We were trying to scratch out a run any way we could.”
This was the second time in nine days that Timmer and Minckler hooked up in a pitchers’ duel. In Portsmouth, the Clippers prevailed 5-1 although the game was tied 1-1 in the sixth. Like Thursday, Keene had only three hits in that game. … Portsmouth and Keene last met in the playoffs 12 years ago, a 1-0 Keene victory. Hopley said he was thinking of that game in the seventh inning, of how it would be “poetic justice” to win 1-0 a dozen years later. “And then Fauth took care of that in one swing and we had to find a way to grind another one out,” Hopley said. … Keene sure could have used No. 3 hitter Zach Moores, who has a leg injury that has kept him sidelined for three weeks. He couldn’t have played even if Keene advanced.