On the dawn of a new season, it seemed like Thursday night’s Keene Swamp Bats season-opener might linger into dawn.
The Swamp Bats and Upper Valley Nighthawks of Hartford, Vt., slogged through a nearly four-hour game — a concoction of walks, strikeouts and miscues — with the Nighthawks prevailing 14-8 before 524 fans at Alumni Field. The game was originally scheduled Wednesday but postponed to Thursday due to the threat of rain.
It wasn’t exactly atypical of early-season play in college summer league baseball, as teams have been together for only a few days, and rosters are in flux with the NCAA Division I Tournament in full swing.
Thursday night the Bats had eight positional players in town, forcing them to use pitcher Justin Willis of Vanderbilt University as designated hitter. Willis battled in the No. 9 spot, but as luck would have it, struck out with the bases loaded in a key spot in the fourth inning after fouling off the first two pitches.
Walks and strikeouts largely accounted for the length of the game, not to mention the 22 runs. Five Swamp Bats pitchers combined to walk 14 Nighthawks (plus two hit by pitches); five Nighthawks walked seven Swamp Bats. The 16 freebies to Upper Valley gave its sluggers plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
The mightiest slugger of them all was leadoff batter Jack Zyska of Notre Dame, who hit two home runs. His first one in the third inning was an Alumni Field cheapie, a fly ball that may have even clipped the top of the fence as it gently dropped in front of the scoreboard barely 300 feet from home plate. But in the sixth he whacked a no-doubt-about-it rocket to left field to put Upper Valley ahead 8-1. Zyska was 3 for 6 on the night with a walk and five RBI.
Keene starter Luke Albright of Kent State sailed through the first two innings, but couldn’t get out of the third. He gave up only two hits but walked five batters in an inning that started ominously when Brian Moore reached on a swinging third strike that got past catcher Bobby Garbuio.
Trailing 8-1, the Swamp Bats clawed back in it with a six-run sixth inning, five of the runs scoring with two outs. Garbuio, Randall Bednar and Thomas Joseph singled home runs, and Kyle Ball doubled to center field to drive home a pair and close the gap to 8-7. But momentum was stonewalled when Upper Valley scored one in the seventh, two in the eighth and three in the ninth.
Bednar, batting third, led the Swamp Bats with a 3-for-4 night and two RBI. Behind him, Joseph and Ball (2 for 5) also drove in two runs. The bottom of the order, however, struggled as the Nos. 6 through 9 batters went a combined 2 for 18 and the Swamp Bats left 12 men on base.
Albright took the loss for Keene, while Andrew DeRoche was credited with the win after pitching 1.1 innings in relief.
The good news is Keene gets right back into action tonight, with the Newport Gulls of the Southern Division making their only trip to Alumni Field. David Johnson of Georgia Southern is the projected starter for the Bats although it’s the time of year when no one usually throws more than a few innings.
Swamp Bats President Kevin Watterson said several positional players are due to arrive within the next few days. One of them is Brandon Smith, who hit .376 with 11 home runs for the Bats last year. Smith had hoped to be drafted but his name was not called in this week’s Major League Draft. … Keene native Erick Zecha pitched the ninth and gave up three runs. Zecha will be a senior at RPI in Troy, N.Y. … Steve Pro of The Ticket Band sang the national anthem. … The first between-innings game of the season was the traditional dizzy bat contest with the usual results: a number of kids wound up on the ground, laughing. … Upper Valley sported day-glow lime green socks that some players wore up to their knees. No problem spotting them in night games. … The Alumni Field outfield fence has 44 advertising signs that go foul pole to foul pole, but batters might want the ones in dead centerfield moved. ...
Several Upper Valley players sported uniform numbers different than those listed in the program. Ah, the challenges of opening night. … Making his debut, Upper Valley Coach Keller Bradford is only 24 years old. A Southern Mississippi graduate, Bradford pitched for the Nighthawks in 2017. His father, Chad Bradford, pitched for six Major League Baseball teams including 31 games with the Red Sox in 2005. Hardcore baseball fans may remember he was a submariner.