By Brendan Nordstrom
Sean Matson delivered the fastball in the top right corner — swung through and missed.
The score was 4-3 in the top of the ninth. There were two outs and a runner on first. The runner was Ryan Jackson, who reached on a four-pitch walk. The batter was Braden Montgomery.
Matson once again went to the fastball, but this time he missed low.
It was game two of the Cape Cod Baseball League semifinals, and the Firebirds were a win over Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox away from advancing. In a one-run game and a championship on the line, the team was ready.
“There’s a little bit more butterflies, a little bit more adrenaline today,” Matson said. “But I trust the guys on the field with me more than anybody, so every single time I’m out there, it’s no pressure.”
Matson went to an off-speed, and Montgomery checked his swing — not far enough, however.
The Firebirds had just taken the lead in the bottom of the eighth. In every single playoff game, the Firebirds had not scored the game-winning run until the game’s final three frames. This time, the run was by a passed ball.
“The whole game, our goal is just to put together good at-bats,” right fielder Jake Casey said. “Whatever it takes to get runs, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The fastball kissed the inner edge of the plate as Montgomery could only look at it.
The Eldredge Park hill was a pointillist painting bespeckled by beach-themed blankets and striped lawn chairs. Few patches of green appeared in a season-record 4,633-person crowd. Orleans was hungry.
“The more people, the more fun,” Casey said.
“Amazing,” Matson said. “All the guys rushing on the field, and there’s no better feeling.”
The Firebirds are East Division champions after defeating the Y-D Red Sox 4-3 on Wednesday evening. It’s the first time Orleans has been to the CCBL Championship since 2013 and the second time since Kelly Nicholson became manager in 2005.
“I told [Y-D manager Scott Pickler] after the game, it felt like a Cape League final,” Nicholson said. “It was intense tonight. Every pitch mattered, and it was a little unorthodox.”
The Firebirds, who have scored 12 of their 18 runs of the postseason in the final three innings, have struggled to get the offense going early. Today was a little different.
Y-D right-handed starter Gage Williams faced the minimum number of batters in his first two innings of work before the walls cracked in the third.
Owen Carapellotti earned a one-out walk before Jake Casey lined a single into the right-field gap to put runners on the corners. Jo Oyama dribbled a ball toward the right side of the infield, but the Red Sox defense couldn’t handle it, scoring Carapellotti for the game’s first run.
Then, with runners once again on the corners, chaos ensued.
Colin Tuft laid down a bunt, leading to a throwing error to score Casey. Oyama found himself in a pickle after rounding third, retreating back. However, Tuft was also standing on the bag. Tuft was ruled out, while Oyama was safe after a long umpire deliberation and a talk with Pickler.
After the dust settled, the score was 2-0 Orleans.
The Firebirds started hard-throwing right-hander Jaden Winter, who joined the team just over a week ago. Winter pitched the longest outing of his brief Orleans summer with four full innings on the bump, letting up only one run and striking out five.
“Everything was working,” Winter, who also walked three batters, said. “The command wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be. I ran into some trouble, but I found my way through.”
The one run came in the fifth inning, which Winter began by giving up a lead-off single to Manny Garza. Garza was replaced by an early pinch-runner in Skylar King.
That ended the day for Winter as left-hander Jonathan Gonzalez, who hasn’t made an appearance since July 26, entered the game. Gonzalez had a “tender arm,” according to Nicholson, but after recovering for the last two weeks, he texted pitching coach Jim Lawler this morning that he could go.
Gonzalez had his pitches working, but the Red Sox took advantage of the rust, scoring two in the inning with a pair of singles.
The Firebirds punched back in the bottom half of the frame after Brandon Stahlman hit an opposite-field single to lead off. Casey then tapped his second hit of the day in what would be his first three-hit day of the summer.
“Me and Eddie Micheletti have been hitting the cages a lot,” Casey said. “I’m working on some stuff, just trying to simplify my swing a lot, and I get in the game and just trust my work.”
A wild pitch from Y-D lefty reliever Gavin Bruni scored Stahlman to give Orleans back the lead.
Gonzalez allowed a lead-off double into the left-field gap to pinch-hitter Casey Cook, leading to right-handed reliever Matthew Watson on the bump. A sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch tied the game up again.
The Firebirds ran into a brick wall in the late innings, and his name was Will Armbruester. The Y-D right-handed reliever shut down the Firebirds across the sixth and seventh innings.
Armbruester ran into trouble in the eighth inning after recording his fourth strikeout and a popout to second base. Micheletti worked a four-pitch walk, and Eddie King Jr. smoked a single up the middle.
Pickler elected to go to the bullpen for lefty Landon Beidelschies. Stahlman earned a competitive full-count walk to load the bases. The pitch was delivered to Carapellotti, but it bounced off the glove of catcher Ryan Stafford and leaked to the backstop scoring Justin Rubin, who pinch-ran for Micheletti.
“Any time you put the ball between the lines, something good can happen,” Nicholson said. “I’m just super proud of our guys, they’re a gritty, gritty group. They love to be here. They care about one another. They want to win this thing.”
The Firebirds had the lead.
Matson shut down the Red Sox, earning the win, and sending the Orleans Firebirds back to the Championship.
The first round of the Championship is set for Friday. The Firebirds will face either Hyannis or Bourne depending on the game three outcome tomorrow. Greysen Carter is set to start game one.
“That’s what we strive for. It’s hard to get there, and it’s hard to win,” Nicholson said about the Championship. “I’m excited. I have a lot of respect for those guys in the West.”