By Brendan Nordstrom
If the Cape Cod Baseball League is a theatrical production, the Orleans Firebirds are about to enter the show’s final act. The playoff rosters are beginning to take shape, the team has meshed together and they’re playing some of their best baseball of the summer.
The Firebirds (17-16) have just a week and a half remaining in the regular season, as it’s the race for the top seed in the East. Over the past week, Orleans has taken the No. 2 seed from the Harwich Mariners and sits five points back from Y-D. With the spotlights shining the brightest, the Firebirds need to remember their lines and break a leg.
The team started the week with a 5-4 walk-off loss to the Wareham Gatemen after battling back late in the contest. But then, the Firebirds found their groove.
On Sunday, Orleans took on the best team in the league in the Cotuit Kettleers. The Kettleers had won every single matchup coming into Eldredge Park, and they looked primed to do so once again. Cotuit took a commanding 5-0 lead before the Birds showed fight, scoring five straight and “walking” off their inter-divisional opponent.
The Firebirds kept it rolling on Monday behind a lights-out pitching performance by lefty Derek Clark, who was making his first start of the summer. Clark worked the longest outing of the summer, going seven full frames and allowing just one run. Closer Sean Matson worked a six-out save, and it’s hard to lose with that kind of pitching as Orleans won 4-1.
Pitching dominated again on Wednesday with reliever Konner Eaton working five full innings for his best outing of the summer. The offense scored by any means necessary to earn a 5-3 victory and series win over the Bourne Braves.
The momentum hit a skid on Thursday evening when the Hyannis Harbor Hawks “kicked [our] butts,” as manager Kelly Nicholson said. The Harbor Hawks put up a crooked 15-5 victory against six Orleans arms, including two position players.
The Firebirds ended the week by splitting the doubleheader against Chatham. The Anglers hit two massive home runs, as Orleans couldn’t keep pace in a 6-3 loss in game one. Then, the Firebirds overcame their own missed opportunities in game two, walking off the Anglers on Owen Carapellotti’s sacrifice fly.
Peaks and Valleys
Peak: Pitching longevity
With the week’s action being capped off by a doubleheader, preserving arms was instrumental for the pitching staff this week. Righty Chase Hungate ate three scoreless innings in relief of Jonathan Gonzalez. Derek Clark then pitched the longest outing of the season with seven innings on the bump, allowing only one run in that span. The following game, Konner Eaton — whose previous longest outing was two innings — pitched five frames of one-score baseball in his best appearance of the summer.
It’s no mistake the Firebirds won those three games.
Valley: Batting with runners in scoring position
While long pitching was a hallmark of the three-game win streak, poor batting with ducks on the pond was a glaring area of concern in the losses. In the loss to Wareham to start the week, the Firebirds only cashed in once on nine opportunities with a runner in scoring position. Offense wasn’t necessarily a weak point in the loss to Hyannis as the Firebirds recorded 13 hits but still fell 15-5. Across the doubleheader, the Firebirds stranded the bases loaded three times, including one time when the bases were loaded with no outs.
Jo Oyama: It’s hard to go a week without mentioning the Firebirds’ lead-off man in this list, and this week is no different. Oyama recorded no hits in the game against Cotuit. However, in every other game this week, Oyama recorded multiple, including three-hit days against Wareham and Chatham. Oyama hit his league-leading sixth triple — a Firebirds record. Then, he had arguably his best game of the summer against Chatham, hitting a home run and two doubles, also earning an intentional walk, to support his MVP case.
Derek Clark: The West Virginia transfer may have only had one outing across the week, but it was so impressive that it earned a spot. Making his first start of the summer, Clark went the longest outing any Firebirds pitcher has this summer, stretching seven full innings. Only allowing one run with five hits, the lefty struck out six, but most importantly, gave away no free passes.
“I felt like I had all my stuff working,” Clark said. “I think I had it all today, and it showed.”
Matt Halbach: UC San Diego’s Halbach has also had an impressive week at the dish. Similar to Oyama, Halbach earned a hit in every game outside of one — Brewster. Halbach had three multi-hit games, including a three-hit game against Hyannis. On the defensive end, the first baseman has been a brick wall, collecting balls in the dirt with ease.
Next week will feature two massive series against divisional opponents. The Firebirds begin the week on Sunday with a make-up game at Eldredge Park to take on the division-leading Y-D Red Sox at 5:30 p.m. Orleans will then face Y-D again on Monday at Red Wilson Field in a great opportunity to gain ground. The team will take on two west division teams in the middle of the week before ending it with another Chatham doubleheader — this time at Veterans Field.
But first, six Orleans Firebirds players will participate in the All-Star Game at Harwich’s Whitehouse Field. Derek Clark, Jonathan Gonzalez and Sean Matson earned the nod as pitchers for the East Division’s team. Meanwhile, Jack Penney, Matt Halbach and, of course, Jo Oyama will step up to the plate.
“It’s an honor to be an All-Star on the Cape,” Oyama said. “I’m so excited for tomorrow.”