Fresh off handily beating their arch rival and divisional nemesis Randolph for the first time last week by a final count of 14-4, SLA Baseball stepped foot onto some unlikely hallowed ground at 35th and Oxford in Fairmount Park. In the final game of the 2011 season the Rockets were heavy underdogsagainst a strong Strawberry Mansion team. But SLA was surging as well in recent "must win" games, and crushing Freire 16-1 in just 3 innings of no-hit ball by All-Star senior Brandon Williams helped set up the "win and you're in" contest. In the end, that game- a nail-biting, see saw, war of attrition- ended in dramatic fashion with Williams forcing Mansion's best hitter to pop up with the based loaded to secure the 14-12 victory. The win gave SLA an 8-4 overall record, completing a lightning-quick turnaround from the previous 4-8 inaugural campaign, and shockingly propelled SLA into the city playoffs for the first time in school history. Had they lost the game they would have been knocked out by way of head-to-head tie breaker with their bitter rival Randolph, but in beating Mansion they leap frogged them and secured the #2 seed in the playoffs. That team would go onto hold toe-to-toe with the Philadelphia Charter Academy, a B Division powerhouse with a stacked lineup- for five innings before finally relenting. The season ended, but the magic was just beginning. While SLA lost a talented core of seniors- namely John Desalis, Marshall Johnston, Anthony Seeley and Brandon Williams- the team retained it's young core of underclassmen who played pivotal roles in creating a team that believed in itself.
While the seniors are gone, some now playing in college, the spirit and heart of the team is very much intact, and as the team stepped onto the fresh dirt of their greatest triumph the veterans of that war felt something in the air. The weather was almost exactly the same, the field seemingly untouched since they danced around Brandon on the mound and ritualistically drenched their coach with the water bucket. The implications were also nearly identical. SLA is 2-2 this year, but their record does not reflect the calibre of a team that should be 4-0. More importantly this game, against a very different opponent in University City, was still seen as a "must win" for SLA considering the difficulty of their remaining schedule.
SLA finds itself in the opposite end of the equation having beaten University City in each of its previous three meetings. While the games themselves have never been close, the air most assuredly has. On numerous occasions the players for UC have verbally and physically threatened SLA players, deliberately thrown at our batters' heads, and have tripped us on the base paths. SLA was expecting the game to be ugly, but their coach made it clear that the ugliness must be one-sided. "They are going to try to get into your heads because they know you are better than them. It is a tactic of compensation. Do not give into them. Do not let them get us into a position where we beat ourselves. Remember that this is a very mental game. Think of their insults like clouds and let them float by".
From the outset it was clear this game would be tense, but SLA is used to that especially on this field. The see saw would swing back and forth, but SLA stayed true to the team mantra of "win the inning", and every time University City would put a run on the board, in fact never more than two in an inning, SLA responded to take the frame. SLA did remarkably well with two outs, and proved to be a very difficult team to put away. For instance, with two outs in the bottom of the first Ian McClendon ripped a shot to third that was too hot to handle. Jeff Schwartz followed suit and quickly SLA had runners on the corners in time for Nick Manton's rip to center to drive them both home and tie the game. SLA scored two more to take a 4-3 lead in the second in similar fashion. After TJ Nicolella led off with a single and reached second on a throwing error, Ethan Reese bunted him over and beat out the throw to first. Nicolella would score on the ensuing throwing error by U.C.'s pitcher and Reese would come around to score on Jhonas Dunakin's rip down the first-base line. Two outs, no problem.
While this speaks volumes of SLA's composure and how quick they can manufacture runs seemingly out of nowhere, the most impressive aspect of their game has been their defense. Setting a record in a Public League game, SLA recorded six put outs on the base paths including a double play where Ethan Reese faked a throw to second long enough to bait the runner on third to try and go home. Reese spun around and shot a laser beam home in enough time to nail a sliding runner and for Jeff Schwartz to match Reese's throw to third to Raekwon Smith who applied the tag on U.C.'s dumbfounded clutch hitter. While U.C. was most definitely not disciplined on the base paths, which undid a couple of monster triples by their better hitters, SLA displayed the opposite type of presence on the bases. Tallying nine steals, including Jeff Schwartz's swipe of home in the third, SLA also simply worked the bases like professionals and turned every miscue U.C.'s defense made into runs.
However, for all their mistakes on both sides of the ball, University City tied the game at 5 in the 4th. However, once again SLA responded and won the inning to take a 7-5 lead off with three consecutive singles and another 2 two-out double by Ian McClendon. It seemed the see saw would never stop tilting back and forth though as U.C. tied it back up at 7 and eventually took an 8-7 lead going into the 6th. It could have been much worse considering U.C. had the bases loaded off of walks in the 5th, but once again SLA's defense rose to the occasion catching an undisciplined runner on his way home and another in a run down at second. With the game tied and the bases loaded U.C.'s best hitter was up. He had already ripped a triple to left, but was caught at home on the double put-out in the 2nd. Ian McClendon came in as the closer and did just that by striking him out on a mixture of pitches, the last of which was smoked right by Rivers.
SLA tied it up in the 6th after Stephen Smith ripped one too hot for their center fielder to hold. Smith came around to tie the game when Reese's hot bat struck for the third time with another bullet right back at center. 8-8 after six with just one inning of regulation to go. McClendon confidently took the mound knowing that holding them here would mean SLA could "win the inning" and walk off with a victory. After a battle of an at-bat, U.C.'s Griffin worked a lead-off walk and then quickly stole second to represent the go-ahead run. What followed was yet another example of the professional composure SLA displayed all day. McClendon struck out the next two batters looking, and when he was in a jam with their number 2 hitter Rivers, he made the ultimate pick-off spin back to second and caught Griffin for the record setting 6th put out. Still 8-8. With the middle of the order coming up, SLA could just smell the win.
Coach's orders were simple, "just get into scoring position", but Morel, who was still on the mound for U.C. had other ideas. The advantage seemed to swing to U.C. after Morel got Schwartz to pop up to short and lightning-quick Henry Poeng, who had come in to replace an injured Nick Manton, fell behind in the count. Henry owned the box though and got plunked on the wrist when Morel tried to motor one in on the hands. Seconds later Poeng was on third representing the winning run when Raekwon Smith stepped to the plate. Rae had struggled with timing throughout the game, and it seemed the same was unfolding as he quickly fell behind 0-2 in the count. Morel, who had struck him out three times prior in the game, smiled and went for the kill by powering a fastball right down the pipe, but Rae loaded his hands and stepped into the ball with ease. The ball simply disappeared into the crystal blue sky. As SLA's bench cleared to mob Henry as he crossed the plate, Rae simply stared off at his majestic shot wondering if it would ever arc back down to earth.
Some silly drama ensued when the bench collectively snapped Raekwon out of his self-induced day dream in time to get him to actually run to first base to make it official. Although he robbed himself of his own Home Run trot, the soft, endearing smile on his face merely hinted at how pleased he was with himself. While players joked about how bad they felt for the outfielder having to go all the way to New Jersey to retrieve the ball, it most definitely went over 350ft and therefore would have been a Home Run in Citizens Bank Park. Impressive for a freshman's first extra-base hit of the season. Perhaps Jeff Schwartz, who was a pivotal rookie in the 2011 playoff run, said it best after the team had doused their coach with the water bucket. As he gathered his catcher's gear and helped clean up the dugout, he was overheard satisfyingly mumbling to himself, "something magical always happens on this field." Magical indeed.