For much of the time last night following our season opener at Sandringham my ears continued to ring with the sound of a monotonous sawmill and I could not get rid of the smell of sawdust! Oh no, this was not because there had been any recent tree lopping at Sandy’s Tulip Street venue, although visiting supporters along the first base line could certainly do with some more of that! It stemmed from the undeniable fact that our young Wildcats’ hitters had simply run into a proverbial baseball BUZZ SAW in the shape of Sandringham’s pitching on the opening day of the 2014 season.
To recount the basic statistics, our offence was limited to just four total hits through our nine all-too brief innings and we only walked twice while the Sandy pitching duo combined to strike out ELEVEN of our hitters. The Royals’ starting pitcher Steve Hill (we believe he is a US college import?) was the chief destroyer with ten of those punch outs highlighting his seven shutout innings. From where we were watching it wasn’t possible to see what type of movement he had on his pitches, but he clearly owned terrific control on this occasion and our batters struggled to identify his speed changes.
Although the Sandringham pitching was a dominant factor in the end, I must also report that our Wildcats matched them toe-to-toe through six scoreless innings and, up to that point, it was an intriguing and fast-paced game that kept all supporters on edge. Just as effective as Hill, Waverley’s 2013 titan and co-Club Champion Jon ‘Big Unit’ Kennedy picked up where he had left off last season with another sterling effort. He allowed only five hits across his five inning start with three strike outs and zero walks to keep pace with the “goose eggs” on each half of the line score. Even when he had to battle in the early innings, the big fellow kept his customary composure in a meritorious performance.
Next to take the mound was one of our Wildcats’ greats of the modern era – four time Premiership slugger and triple Club Champion – Andrew ‘Rusty’ Russell. The man in his famous No.4 shirt was making a long awaited re-appearance with the Wildcats after having made giant strides as a professional pitcher with the Atlanta Braves organisation over the last couple of years. For the unaware, Andrew has made a remarkably rapid rise as a converted pitcher to reach ‘AAA’ level in the USA and he has been on the cusp of playing in major leagues… not to mention his efforts for the Australian national team in World Cup and World Baseball Classic competitions.
It was no great surprise to us when Russell struck out three over matched hitters to breeze through the bottom of the sixth, however, not in anyone’s worst nightmare could we expect what was about to unfold in the home half of the seventh. For those still tracking the current major league playoff game between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s, both contests were deadlocked at nil each. Sadly for the rugged-up members of the Waverley Nation the cool conditions turned into a bitter chill as an evenly balanced game completely unraveled in favour of our hosts.
There wasn’t much cause for alarm when ‘Rusty’ jammed Sandringham’s leadoff batter in the bottom of the seventh, even when he got aboard via a “bloop single” that dumped into shallow right field – unfortunately that was just the beginning of harsh luck that followed. Typical of his pitching strength, Russell then induced three successive routine ground balls that should have seen another blank inning but instead three compounding errors saw the floodgates open. A couple of those ground balls were bobbled by a jittery infield, while Russell himself erred on the third one when he easily gloved a come-backer to the mound.
With an easy force out at home plate, Andrew must have thought he was still throwing from his former position at right field when he uncorked a rocket-launcher that nearly decapitated our catcher before crashing into the back net for the opening run to score, unearned. It was to be the first of SIX UNEARNED RUNS scored in the inning and, not to be biased about it, only one of the hits allowed by Russell was contacted with any genuine authority. Baseball can be like that!
Although he was not particularly overjoyed after the game Andrew was philosophical about his return to play as a “grizzled veteran” on such a young team. Not that he would take much comfort from it, but at least he maintains an unblemished ERA from his cameo performance for the Wildcats. Somewhat sadly he has been required to play in the tough Mexican League over the next couple of months and we won’t see him back until mid-December. We wish him every success as he continues to strive to become another Australian major league player. GO RUSTY!
Amid the disappointment of our stunning collapse we almost overlooked the effort of another young Waverley prospect who is returning to action this season after a lengthy hiatus, Jarrod ‘JET’ Turner. Young Jarrod, who pitched with great poise for the Wildcats a couple of years ago, was also unlucky to return at the height of the mayhem as the wheels had all fallen off for our team. In this context he did a decent job to finish off the game with a pair of strike outs to his credit.
Clearly there is not much of a positive tone to report from our offence as we again give credit to the standard of the pitching we faced. That said, we did manage to get a runner into scoring position in four of our batting innings and, aside from the fateful seventh, we were in this contest up to our ears. Of course we don’t take much joy from this deflating defeat in our opening season game, yet we must maintain the faith that better things surely lie ahead over a long summer season.
The ‘Waverley Nation’ needs to rally early in support of our lads when our local rivals from Blackburn arrive for our home opener at Napier Park this Sunday 13 October – Reserves 1:00pm – Firsts 3:30pm.