By Mojo Hill
They ran it back.
Two summers, two championships for Scott Landers. It’s hard to ask for a better start to your Cape Cod Baseball League managing career than that, and now Landers can carry that 100% success rate into his third year with the club.
The Bravos got it done in a tense winner-take-all Game 3 at Eldredge Park on Sunday, completing a marathon season with a 5-2 defeat of Orleans on its home grass. Just like the series, this game had it all. An early deficit. A comeback. Trash talk, dominant pitching, timely hitting and the celebration of a lifetime.
“It never gets old,” Landers said. “I’m so proud of these guys, and it was a little different than last year, but we fought ’till the end. We persevered. It’s a special group.”
More than 7,000 fans packed Eldredge Park, bringing a playoff atmosphere to the Cape. Just like the tight first two games of the series, it got off to another nail-biting start. The Braves were burned by Orleans’ pesky leadoff hitter Jo Oyama for the second straight game. He led off the bottom of the first with a solo home run, after homering in Bourne’s 4-3 loss the previous night. Two innings later, the 5-foot-7 Japan native went deep again, this time to the opposite field. It was his third homer and fifth extra-base hit in his last seven at-bats.
It was 2-0 Orleans.
“No panic. Just keep having fun,” Braves catcher Derek Bender said. “That was the motto of the whole year. How much fun can we have?”
Left-hander Trystan Levesque gave the Braves an otherwise solid 4 2/3 innings of work. He struck out five and didn’t walk anyone, his line only tainted by the Oyama solo shots. He retired seven straight after Oyama’s second homer.
“We always say, ‘If you’re gonna give up home runs, let them be the solo ones. They don’t kill you,'” Landers said. “But he pitched outstanding.”
The Braves drew a walk in each of the first three innings against Evan Truitt, but they couldn’t get any of them across to score. The second and third innings both ended on a 6-4-3 double play.
“I don’t think we ever felt like we were out of it,” assistant coach Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Scott had a meeting with all our guys…. Lock it in. Every at-bat. Every pitch.”
Then the bats showed some life in the fourth. Kendall Diggs got things started with a hard-hit single, and Bryce Eblin did what he does best with a single of his own to extend his hitting streak to 23. It was an infield hit for Eblin, and the runners each advanced a base as the ball got away from Orleans’ second baseman.
With the tying runs in scoring position, Bender poked one through the right side. Diggs scored, but Eblin was thrown out at the plate on a perfect throw by right fielder Fenwick Trimble. After a Garrett Michel single and four straight hits for the Braves, Truitt’s evening came to an end.
Bourne’s fourth-inning rally was short-lived, as Bender was gunned down in a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play. But Bourne kept itself in striking distance, down by only a run.
Levesque came out of the game after retiring the first two batters in the fifth. With Oyama due up, Landers wasn’t going to take any chances. Anthony DeFabbia struck Oyama out on three pitches, prompting the team to huddle around Landers in celebration.
It was go time.
The momentum continued to shift in Bourne’s favor. Josh Kuroda-Grauer lined a leadoff single in the sixth, knocking Watson out of the game. Orleans curiously chose to bring in Everett Catlett, who threw 55 pitches two nights ago.
The grind kept churning towards the Bravos. Diggs fouled off a few pitches before collecting his second single of the game. Eblin then grounded one to second, and the Firebirds tried to turn two, but the relay got away and Kuroda-Grauer came in with the tying run.
Eldredge Park was rocking. If somebody was sitting on the third base side, they might have thought it was a Bourne home game. An army of kids led a “LET’S GO BRAVES!” chant, with the sea of Firebirds faithful sitting in stunned silence as their championship hopes withered into dust.
“The atmosphere tonight was unbelievable,” assistant coach John Topoleski said. “It felt like a national championship game.”
Bender came up huge, smacking an RBI double to put the Braves in front. After Michel struck out, Catlett was pulled with a short leash after getting just two outs. In a move of desperation, the Firebirds turned to their closer, Sean Matson. Sam Petersen greeted him with a massive RBI single, giving Bourne a two-run cushion with a three-run inning.
“You can go back to last night when we were down,” Petersen said. “We always thought we were the better hitting team, and you run into some bad luck here and there, but we just kept chipping away. We need somebody to start it. We need somebody to keep it going. We need somebody to deliver a big blow, and we finally did that.”
They led 4-2, and the prospect of victory was lurking on the horizon.
“Time and time again, Coach Landers said superstars show up when the lights turn on,” Bender said. “And the lights turned on. They were a little brighter than I thought to start this playoff run. I had some big moments, but a lot of guys picked me up. Tonight, like I said to start the year, it was my night tonight. It’s all our nights tonight.”
DeFabbia stayed dialed in on the mound. He made back-to-back sparkling defensive plays in the bottom of the sixth to shut Orleans down in rapid fashion.
With the Bourne fans getting increasingly antsy as their championship dreams came closer to reality, Bender annihilated a solo homer to left field. He stood and admired it, then flipped his bat while getting into a shouting match with Orleans catcher Henry Hunter. The umpire had to break it up, and discussions between the whole umpiring crew and Firebirds manager Kelly Nicholson commenced. The umpires eventually issued warnings to each side, and play continued on.
“I have a lot of respect for a lot of guys in that team, and I don’t really mean any disrespect to the game or anything. I know some people don’t like it,” Bender said. “I think it’s one of those things that if you haven’t done something like that in a big moment, you wouldn’t understand the feeling. It isn’t so much showing anybody up. It’s more of just taking the whole moment in, like ‘Wow, I just did that.’… Let me take it all in. Because if you look at any video, I wasn’t saying nothing until he got in my face.”
DeFabbia didn’t let the Firebirds even dream about making a comeback. He shoved all the way until the end, retiring the final 13 batters of the game to send Bourne to victory. Defensive replacement Gage Harrelson caught the final out in center field, and the team sprinted to the mound for its second dogpile in as many years. There were hugs. There were tears of joy. There were shouts of pure elation. There were group photos with the trophy, which will be added to the collection in the Doran Park press box that’s starting to get a little crowded.
Landers and general manager Darin Weeks were greeted with the trophy. Weeks sprinted, with the trophy in the air, into a mob of players at the mound. Kuroda-Grauer was crowned with the postseason MVP for his torrid hot stretch in the last week.
“It means everything to me,” Kuroda-Grauer said. “I give all the credit to my teammates and coaches for putting me in position to be great.”
The Braves are champions. It’s a statement that was said last year, and it’ll be said plenty more times this year. Champions. A franchise that had only won once, in 2009, now has three titles in its history.
That’s what happens when you run it back.
“I’m really, really proud of each and every one of them,” Landers said. “Through the playoffs, we didn’t have one unsung hero. There were multiple people that stepped up that not necessarily did throughout the year — they weren’t here, or they were struggling going into the playoffs. And we put it all together when we had to.”