By Mojo Hill
Grit is often what makes a good team great. For every championship team, there’s going to be some miracles — games where they seemed out, but pulled their way back in.
Saturday was one of those nights.
For the first seven innings, the Braves were plagued by what afflicted them in many of their losses this season. They stranded nine runners in the first seven innings. Manager Scott Landers even described their at-bats as “horsesh*t.” But they stayed in it, showed why they’re the defending champions and rallied with two in the eighth and three in the ninth to tie it. They eventually walked it off in the 11th inning, backing up a dominant relief appearance from Henry Weycker and a gutsy clutch hit from Bryce Eblin to bring Bourne a third of the way to running it back.
“Determination and grit at the end at the end of the summer,” Landers said. “Wanting to be here and doing what you have to do to win a game.”
The 5-4 marathon victory sent the Braves to the West finals with Hyannis, which will commence on Monday at McKeon Park. Bourne swept first-place Cotuit and continued what’s been a magical postseason resume over the last two summers.
“Last year, it was unreal. You come, and these games really matter,” Eblin said. “That’s why we try and tell everyone that every game matters, and the playoffs are a lot of fun. And when we win in the playoffs, it’s even better. So let’s get another ring, and we’ll be happier.”
Playoff baseball returned to the confines of Doran Park for the first time since that championship run on Saturday. The evening began with Hugh Pinkney being given the CCBL Sportsmanship Award, honoring his efforts that might go unnoticed beyond the on-field results.
“Couldn’t happen to a better kid,” Landers said. “I just want to congratulate him. He’s an awesome human being, awesome baseball player. He has a bright future.”
The festivities continued with a ceremony honoring suicide awareness, led by Derek Bender. The national anthem was then sung by a special guest — none other than Bourne outfielder Pete Ciuffreda, who sang lyrically with his deep, bellowing voice.
“He’s pretty good,” Landers said with a laugh. “It might get him drafted. I don’t know by what draft, but it might get him drafted.”
The pregame smiles preceded the postgame smiles, for very different reasons but with just as much enthusiasm.
It wasn’t all bright and chipper from the start though.
The Kettleers rallied for five hits in the second inning against Dalton Pence, including three straight with two outs. Cotuit added another on Pence’s second wild pitch of the game in the fourth inning, tumbling Bourne into a quick 4-0 hole.
The Braves drew two free passes with two outs in the second, and Pinkney put up a nine-pitch battle before grounding out to end the threat. Their first hit came in the third inning on a soft dunker from Josh Kuroda-Grauer. It put runners on the corners with one out, but Bender struck out and committed batter’s interference on one play, leaving Bourne empty-handed once again.
The Braves finally cracked in the fifth. Pinkney hit a leadoff single, sending starter Janzen Keisel out to a roaring ovation from the Cotuit faithful. Left-hander Brian Young committed a balk, then allowed an RBI single through the infield to Jonathan Vastine.
Kuroda-Grauer recorded his second hit of the game to put runners on the corners with one out, prompting Cotuit to bring in its third pitcher of the inning, right-hander James Sashin. But with a chance to dig deeper into Cotuit’s lead, Bender and Eblin struck out.
“Our at-bats were a little off at the beginning of the game, but that’s why it’s baseball,” Eblin said. “You strike out, come back the next AB and just compete.”
Pence settled in to keep the deficit where it was. He struck out two in the fourth, and induced a double play to erase a walk in the fifth. He exited after 5 1/3 innings with a runner on second. Weycker came in and stranded the runner on third, keeping Bourne within three.
Bender came up in his third two-on situation in the seventh inning, after Vastine doubled and Kuroda-Grauer reached on an error. He struck out for the fourth time. It was a rare bad night for the Coastal Carolina slugger, who posted the best batting average in Braves history during the regular season.
Sashin came out after 2 1/3 dominant innings, but Eblin struck out. It was a near repeat of the fifth inning, when Bender and Eblin both struck out with runners on first and second. Those were the eighth and ninth runners the Braves stranded.
But it wasn’t over yet. After Kendall Diggs drew a leadoff walk in the eighth, Sam Petersen smacked an RBI triple to the right-center field gap. Petersen scored on a Pinkney groundout, cutting Cotuit’s lead to 4-3.
Then the top of the order came up again in the ninth. Vastine hit an infield single, his third straight at-bat with a hit. He stole second, then got to third on a sacrifice bunt. That set things up for Bender again, but he struck out for the fifth time. Bourne was down to its final out.
“Great players have a bad night. He had a bad one,” Landers said. “Like I told him, keep his head up, and he’ll be back in two days.”
It all came down to Eblin, who was hitless and had struck out in his last two at-bats. His hitting streak was on the line, after tying the franchise record with 16. The Braves were one out away from going back to Cotuit for Game 3.
He lined a single to right field.
“The team needed me in that at-bat, and I came through,” Eblin said. “I’m very happy, and I couldn’t be in this situation without them and their support. It was crazy. We had the Braves going. It was a lot of fun. Something I’ll never forget.”
Diggs followed with another single, but Garrett Michel struck out to send it to extras. There were real extras this time — no free runner on second, and no innings limit.
Weycker stayed in, allowing just one hit in 4 2/3 innings of work. Eblin made a difference on the defensive side too, recording a fielder’s choice at home in the ninth and nabbing a bunt line drive in the 11th. Weycker’s performance was an enormous factor in keep Bourne within striking difference, calming the storm after Cotuit got to Pence for four runs.
“I think it’s a little revenge from the last time he pitched here against them, when they whacked him around a little bit,” Landers said. “He had control of four pitches tonight and kept them off balance.”
Ryan Free pitched a scoreless top of the 11th, combining with Weycker for 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
“My mindset was just trying to keep ’em there,” Weycker said. “I knew the bats were gonna come back at some point because they have all season, and they did.”
The bottom of the 11th went back to the top of the Braves’ lineup, and Vastine set the tone again with his hustle and flash. He slapped a single, stole his second base of the game and got all the way to third on an errant throw by the catcher. All it took was a sacrifice fly from Kuroda-Grauer to walk it off, sending the team into the biggest frenzy of its season thus far. What could have been a painful night to set up a stressful tiebreaker morphed into a celebration.
The Braves are going to the West finals for the third straight year.
They’ll get a day off on Sunday before taking on the Harbor Hawks in another best-of-three series starting Monday.
“Time to just chill out, maybe go to the beach, maybe play some golf,” Weycker said. “Awesome.”