By Mojo Hill
Under dark skies and bright lights, the Bourne Braves returned to the CCBL championship series on Friday. A warm evening at Eldredge Park brought a packed house of fans, all of them taking in a matchup between the two only two teams still playing baseball on Cape Cod.
The Braves, looking to defend their title, took a back-and-forth Game 1 by a score of 6-4 on the Firebirds’ home grass. Bourne is now within a single victory of back-to-back championships.
“I thought we left a lot of guys on base in certain situations in the last couple of games, and today we took advantage of those timely hits,” Braves manager Scott Landers said. “When we had runners in scoring position, we produced. And a hell of a job by our pitchers.”
Josh Kuroda-Grauer continued the postseason of his lifetime with two doubles and a walk, along with sparkling defense and baserunning. JKG was a part of last year’s championship team and has stepped up since the lights have come on, as Landers likes to say.
“It was awesome. Coming here to Orleans, playing in front of a packed crowd, it’s everything. It’s what you want to play for in the playoffs,” Kuroda-Grauer said. “I think the team did a great job on the mound and hitting in situations. It was a great team win.”
The opening pitching matchup saw a duel of Vandy boys. Each team sent its Vanderbilt fireballer to the hill, with Bryce Cunningham going for Bourne and Greysen Carter for Orleans.
The Firebirds ignited their flames two batters into the first inning, as Fenwick Trimble blasted a solo homer off Cunningham. Trimble’s blast was the only baserunner for either squad through the first three innings. Carter retired the first nine batters he faced, pumping 97-99 mph and striking out a pair of Bravos.
“He was gonna live and die by his heater, and we knew that,” Landers said. “It’s a good heater. I mean, it’s elite. We knew he was gonna run it up to 100. So we were on the fastball, just taking everything else. And we weren’t blown away in the first three innings; we just weren’t getting hits. We were on the barrel a couple times.”
Jonathan Vastine snapped Carter’s perfecto bid with a leadoff double in the fourth. Kuroda-Grauer, who came into the game hitting .500 in the playoffs, smacked a double of his own to tie the game at one apiece.
Then he turned the wheels on.
JKG tagged up from second on a fly ball, then scored on a shallow ground ball to second. He timed it expertly, going halfway before pausing and then making a last-minute dash for the plate. He pumped his fist as he crossed home, with the look of someone who knew he just executed a play to perfection.
Bourne took a 2-1 lead.
“I was going first move, on contact,” Kuroda-Grauer said. “It was just one of those plays that you don’t think. You just do it. So I was happy to score on that.”
The Firebirds responded with an offensive dagger of their own. They started the bottom of the fourth with three consecutive hits, tying the game on a double by Jack Penney and retaking the lead on a single up the middle from Matt Halbach. Cunningham managed to limit the damage there, aided by another sliding in catch in right field by Kendall Diggs.
Trailing 3-2, the Braves got to Carter again in the top of the fifth. Setting the table were Sam Petersen, who walked, and Nu’u Contrades, who lined his first hit of the postseason to put runners on the corners with one out. Pete Ciuffreda hit a ground ball to second, but it was too soft for a double play and brought in Petersen with the tying run.
Then a two-out rally commenced. Vastine kept the line moving with a single, setting things up for the scalding Kuroda-Grauer. JKG took a 100 mph fastball and smashed it for his second double of the game. The missile knocked a stunned Carter out of the game, Bourne now grasping a 5-3 lead.
Kuroda-Grauer is now 14-for-27 this postseason with 13 RBIs. He notably has not struck out in the playoffs yet. He slumped near the end of the regular season while constantly hitting the ball on the ground, but he’s started lifting the ball more lately, and it’s made a world of difference.
“Just having the same confidence as always, whether I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4,” Kuroda-Grauer said. “Knowing that I give all the credit to my teammates. They put me in positions to be great. Just trusting myself and doing whatever I can to help the team.”
It was simply the JKG show in the fifth inning, as he made a leaping grab to end Cunningham’s fifth inning of work. Cunningham’s evening came to an end there, with three runs in five innings in the books. He struck out three and didn’t walk anybody.
“It’s a good hitting team, and he hung in there for us,” Landers said. “He had that one inning where he let up two, but he got us through five. It was Vandy vs. Vandy. So hopefully he got the better of Greysen Carter.”
Ryan Free took over and threw a crucial scoreless sixth, working around a two-out double that put the tying runs in scoring position. He ended up going three solid innings of relief. He allowed a two-out RBI single to Eddie King Jr. with two outs in the eighth, but he stopped the bleeding and kept the Braves ahead.
Bryce Eblin, who was hitless on the night thus far, extended his hitting streak to 21 with an insurance RBI single in Bourne’s half of the eighth. It scored Kuroda-Grauer, who kept his strong night alive with a walk. Bourne led 6-4 after eight innings and didn’t look back. Justin Lovell recorded the final three outs of another magical victory.
The Braves will head back to Doran Park on Saturday for the final time in 2023. They have the opportunity to “run it back,” as they say so often, in the comfort of their own home. A loss would send them back to Eldredge for a winner-take-all championship tiebreaker.
“We all know that the job’s not finished,” Kuroda-Grauer said. “We just gotta lock in for another nine-inning game and come out on top.”
First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. as usual. Landers’s squad has been here before, and the taste of another championship is dangling ever-so-gently on the precipice of glory.
“We’ll be ready to go,” Landers said. “That’s a good club. They’re gonna come fightin’. We gotta produce tomorrow.”