The postponement of the Hull and Liverpool Opening Day match-up put Halton and Harrogate in the spotlight, and the teams did not disappoint. The two games were exceedingly disparate in nature – the first a tense pitching duel and the second a high-scoring affair – but the games were excitingly close, with Halton earning walk-off wins in both of them
Before the start of play, Halton held a touching ceremony for Bryan Hulme, first baseman, coach and General Manager at the club for the past few years. His retirement from baseball last season prompted Halton to retire his number, 44, and he was on hand to throw out the first pitch of Halton’s 2014 campaign.
Game 1: Halton 4, Harrogate 3
Game 2: Halton 18, Harrogate 17
Mitchell Cross started on the mound for Halton in Game One, and began rather erratically, walking the first two batters. However, he quickly regained composure and pitched well throughout the game, keeping Harrogate scoreless until the sixth inning. The Tigers seemed to be squaring up the ball but kept finding the gloves of Halton’s infield, who remained solid throughout the first game.
Harrogate hit into two unfortunate double plays in the first few innings, as line drives found the gloves of Youri Van der Poel and Anthony Hulme, preventing any momentum building for the Tigers' offence.
Phil Wells pitched for Harrogate and got off to an equally shaky start. Nick Bustin walked to start the bottom of the first and then stole second and third, allowing Carl Heesom to drive him in as Halton took an early 1-0 lead. However, Wells quickly settled down and minimised the damage, allowing only that one run through six innings.
Harrogate’s fielders kept calm throughout the game, keeping Halton off the base paths. A diving catch by Karim Ariane and a double play started by Phil Wells were highlights that aided Harrogate’s cause.
So pitching was dominant in Game One, and both teams' usually potent offenses seemed lethargic after a long off-season. But Harrogate’s offence awoke in the top of the sixth, with Sam Dixey starting the inning with a line drive double to left field. Joe Cresswell quickly followed suit with a hit to right field to plate Dixey and level the score. Phil Wells and Matthew Boswell continued the surge, adding two more runs before the end of the inning.
Halton responded immediately in the bottom of the sixth, with Nick Bustin and Mike Dixon both earning walks. An error by the third baseman on a hard ground ball brought in a run and put runners on second and third, and Mitchell Cross finished the scoring with a line drive hit to centre field that evened the game at 3-3 going into the seventh inning.
After walking Karim Ariane to begin the top of the seventh, Mitchell Cross knuckled down and induced three ground ball outs.
But Phil Wells did not have as much success in the bottom of the inning, working himself into trouble. With two on and no outs, Harrogate intentionally walked Nick Bustin to load the bases, a great tactical move as they prevented the winning run from scoring on a double play.
Wells then intentionally walked Carl Heesom to load the bases again, avoiding his powerful bat. But this time the move backfired, as Wells hit the next batter, Youri Van der Poel, bringing in Halton’s winning run. It was an anti-climactic end to what was an extraordinary game.
Harrogate came out roaring in Game Two, as the Tigers began to time Halton’s pitching.
Sam Dixey began the first inning with a double to centre field, and Joe Cresswell reached base on an error to bring in the first run. Harrogate’s bats remained hot, and five runs scored in the inning with hits from Steve Reid, Tom Hanson and Karim Ariane.
But Halton also got off to a scoring start in the bottom of the first with Nick Bustin reaching home on an RBI by starting pitcher Mike Dixon and Scott Coker driving in a second run to reduce the deficit to three before Tigers' starting pitcher Matthew Boswell worked his way out of trouble.
Harrogate continued to hit solidly in the second inning, forcing Mike Dixon off the mound. His replacement, Jonas Grader, also struggled against the Tigers, who locked in on fastballs to score seven in the inning.
Halton tried to reply but couldn’t equal the Tigers onslaught, and answered with only a single run.
Anthony Hulme was brought on to pitch for Halton in the third inning, hoping to stem the tide of Harrogate runs. A quick one-two-three inning stopped the onslaught and allowed Halton a chance to get back in the game.
However, Matthew Boswell also stopped Halton scoring, and both pitchers worked effectively to keep the score at 12-4 until the bottom of the fifth inning, when Halton tacked on another run on a sacrifice fly by Mike Hulme.
Harrogate began strongly in the sixth, with a double from David Criss to start the frame. Four walks and two hits brought in another four runs for Harrogate, giving them a 12-run lead going into what could have been Halton’s last at-bat due to the mercy rule.
But the pressure focused Halton, and they managed to bat around the order, amassing 10 runs on six hits, bringing them within two runs of th Tigers. Matthew Boswell began to have issues with control in the inning, and reliever Tom Hanson also struggled to find the strike zone, something which affected Tigers' pitching throughout the rest of the game.
Carl Heesom, who had been brought on to pitch in the previous inning, was dominant on the mound, keeping Harrogate scoreless in the top of the seventh.
David Criss, who had worked Harrogate out of the sixth inning, continued to pitch in the seventh, but began the frame by hitting the first batter. A hit and run then put Anthony Hulme and Michael Hulme on third and second base, with Mitchell Cross reaching first base soon after on a walk. Jonas Grader and Mike Dixon followed suit, forcing in two runs that brought the score to 17-17 with Carl Heesom at the plate.
Heesom didn’t wait around, hitting a towering fly ball to the left fielder on the first pitch he saw. Mitchell Cross tagged up at third and scored the winning run on the sacrifice fly, finishing Halton’s determined comeback from 12 runs behind.
The competitiveness of both these games bodes well for the season to come. Although Harrogate recorded two losses, they have proved very early in the season that they can compete in AAA, and could have easily taken two wins from the weekend.
Halton, however, go top of the table after two hard-fought victories – but will their tenacity be enough to fend off Liverpool in Halton’s next fixture?
Both games were postponed, and a new date will be announced.