On Sunday, October 18, the day after my younger daughter turned 16, the two remaining National League teams competed for a place in the 2020 MLB World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers faced the Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas to play the winner-takes-all Game 7. The American League champion had already been decided by similar fate, with the Tampa Bay Rays defeating the Houston Astros 4-2 in the seventh game of the ALCS. At Globe Life Field, there is a retractable roof, guaranteeing the game would be played despite any potential poor weather conditions. There is no such roof at US Baseball Park.
Before the Dodgers and Braves game, four teams competed for their chance to play in the 2020 GRBL Championship Game.
At noon, the Ozark Mountain Ducks hosted the Nixa Suckers, followed by the Springfield Mets and the Branson Showmen.
On a day that was overcast and chilly, occasionally rainy and quite windy and not really baseball weather whatsoever, two more teams would play their final game of the season.
This is the hardest part of the GRBL, the brevity of the season. I wish it was at least a 20 game season, though I can’t imagine what expenses would be or how many bats I’d break.
Pre-game warm-ups focused primarily on getting and staying warm. Stretches and batting practice and catch with Mark. I hit him a few grounders as he was starting at second base for the Ducks. Rob Neiss’s Week 6 Recap and Semi-Finals Preview video was, as always, hilarious and brilliant. It even featured an endorsement for A Year of Playing Catch.
“It’s the best book written by a GRBL player. Bryan’s book will hit you in the face with its greatness. Pick up your copy today.’”
The Ducks formed the Flying V behind second base during the playing of the anthem, the north wind increased, and the temperature started to drop. It didn’t take me too many innings to put on my “Always October” Royals hoodie.
In the top of the second inning, the Suckers tallied first. Catcher-manager Courtney Spitz hit a blast to deep centerfield for a stand-up triple. It wasn’t really stand-up, though, because he slid into third. But he didn’t need to. If I ever hit a stand-up triple, I will definitely be sliding into third. And then asking for a pinch-runner so I can breathe. Spitz scored on a ground out to short by Troy McPherson.
The score remained 1-0 Suckers going into the third inning. With two outs, two runners on, and GRBL all-time hits leader Schuyler Carter at the plate, GRBL all-time strikeout king Skyler Henson went to work. Skyler shattered Schulyer’s bat, sending the barrel flying over the first base dugout and bouncing around in the stands, just in front of Erin the Trainer. I had never seen a bat break like that. Skyler the pitcher fielded the ball and threw out Schuyler of the shattered bat.
The Ducks were completely silent in the first three innings, without a hit. In the fourth, again, the Suckers refused to go down in order. A hit and walk and a wild pitch had runners on the corners with two outs, when Justin Parker hit a drive to deep left field that Harrison Waters tracked down for the final out.
The skies continued to darken and the temperatures continued to drop as right fielder Shane Hurrelbrink led off the bottom of the fourth for the Ducks. Shane tripled up the right field line for the Ducks first hit of the game. Two pitches later, TJ, the league’s best centerfielder, flied out to his defensive counterpart, Schuyler of the broken bat, to tie the game at 1.
Ducks’ catcher Jacob Colter followed with a single, and then promptly scored on the next pitch when Harrison Waters tripled off the 16-foot tall fence in right field. Waters scored on a debatable balk call, but such is GRBL baseball life. At the end of four innings, the Ducks had their first lead, 3-1.
In the fifth, the Suckers came fighting back.
Single by Dryer. Shelton walked. Simons hit by pitch.
Bases loaded. No outs.
Mark and I were in the bullpen where he was bruising my hand with his warm-up pitches.
With the line-up turning over, Austin made the pitching change and called on Mark. It was the first time all season the Ducks starter didn’t throw five innings.
Hayden Gibson, lefty lead-off hitter for the Suckers, hit a sharp grounder to second. Skyler Henson, now at second base, flipped to Harry Broadstreet at short for the force. Harry B faked the throw to first, then spun and threw to third. It worked. The runner previously on second had taken too big a turn and the ump called him out. A run did score, cutting the Ducks lead to 1.
Mark then got hit-leader Schuyler to ground out to Klayton Solberg. Inning over. Ducks up 3-2.
Josh Engler needed only a half dozen pitches to retire the Ducks in the bottom of the fifth. Going back to the first round of the playoffs, Engler pitched 8 straight no-hit innings. The three-run fourth was quite the anomaly.
Mark returned to the mound for the sixth and I went to the bullpen with Clay Murphy, doing my best to catch his pitches that moved every which direction.
Suckers’ shortstop Aaron Priestes and my number twin stepped up to the plate in the top of the sixth. A couple weeks ago, I ran into Aaron at Fun Acre. Of course, we talked about hitting, as Aaron was hitting the balls so hard I thought they would split into pieces. But, we also shared stories of life experiences. It was a completely chance encounter, but it was really neat connecting off the field, too.
Aaron singled to right field to start the inning. Holding him to a single is commendable work.
Engler flew out to deep center. One out.
Spitz popped out to third. Two outs.
Troy McPherson hit a high fly ball to right center and TJ made a long, long, long run for the third out. It was an impressive catch. Mark had his best pitching out of the season and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
In the bottom of the sixth, Aaron Priestes came in as the new pitcher for the Suckers and he promptly stuck out the side.
Clay Murphy came on in relief to start the seventh and opened with back to back strike outs.
Catch 365 catch-partner Chandler Maples then stepped up to the plate. He was late to the game after graduating from Missouri State University in the morning with a degree in Biology, working toward his dream of being a conservation agent. Chandler hit a high bouncer to third, where Skyler Henson, now at third base, made a good play, but low throw to first. Austin stretched and picked the short hop for the second out. Watching Austin’s picking skills at first has been a joy all season.
In the bottom of the seventh, with Aaron still on the mound, Austin notified me that I’d be hitting in his place. So, technically, for the first time in my life, I was the clean-up hitter. It started sprinkling as Jacob Colter stepped to the plate, this time not wearing his catcher’s gear. Five pitches later, Jacob struck out. Four consecutive strike outs for Aaron. Harrison Waters then grounded out to short on a great play by Suckers’ starting pitcher Josh Engler.
I pulled off my mask, shoved it in my back pocket, took a deep breath and walked to the plate. I greeted catcher-manager Spitz with a batting-gloved fist bump as my walkup song played, the theme song to The Incredibles. Thus far this season, my at-bats have been anything but incredible.
I felt like I put a good swing on the first pitch, a high fastball, and fouled it straight back, right off the umpire’s mask. It knocked both his mask and hat off and immediately I was concerned. Spitz gathered the foul ball and walked it to Aaron and I checked in on the umpire.
“Are you ok?”
He looked at me blankly and replied, “Sometimes they go up there and do that.”
He then tried to put his mask on without realizing that his hat still was on the ground.
After a few more moments, everyone gathered back to where they were supposed to be for the second pitch of the at bat as it started sprinkling again. The second pitch was high and away. The third pitch was also outside to bring the count to 2-1. A 2-1 fastball inside and I fouled it off the inside of my left foot. The green logo from the baseball left a streak across one of my Adidas stripes.
My first reaction to fouling a ball off my foot was to get mad. Pain is infuriating. I had no one to be angry at other than myself. I walked around for a few seconds, using the bat as a cane, then stepped back in.
The 2-2 pitch was a fastball away and I fouled it off to stay alive. The second 2-2 pitch was low and away to fill the count. One more fastball away and I couldn’t pull the trigger, committing the cardinal sin of baseball, the strike out looking. At least I was in good company, with four other teammates over two innings.
I was informed that my 7-pitch strikeout was, in fact, a quality at bat. I guess that’s a good thing. But I’d rather have the 2-pitch single.
Albert Pujols once said, “It’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish. If you wind up helping the team make the playoffs, that’s what you play for. You don’t play to put up your numbers, but to try to get a chance to make it to the World Series.”
I trusted Albert knew what he was talking about.
But I also know Albert’s Hall of Fame numbers.
For the eighth inning, Murph returned to the mound and struck out the first hitter, bringing Hayden Gibson to hit. Hayden flew out to left, and Harrison W made a good play navigating the wind to secure the second out. Schuyler Carter painfully earned his way to first with a ball on the back of the calf. Murph then worked around Priestes and walked him.
Two runners on, two outs again. This time, the Suckers capitalized. With a little help.
Josh Engler hit a chopper to the middle. Putting the ball in play is the most important thing a hitter can do. A high hopper, Harry B could have stepped on second or thrown to first for the third out and ended the inning. The Ducks should have been leading 3-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. On his first step toward the ball, however, through no fault of his own whatsoever, Harry B’s shoe blew out. The entire sole almost ripped completely off. He was able to a piece of the ball to knock it down, but Schuyler flew around the bases, sore calf and all, and scored the tying run. After Harry changed cleats, Spitz grounded out to first to end the inning.
For the bottom of the eighth, the Ducks were retired quickly once again. Ground out, walk, double play.
On to the ninth.
Murph worked a quick top of the ninth with a strike out, walk, fielder’s choice ground out, ground out.
The bottom of the ninth was equally quick. Strike out. Ground out. Walk. Ground out.
The first game of the GRBL semi-finals would be going to extra innings.
GRBL extra innings should be sponsored by Tums.
Bases loaded. Two outs on the board.
Pure stress and adrenaline. And a little luck of the draw, too.
Murph threw two quick strikes to Tyler Krasko. Colter made a brilliant stop on a slider outside, then almost overthrew Murph with the return throw. I yelled from the dugout out of sheer stress. No harm done, Murph then got the third out to send the game to the bottom of the 10th.
Jacob Colter only saw one pitch. He laced a walk-off single to right center.
I yelled myself hoarse after Jacob’s hit.
The last time I lost my voice yelling it was 2014. On a 1-2 pitch, Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy grounded to Mike Moustakas, who threw the ball to Eric Hosmer and the Royals won a record 8th straight postseason game to advance to the 2014 World Series.
In similar fashion, the Ozark Mountain Ducks punched their ticket to the finals, playing for the Howard Bell Trophy. Catcher-manager Spitz and his team played a great game. They have no reason to hang their head.
The Dodgers beat the Braves by the same score the Ducks beat the Suckers, 4-3.
There have been 21 four-game sweeps in the World Series. If that were to happen, the World Series would be over before the GRBL’s championship game.
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I’ll be posting a story every day this week leading up to GRBL Championship Sunday.
The semi-final game between the Branson Showmen and the Springfield Mets will be recapped tomorrow.
Championship Sunday will be October 25 at US Baseball Park. Festivities will kick off with the Season V All-Star Game followed by the Kids Home Run Derby. And then the finals, where only one team can win the last game of the season.