The Dayton Dragons have reached crunch time. Days off are past, not it is just a sprint to the finish. The Dragons have never been hotter. They have won 11 of the last 13 games. There are 15 games left in the 2011 season and they hold a 6 game lead over the Flint Tin Caps and an 8 game lead over the Great Lakes Loons.
I was privileged to see the Dragons vs. the Loons on Friday night arriving when the game was already in the 3rd inning after making the 250 mile drive from the baseball desert to Fifth Third Field. When I arrived I discovered I hadn’t missed much. Through three the Dragons hadn’t even recorded a hit and were down 2-0. The game motored on after my arrival for another couple of innings with little fan fare giving me ample opportunity to say hello to my family already at the game and to greet the fans who share a little slice of section 209 and have become a family of fans, Dragons fans at their best. They had not had anything to cheer about but they were happily enjoying the fun at another Dragons game.
Friday evening was a special game for me as I was able to reunite with my uncle and cousin who I can safely say traveled the furthest to enjoy all the Dragons had to offer. They returned to Dayton from British Columbia, Canada where they have lived for over 40 years. As always, the Dragons staff upon learning of the distance they, and I, had traveled; gifted us, including my 4 children with Dragons ball caps and a stadium blanket to my children’s beaming gratitude. The Dayton Dragons are a first class organization.
The game moved to the bottom of the 5th inning with the score still 2-0 and Chris Berset lead off the inning by reaching on a throwing error committed by Loon Pitcher Angel Sanchez that allowed him to reach second base.
Let me pause in this recap by mentioning that while I do not consider Mr. Sanchez to be a Loon, I do feel a bit sympathetic that a pitcher of his quality is required to be called a Loon simply for being a member of this team. Let me also add that I have never understood why a run is considered unearned when the only error was made by the pitcher himself.
With Berset now on second, Josh Groton moved him to third with a groundout behind the runner. At this point, Jefrey Sierra took advantage of the opportunity to bloop a single into left field for the first Dragons hit of the night that drove Berset home cutting the lead to 2-1.
The capacity (as always) crowd now buoyed by the first offense of the game for the home team we moved into the top of the 6th inning and with one out Loons 1st baseman Chris Jacobs, who had already driven in the two runs the Loons scored in the second with a double, hit the ball sharply into the hole on the left side of the infield; at least that is what we all thought ranging 10 feet into Left Field, Billy Hamilton grabbed the ball and pivoted in the air and made a spectacular throw to Donald Lutz at first to retire Jacobs. Later in the 9th inning the crowd would vote for the play of the series against Great Lakes and this play won buy acclimation. The best part is that it wasn’t even the best play of the game. More on that later.
In the bottom of the 6th, Loons pitcher Sanchez was lifted after walking new Dragon Kurtis Muller in favor of reliever Juan Rodriguez who promptly struckout 4 of the next 5 Dragon batters he would face swiftly bring the game into the 8th inning.
Daniel Wolford struck out the first two batters he faced and retired the third on a line out to Theo Bowe in left to record another scoreless frame. This inning extended his streak to 29.2 innings of scoreless since June 9th.
Billy Hamilton led off the bottom of the 8th. Up until this point he was 0-3 with two groundouts and a strikeout but the crowd was feeling a rally in the air. Billy stands in and draws his 46th walk of the season. Note to all pitchers everywhere, never walk Billy Hamilton if you want to win. Billy steals 2nd on the first pitch thrown to Ronald Torreyes. Now standing menacingly over Loons reliever Pete Budkevics shoulder, Pete tries to pick him off and tosses the ball into center field allowing Hamilton to reach third. For the second time in the game, the Dragons scored using fundamental baseball as Torreyes hit a groundball to second behind the runner allowing the tying run to score. Kurtis Muller then stepped in and delivered a line drive to the center field wall for a double. Donald Lutz was intentionally walked to create a force play followed by a David Vidal flyout to center. Chris Berset stepped to the plate, Berset has struggled at the plate all year batting just .181 on the year but August has seen his fortunes improve as for the month he has 11 hits in 39 at bats. He stepped to the plate 0-3 reaching base and scoring in the 5th via the error and again delivered with a bloop single to drive Muller in with the go ahead run.
Drew Hayes stepped in to close in the 9th and struck out the first two batters he faced bringing lead off hitter Leon Landry to the plate. Landry has 11 triples and 24 stolen bases on the season and as he has been entrusted with the leadoff position in the batting order it is safe to assume he is quick. The sentence in the game recap does not give the final play of the game the notoriety it deserves. It states “Leon Landry grounds out, shortstop Billy Hamilton to first baseman Donald Lutz. ” Straightforward and to the point. The play was a bit more exciting. The ball was hit sharply forcing Billy Hamilton to dive with his back to the plate to again grab a ball 10 or 12 feet into the outfield grass. From the ground with his back to the plate he pivoted and threw the ball with everything he had to Donald Lutz who made an excellent stretch and grabbed the ball a split second before Landry’s foot fell. As amazing as the play in the 6th was, this play was better. It happened so fast that most in the crowd didn’t even realize the game was over.
I have made no secrets that I am excited about the way Billy Hamilton’s speed changes baseball games. He scored a run without even making contact and in the process rattled the pitcher enough to allow the Dragons to take the lead and then, his 33 errors not withstanding made two plays in the field without peer. Paul Janish might have made the first play but neither he nor Edgar Renteria could have come close to making the second play. His batting average has dipped slightly in August after a torrid July but the stolen base he recorded Friday was his professional baseball leading 82nd of the year. He is a joy to watch because of the shear wonder watching his talent displayed.
When a team records just 3 hits you do not usually expect them to win but in closing out his league leading 20th save, Drew Hayes did just that.
After the game, back in the Dragons gift shop, reliever Chad Rogers signed each of my boys new hats and even the baseball that a fan in section 208 shared with my 5 year old son to his delight. A game at Fifth Third Field is always well worth the price of admission even in lean years but 2011 looks like a year to remember. I know my kids will.
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