It was a shaky start for the Washington Township Senators. Trailing the entire game, they finally broke through with four runs in their final two at-bats to collect a huge 7-5 victory over the South Jersey Hot Stovers in the the opening game of the 45+ Championship Series at Glassboro's Delsea Drive Park. Angel Rivera picked up the win with six innings of brilliant relief work and added a 3-for-3 performance at the plate as well.
Chris Johannes got the starting nod for the Senators, and it was clear from the outset that the big lefty did not have his best stuff, as Luis Rodriquez and Elvin Nunez greeted him with singles to put runners at the corners. In Johannes' defense, the Nunez hit was a bloop to right that probably should have been caught. Nonetheless, Mark Leise followed with what could have been a double play, but instead the Senators could get just one out as a run scored.
Johannes then walked Juan Martinez, and Carlos Perez rocketed an RBI double off the center field fence to make it 2-0. Jorge Gonzalez followed with a grounder that bounded off Johannes. The lefty was able to recover and barely nip the Stover DH at first as a third run scored. Johannes finally fanned Rick Santarone to end the inning, but the Stovers had a 3-0 buffer already.
But both clubs had hot offenses coming into this affair, and the Senators quickly responded. Rivera doubled to left to start things, and Kurt Ley reached on an infield error to place runners at the corners with no outs. After Mark Alessandrini flew to shallow center, Danny Laudisio's RBI single opened the scoring for the Senators. Hot Stover starter Eric Mehler got Bobby Wood on a pop to shallow left, but the red-hot Hector Colon slammed a ball to right that missed being a three-run homer by about a foot, crashing off the top of the fence. Ley scored easily, but Wood was just as easily erased at the dish to end the inning after running through Bruce Schumin's stop sign at third. It was a harbinger for a frustrating day on offense for the home club.
The Stovers added another run in the second frame. Mike Kelly walked to start the inning, and the Stovers elected to bunt, with Mehler moved Kelly up a base nicely. Billy Wagner took a called third strike for the second out in an at-bat where he probably actually saw only one "real" strike, but Johannes then walked Pedro Maldonado. And Rodriquez quickly made him pay, smacking an RBI single to make it a 4-2 game. Johannes recovered and fanned Nunez after a tough at-bat to end the threat.
The Senators, meanwhile, continued a game-long trend of stranding runners. Joe Leo doubled to start the second, but despite a one-out walk to Johannes, he was left hanging. And the Stovers padded their lead in the third.
Martinez singled with one out, and Gonzalez got a two-out walk before Santarone's single made it 5-2. Johannes got Kelly on a fly to right, but he was already at 71 pitches after three innings of work, and Senator skipper Nick Frese had seen enough, calling Rivera to the hill to start the fourth.
The Senators continued to waste opportunities. In the third, Frese was hit by a pitch to start the inning, and Rivera had a long single to left, a ball that was almost caught as Frese could only get to second. Naturally, Ley's sharp grounder to second resulted in an easy 4-6-3 twin killing, and the Senators came up empty again.
Rivera worked around a single and a walk himself in the top of the fourth, and the Senators edged closer in the bottom of the inning.
Laudisio led off with a single, and Colon's one-out single put runners at the corners. Leo flew to left, but big Jimmy Toth came up with a big two-out RBI single to get the Nats back to 5-3 before Mehler was able to end the rally by retiring Johannes on a 4-3 grounder.
The Senators wasted yet another great scoring chance in the fifth. Schumin doubled with one out and Frese reached on an infield error. Maldonao relieved Mehler at this point, and Rivera dropped a soft single into shallow right. But Schumin was easily nailed at the plate for the second out, and Ley's liner to right kept the score 5-3.
The Stovers had a mild threat in their sixth. Santatrone walked to lead off the inning, and Wagner got a two-out single, but the scrappy Rivera got Maldonado on a comebacker to stymie the Stovers.
And speaking of stymie, the Senators met him again in the bottom of the inning. Alessandrini walked and stole second to start things, and Wood collected an infield single one out later and also stole second. The Stovers elected to intentionally walk Colon, and they made the move work by fanning Leo on a 3-2 pitch and retiring Toth on an infield grounder to maintain the 5-3 margin. It was beginning to look like the lead could stand up, as the Senators simply could not seem to get the big hit.
Rivera's control momentarily deserted him in the seventh, and it looked like big trouble. Nunez and Leise drew one-out walks, but Rivera induced a comebacker out of the dangerous Martinez, and the Senators easily spun a 1-6-3 twin-killing to keep the score 5-3.
The Senators finally found a way to push one across in the bottom of the inning. Johannes was hit by a Maldonado pitch to start the inning, and Frank Rose smoked a single to center to send him to third. The Stovers saw an escape route when Schumin popped to second for the first out, but Frese would have none of it. He drove a 2-1 pitch to deep center for a sacrifice fly to make it 5-4. Rose was picked off first to end the inning, but the Senators now needed just a single run with the top of the order due up and two innings to play.
Rivera dispatched the Stovers in order in the top of the eight, and then the Senators spark plug promptly walked and stole second to start the bottom of the inning. Ley wasted no time in tying the game with an RBI single, and Alessandrini walked. Maldonado fanned Laudisio for the first out, but Wood rapped an RBI single to give the Senators the lead, and he moved to second on the throw. The Stovers again elected to give Colon the free pass to load the bags, but things did NOT work out for them on this occasion, as Leo also drew a walk to give the Senators a 7-5 lead. That's when things got a little weird.
With the bags still juiced with one out, Toth hit a ball off his left foot that rolled straight up the third base line, where Rodriquez picked it up in foul territory. Somehow, this resulted in an inning-ending double play. Neither arbiter saw the ball hit the big guy's toe, and how the plate guy didn't notice that the ball was caught in foul territory is anyone's guess. But Rodriquez stepped on the bag and walked in and tagged Toth, and the Senator rally was stunningly over. Go figure.
But it didn't matter to the home troops in the end, as Rivera continued his masterful work with a 1-2-3 ninth. The game ended when Wagner's sharp grounder down the line at third was coralled brilliantly by Mike Fanelli, who then sprung to his feet and threw a strike to Frank Izzi at first to put an exclamation point on the thrilling victory.
The Senator offense continued to excel, as they produced 14 hits, with Rivera leading the way with his three. Laudisio, Wood, and Colon each had a pair. The Stovers got three hits out of the red-hot Rodriquez, while Martinez chipped in with a pair. The Stovers had nine hits in all.
But Rivera's relief work was the story of the day, as the Senators right-hander worked six stellar innings, allowing just four hits and walking three. He tossed just 72 pitches in the effort, just one more than Johannes threw in his three innings of work. It was a terrific performance, and Rivera sure seemed to have fun doing it, too.
The win gives the Senators a 1-0 advantage in the best-of-three Championship Series. Play resumes next Sunday at Rabinowitz Field in Cherry Hill, when Senator ace John DiPietro returns to make the start.
Notes: Seems that every game these two teams play here in 2012 is destined to be close and exciting. This was the fourth meeting between the Senators and Hot Stovers, and three of the four contests were decided by two runs or less...this game started out a little ugly for both clubs on defense, but things settled down, fortunately, and it was a well-played affair in the latter innings...Rivera's relief work was superlative, harkening back to Senator great Dave Koerner's knockout relief work in the Senator's first championship win back in 2000 against the Cumberland Black Sox. Koerner relieved current Senator Frank Rose in the fifth inning on that day and fanned 12. While Rivera did not have that kind of punch-out performance, he was nonetheless masterful...Rivera is also the quickest worker in the league, and that clearly kept the defense on their toes and in the game...the Senators' LOB number in this contest was a stunning 13, but they hurt themselves with some "interesting" base running, and of course the crazy call in the last frame did not help matters. But if you manage to get more in than the other club, they give you the win. So they'll happily live with 13 LOB...Rodriquez has been one hot hitter for the Hot Stovers. He had hits in his first three ABs before Rivera finally figued a way to get him out...Mehler threw the ball well for the Stovers, keeping the Senators hitters off balance with a tailing fastball and funky curve. He deserved a better fate, but that's baseball.