Firebirds Sent Packing After Late-Inning Dramatics

By Greg Joyce

The amazing 2011 summer for the Orleans Firebirds came to a crashing halt on Saturday night in Yarmouth, as the Red Sox knocked them out of the playoffs with a 11-10 defeat. The Firebirds came back once from a 4-0 deficit, but lost the lead in the bottom of the ninth, as they were sent packing by Y-D’s big bats.

The Firebirds took a 10-7 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but the Red Sox jumped on Trevor Gott (Kentucky) for four runs to win the game. The always-dependable Gott finally seemed human after going 12-for-12 in save opportunities during the regular season.

Connor Harrell (Vanderbilt) won the game for the Red Sox on a walk-off single to right field that scored Tyler Hanover (LSU). Hanover had reached on a two-run, game-tying single that got past Anthony Gomez (Vanderbilt) at shortstop.

“You’ve gotta give Y-D credit,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said. “They battled right down to the end. I thought that ball that got hit to Gomez was gonna get caught. I think the base runner got in the way and it kind of knuckled away from him. But hey, it’s baseball man. Stuff happens.”

Early on, it was not looking promising for the Firebirds as they fell behind 4-0. But their luck began to change in the fifth inning, when they got on the scoreboard for the first time in the series. Gomez slapped a double to right field that brought home Ronnie Shaeffer (UC Irvine) to begin the chipping away at the lead.

The Red Sox made it 5-1 in the bottom of the inning, but Orleans had a big sixth inning in return. Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State) led off with a single, and moved to third on a double from Maxx Tissenbaum (Stony Brook). They both came in to score on a three-run shot by Jayce Boyd (Florida State) over the center field fence.

Now only trailing by one, the Firebirds continued their rally. Rudy Flores (Florida International) and Shaeffer hit back-to-back singles., and were moved over on a sac-bunt from Matt Lowenstein (Loyola Marymount). After Andrew Aplin (Arizona State) walked, Gomez hit a hard ground ball to the third baseman that was misplayed and allowed two runs to score, as Orleans took the 6-5 lead.

In the seventh inning, the Firebirds added to their lead, with all of the runs coming with two outs. Flores started the rally by slamming a double to deep center field off the fence. He came home to score when Shaeffer hit a fly ball to left field that was dropped, putting Shaeffer at second.

Lowenstein kept the rally going with a single, allowing Aplin to step into the batters box. He came through with a RBI single to right field that made it 8-5 Orleans.

The Red Sox then began to chip away at the lead, and it was a one-run game heading into the ninth. Aplin added some insurance runs when he lifted a home run over the right field fence for a 10-7 lead.

Matt Boyd (Oregon State) got the start on the mound for the Firebirds, recording the no decision. Boyd threw five innings, allowing five runs, nine hits, three home runs, and had five strikeouts.

Every batter in the starting lineup for Orleans recorded a hit, with six players racking up more than one.

Despite the tough ending to an incredible summer, Nicholson was able to identify what he would remember from his 2011 team.

“They did a good job,” he said. “Obviously this loss is gonna hurt, but the thing I’m going to remember about this team is that they won 11 out of 12 and won the East. I think anytime you can play well at the end and at least win your division on the Cape, you’ve had a good summer.”

Firebirds Run Into Tough Pitching In Game One

By Greg Joyce

Orleans ran into some stellar pitching on Friday night in their first playoff game, and the offense went missing. Y-D’s Mark Appel (Stanford) stifled the Firebirds for eight innings of scoreless baseball, and the Red Sox took Game One, 4-0 at Eldredge Park.

Appel nearly went the distance for Y-D, throwing 110 pitches over eight innings of work, allowing just five hits, two walks, and striking out 10 batters.

“He was really good,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said of Aplin. “I think early he was touching sixes and sevens and throwing that nasty changeup and dropping that slider in there for strikes. Hey, good pitching is going to beat good hitting, we’ve talked about that all summer. You gotta give him a lot of credit.

“He was probably gonna beat most teams that he pitched against tonight. I think he’s probably one of the top ten picks in the draft next summer I would think, based on the summer he’s had. He has to have an off night for a team to have a chance to win against him. ”

All five hits the offense mustered off Appel were singles, and they could not manufacture any runs throughout the game.

The Firebirds’ best chance came in the bottom of the second, when they loaded the bases with two outs. But Andrew Aplin (Arizona State) was fooled by Appel and struck out, leaving the three runners stranded.

“We had a chance with Aplin with the bases loaded, but [Appel] threw a dirty changeup and got Aplin to swing and miss,” Nicholson said.

John Brebbia (Elon) got the start for Orleans, and lasted eight innings, allowing four runs, three of them earned. He left a few pitches up, but saved the bullpen for the rest of the series by toughing out eight innings of work.

“I think that’s going to be big going into Sunday, if we get to Sunday,” Nicholson said. “He picked us up big time. I think it’s the first time all summer that we’ve had a starter go eight innings and it was on 89 pitches. Breb did a pretty good job tonight. Not an A game, but B, B-.”

The Red Sox took a 2-0 lead in the third inning off Brebbia, which started when Tyler Hanover (LSU) doubled for his first of four hits on the night. Hanover came around to score when an attempted sac-bunt turned into an infield hit and an error by Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State) on a muffed catch on the throw.

Y-D’s Cody Keefer (UCLA) added to the lead in the fifth inning, when he hit a two-run home run to right field to make it a four-run lead.

In relief of Brebbia, Tyler Gebler (Rutgers) threw a scoreless ninth for the Firebirds.

Orleans will be back in action in Yarmouth tomorrow for Game Two of the series, and Nicholson has faith in his team.

“We’re gonna go with the same lineup and see what we can do over there,” he said. “Our guys are gonna be ready to go. They’ve competed all summer. Y-D knows that if they have to come back to our park for game three, they’re in a little bit of trouble.”

Game Two: Doubleheader Sweep Caps Off Amazing Finish

By Greg Joyce

They say you want to be playing your best baseball heading into the playoffs, and the Orleans Firebirds are certainly doing that. They capped off their 2011 regular season campaign with a 9-8 win over the Chatham Anglers at home in front of 3,458 at Eldredge Park, the second game of a day-night doubleheader.

The offense put on a show in the game after trailing early, and the bullpen held off a late surge by the Anglers in the latter innings, giving the Firebirds some good momentum as they begin the playoffs.

Down 1-0 in the second inning, Maxx Tissenbaum (Stony Brook) tied the game with one swing. He got a hold of a pitch and blasted it down the right field line for a monster home run, his second of the doubleheader.

Chatham took the 2-1 lead back in the next inning, but it didn’t take long for the Firebirds to erase that deficit. Matt Lowenstein (Loyola Marymount) drew a walk to begin the inning, and moved to third on a single to right field by Andrew Aplin (Arizona State). That brought up Anthony Gomez (Vanderbilt), who grounded into a double play but scored Lowenstein in the process, tying the game at two.

Then, the Firebirds took the lead for good in the fourth inning on the back two more long bombs. Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State) started off the inning with a single, and one batter later, Tarran Senay (NC State) came up big. Joining Tissenbaum with two home runs on the day, Senay crushed a pitch into the bullpen in right field to give Orleans the 4-2 lead.

“Yeah that was cool,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said of Tissenbaum and Senay’s two-home run days. “They’re good hitters.”

But the Birds were not finished with the long ball. Three batters later and with two runners on base, Andrew Aplin (Arizona State) connected for a three-run bomb into the bullpen for the 7-2 edge.

“Big home run,” Nicholson said of Aplin’s shot. “[Tissenbaum, Senay, and Aplin] did a terrific job tonight.”

Orleans padded their lead in the fifth inning, when Rudy Flores (Florida International) walked with the bases loaded to score Matt Duffy (Long Beach State).

On the other side of things for the Firebirds, Jason Wheeler (Loyola Marymount) got out of some tough jams and pitched a gutsy five innings to earn the win. He allowed just two runs in his start, and got through difficult innings unscathed to hold the lead.

In the sixth inning, Aplin banged a double to the gap in right to lead off, and eventually crossed the plate on a sacrifice fly from Duffy that made it 9-2.

From that point on, the Anglers scored six unanswered runs off the Orleans bullpen, but Trevor Gott (Kentucky) came into the game in the ninth inning and shut the door for his 12th save of the season.

The win in the nightcap was just the icing on the cake after the Firebirds had clinched the division earlier in the day at Chatham.

Said Nicholson,“I’m really, really proud of what we accomplished, but as I told them at the end, I’m really proud of how they accomplished it: with professionalism, class, poise, and I thought they did a very nice job.”

After an amazing turnaround from Orleans to go from fourth place to first place in just two weeks, Nicholson reflected on what makes this team stand out from others.

“Just that they’ve competed all summer,” he said. “Even games that we lost early in the summer, those guys would compete right down to the final at bat. Once we got Aplin here, once we got Gomez here, those guys are high-energy guys. They provide good energy. And it’s exactly what this club needed. We just started playing well at the right time.”

Now that the regular season has finally wrapped up, the skipper can begin preparing for the difficult road that lies ahead.

“We’ve got our hands full with Y-D,” he said. “We would like to think that Y-D has their hands full with us. But there’s a lot of baseball to be played. We could be here 10 or 12 more days, which is the goal. You’re in it now, man. Whoever gets to six wins first gets a ring. It’s gonna be fun.”

Game One: Firebirds Clinch Eastern Division Regular Season Title

By Greg Joyce

Just over two weeks ago in Chatham, it seemed as though the Orleans Firebirds had hit rock bottom. They had just lost their seventh game in nine contests, an 8-3 defeat at the hands of the Anglers. They were down to fourth place in the East, and it was not looking good for the Birds.

Then, the Firebirds grinded out a 2-0 win over Y-D, swept a doubleheader at Harwich on the strength of a game-saving catch, and never looked back.  12 games and 11 wins later, the Orleans Firebirds are Eastern Division regular season champs.

On Wednesday afternoon in Chatham, the Firebirds locked up the number one seed in the East. Thanks to strong pitching from Tyler Johnson (Stony Brook) and four RBI from Maxx Tissenbaum (Stony Brook), Orleans defeated the Anglers 6-2 in the first game of the day-night doubleheader.

Earning his fourth win of the season, Johnson came up huge for Orleans, allowing just one hit and no runs over 6.1 innings of work.

“It’s obviously tough to go out there and compete for an Eastern Division Championship,” Johnson said. “But it was a beautiful day out there today, and I just went out there and said to myself, ‘Do the same thing you always do: throw the fastball, and use your defense.’ It was real fun.”

As he has all season, Johnson used his sinking fastball to get many of his outs, and that pitch was the key to his success.

“That’s my go-to pitch,” Johnson said. “When I need an out, I’ll throw that ball hopefully where I want to, usually where I want to, which was really a big key for me today. When I command that pitch, it makes it easier for me to pitch. I got a lot of groundballs, and I felt pretty good today.”

Johnson’s college and summer teammate provided all the offense he would need on the day. Tissenbaum drove in the first run on a RBI single in the fifth, scoring Reed Gragnani (Virginia) to make it a 1-0 lead.

But Tissenbaum waited till the eighth inning to do some more serious damage. After two batters were walked to begin the inning, Tissenbaum hit a bomb to right field for a three-run home run, giving Orleans the 4-0 advantage.

The home run was Tissenbaum’s second of the year, and after losing some playing time through the summer, his hard work and determination is finally showing off.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work,” Tissenbaum said. “I just kept on working cause I knew I’d get my chance at some point, and I’d try to do the best with whatever I can.”

“I told [Tissenbaum] today that I was really proud of him,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said. “His hard work and his good attitude paid off. A lot of guys would have sulked and pouted and quit, and instead he just worked harder and he reaped the rewards for it. It was awesome to see.”

Matt Duffy (Long Beach State) added a sac-fly in the inning to stretch the lead to 5-0, before the Anglers could put up two runs in the bottom of the inning.

In the top of the ninth, Tarran Senay (NC State) kept his bat hot with a long home run to right field, his fifth straight game with an extra-base hit.

The win secured home field advantage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs for the Firebirds. More importantly, it showed the heart the team has had, coming back from fourth place to win 11 out of their last 12 games to take over first.

“It’s awesome,” Tissenbaum said. “It feels really good. It’s a lot of confidence going into the playoffs and knowing that we can pull off a real big comeback like we did. We were way back at one point, and came right back, so that’s good.”

“It’s real nice,” added Johnson. “A couple weeks ago, we were in a bit of a slide, but the last two weeks, we’ve really hit our stride. Sometimes, it’s who’s hottest going into the playoffs. It should be a fun ride.”

Nicholson summed up the two-week whirlwind best.

“I had a gut feeling we were gonna go on a run,” he said. “I didn’t know the run was gonna be as good as it’s been. But everybody has them. And like I told you, you gotta just survive and stay around .500 and you gotta survive those four or five game losing streaks, cause you’re gonna have them. It happens in this league and it happens in baseball. Baseball’s a crazy game. I think that game against Y-D when they came to our place and Tyler [Johnson] pitched and then we went over to Harwich and that catch by Aplin…I think it really energized us and I think it gave us some momentum. These guys have just really come together well. I couldn’t be happier for this group of guys and the coaching staff. They’ve done a terrific job.”

Clicking On All Cylinders, Firebirds Win Again

By Greg Joyce

It was more of the same for Orleans on Sunday night, and considering the way they are playing as of late, that is a very good thing. With strong starting pitching, no errors, and at least one hit from every batter in the starting lineup, the Firebirds enjoyed a 7-3 win over the Brewster Whitecaps in front of 2,718 at Eldredge Park.

Once again, Matt Duffy (Long Beach State) and Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State) led the way for the Firebirds, as Duffy recorded three hits and Waldrip had two singles with two RBI. Anthony Gomez (Vanderbilt) and Jayce Boyd (Florida State) also racked up two hits apiece in the win.

Mike Hauschild (Dayton) got the start for Orleans, and he turned in yet another impressive performance. Hauschild let up just two runs, one in the third and another in the fifth, but was otherwise flawless. He recorded his third win of the summer, and finished with five strikeouts and no walks.

“It really helps,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said of getting six strong innings from your starter. “I’m stating the obvious, but it really helps our ballclub for your starter to go out and give you six solid innings and two runs or less. It’s a good recipe for a great result.”

Down 1-0 in the fourth, the Firebirds had the heart of their lineup coming up and they came through to get the lead. Gomez led off the inning with a single to right field, which was followed by a single from Duffy to put runners on the corners with one out. Waldrip came up and slapped a single to left-center field, scoring Gomez to tie the game at one.

The next batter was Reed Gragnani (Virginia), and he grounded into a double play, but it allowed Duffy to score as the Firebirds took the 2-1 lead.

The Whitecaps responded with a run in the top of the fifth inning, but Orleans was quick to battle back and took the lead for good in the next half inning.

Boyd began the fifth with a long double off the left field fence that nearly went for a home run. Then, Andrew Aplin (Arizona State) connected on a pitch for a double of his own that plated Boyd to make it 3-2 Orleans.

Gomez moved over Aplin with a sacrifice bunt, which proved important when Duffy followed with a RBI single to bring home Aplin. Gragnani added a ground rule double to right before Brewster finally got out of the inning.

Orleans wasn’t done scoring though, as they padded their lead in the next inning. With one out, Maxx Tissenbaum (Stony Brook) got the sweet spot of the bat on the ball for a double into the gap in right. Boyd drove him home on the next play with a single to left field.

Then with two outs, Boyd stole second base, which was important when Gomez hit a single up the middle, as Boyd came in to score on the play.

On his third hit of the night, Duffy moved Gomez to third on an infield single just over the first baseman’s head. That set up Waldrip for another RBI, as he hit a single through the hole on the left side, scoring Gomez and making it a 7-3 Orleans lead.

With Tarran Senay (NC State) recording a double, his fourth straight game with an extra-base hit, and Ronnie Shaeffer (UC Irvine) hitting an infield single, all starters for the Firebirds got into the hit column.

“It’s great,” Nicholson said of all nine getting a hit. “It’s nice to see these guys playing well at the right time. We still have a lot of baseball left to play. But it’s good to see these guys playing well and having fun and enjoying being out here.”

Kurt Heyer (Arizona) continued to be dominant out of the bullpen, as he threw two innings of scoreless relief with four K’s for Orleans.

“[Heyer]’s in a really good role for this team right now,” Nicholson said.

In the ninth, Nicholson handed the ball to Trevor Gott (Kentucky), whom he called “arguably the best closer on the Cape.” Although it was a non-save situation, Gott closed out the game, giving up a harmless run before recording the final out.

The win put the Firebirds back in a tie for first with Harwich, adding an extra importance to the final two games of the season that remain. Orleans controls its own destiny, and two wins over Chatham will give them home field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and the Eastern Division title.

“We’d really like to win the division,” Nicholson said. “We’re in a good spot to do that. I think we control our own destiny, and yeah we’d like to be the Eastern Division Champions, just like Harwich would. I think this organization takes some pride in that. I know I do.”

With just two games remaining before the playoffs, the Firebirds just need to do one thing: keep playing more of the same baseball. Winners in nine of their last ten games, they are playing their best baseball as of late. Just at the right time.

Firebirds Mount Comeback In Y-D

By Greg Joyce

Through six innings at Y-D on Saturday night, the Orleans Firebirds were losing 2-0. They had put up seven hits, but couldn’t get the push they needed to make a mark in the run column. But then came the seventh inning, and the Firebirds finally pounced, scoring six runs to complete the comeback and beat the Red Sox 6-3.

With a runner at first and one out in the seventh, Tarran Senay (NC State) continued his recent tear at the plate, and lined a single to right field. Ronnie Shaeffer (UC Irvine) came up next, and recorded his third hit of the day, a fly ball to left field that fell for a hit, scoring Jayce Boyd (Florida State). An errant throw from the left fielder allowed Senay and Shaeffer to each move up a base on the play.

Then, with runners at second and third and one out, the Firebirds elected not to put on a sacrifice bunt or a safety squeeze, and allowed Matt Lowenstein (Loyola Marymount) to swing the bat. Their decision proved wise, as Lowenstein hit a hard bouncing ball over the head of the Y-D second baseman and into right field to tie the game at two.

“I thought [assistant coach Benny Craig] showed a lot of confidence in our hitters,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said. “There were some situations where we could have sacrificed and we could have safety squeezed, but he just let guys hit, and they came through big.”

The next batter was Anthony Gomez (Vanderbilt), and he gave the Firebirds the lead for good when he shot a single into right field to score Shaeffer.

Then Matt Duffy (Long Beach State) joined the rally with his second of three hits on the night, lining a single to right field to make it 4-2 Orleans.

After Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State) drew a walk to load the bases, Jake Stewart (Stanford) recorded a productive out, grounding into a fielder’s choice that brought home Gomez.

Finally, Reed Gragnani (Virginia) capped off the rally with a RBI single to right field for the 6-2 lead.

Matt Boyd (Oregon State) was the starter on the hill for Orleans, and threw five solid innings, allowing just one run in the process. He did not factor in the decision, but struck out six and held the Firebirds close until their big seventh inning.

Coming on in relief of Boyd was Kenny Long (Illinois State), who allowed one run over three innings of work to record the win.

“Matt Boyd was really good, and Kenny Long was really good,” Nicholson said.

Kyle Ottoson (Arizona State) pitched the last inning, giving up one run, but shutting down any last comeback attempt from Y-D.

Senay has now recorded an extra-base hit in each of the last three games (two doubles and a home run), with 4 RBI as well.

“He’s really swinging the bat at the right time,” Nicholson said. “That’s the nice thing about the Cape League: you lose a guy to professional baseball, and you get a guy like Senay, who could be playing professionally, and he steps in and continues to swing a hot bat. It’s really good to see that. He’s had a good attitude all summer, he’s worked pretty hard all summer, so it’s good to see it pay off.”

Duffy and Shaeffer both racked up three hits apiece in the game, while Gragnani finished with two. With his 3-for-5 performance, Duffy raised his batting average to .341, putting him .001 out of first place in the league in batting.

Every Firebird reached base at least once, and eight out of the nine batters had a hit in the game.

Said Nicholson, “All around, it was a good team win.”

Win Streak Snapped By Hyannis

By Greg Joyce

Orleans and Hyannis both came into Wednesday night’s matchup as winners of their last seven straight, meaning something had to give. Unfortunatley for the Firebirds, they came out on the losing end of the 11-2 decision, as they finally met their match against the Harbor Hawks.

Unlike most of their games during the win streak, the Firebirds were unable to score early, and instead faced a big deficit after the second inning.

Jason Wheeler (Loyola Marymount) was on the hill for Orleans, and had a tough night, letting up seven runs in 2.2 innings of work. The Harbor Hawks got on the lefty in the second, putting up the seven-spot while batting around the order.

“Wheeler did not throw the ball well, he did not have any command of his fastball,” field manager Kelly Nicholson said. “You cannot succeed in this league when you don’t have any fastball command.”

Two innings later, Hyannis started another rally off Pat Butler (UConn) and extended their lead to 9-0, and then 11-0 in the fifth inning.

The Firebirds finally got on the boartd in the sixth inning, when they took advantage of a Hyannis error. Andrew Aplin (Arizona State) reached on a misplayed pop up by the pitcher, and proceeded to steal second base.

Then, Maxx Tissenbaum (Stony Brook) hit a slow roller down the first base line, which the pitcher fielded and threw over to first for the out. But on a heads up play, Aplin scored all the way from second, as he caught Hyannis off guard to score the first run for Orleans.

“I just love the way Andrew Aplin plays and competes,” Nicholson said.

One of the bright spots of the night was Tarran Senay (NC State), who connected on pitch in the seventh inning for his first home run of the season, a blast over the left field fence to make it 11-2.

The other positive in the game was the final three relief pitchers for the Firebirds. Kyle Ottoson (Arizona State), Kenny Long (Illinois State), and Kurt Heyer (Arizona) combined to throw the last 4.1 innings, and they were perfect, not allowing a single hit or walk.

“I thought Ottoson, Long and Heyer were outstanding,” Nicholson said.

All-Star Matt Duffy (Long Beach State) slapped a double into the left-center gap in the ninth inning to extend his hitting streak to five games, and up his average to an impressive .331.

The Firebirds will now get a well-deserved two days off while their teammates Duffy, Ben Waldrip (Jacksonville State), Trevor Gott (Kentucky, and Tyler Johnson (Stony Brook) travel to Fenway Park to play in the All-Star Game.

With a demanding and busy schedule over the last month and a half, Nicholson said he is welcoming the off days, as his team tries to gear up for a playoff run.

“I think everybody probably needs a couple days off,” he said. “I think the coaching staff and I think the players are ready for a couple days off and then make that final push to and through the playoffs.

“The guys had a good run, they had a really good run. If somebody would have told us that we were gonna win seven in a row, I probably would have told them that they were crazy. We’ll take it, but we know that there’s a lot of baseball left to be played in the regular season, and then when we start in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0. Whoever can win six games first is gonna get out of here with a ring.”