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.”

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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.”