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Chatham's pitching implodes, allows 2 home runs in 11-6 loss at Harwich

by Andrew Crane, 06-27-2021

Chatham's pitching implodes, allows 2 home runs in 11-6 loss at Harwich

HARWICH — Andrew Benefield glanced up and stared as Josh Hood’s line drive ripped over his head. There wasn’t much he could do — Harwich kept barrelling Chatham pitcher Cy Nielson, even after a mound visit from manager Tom Holliday, and Hood’s was the fourth-straight hit. So Benefield jogged two steps right from his perch on the infield dirt and watched as the relay throw sailed in and held the Mariners to one run on the play.

Holliday strolled back out to the mound again, this time a bit slower, and pulled Nielson, staring down the first baseline as his next attempt to eliminate the damage jogged in. The Anglers were down just one run in the sixth inning despite Nielson’s collapse, but needed to keep it that way. Nielson had recorded four straight strikeouts in relief of starter Austin Vernon, but Harwich lined hit after hit, scored run after run, and Nielson was chased off the mound before his three innings, the number typically allotted by Holliday for each pitcher early in the season, had eclipsed.

“I kinda got comfortable just trying to throw too many strikes,” Nielsen said. “My goal was to throw strikes, but I guess when you throw too many fastballs for strikes, they just hit it every once in a while.”

Four pitches after Jacob Watters entered, a ball squirted to the backstop, and another Harwich run scored. Then came the RBI single, the two more wild pitches, the repeated reminders of how distant Chatham’s first-inning 5-0 lead seemed. For everything that’s gone right for its pitching staff this season, for all the strikeouts and bailouts and time bought for the Anglers’ bats to finally start working, it all unraveled at Whitehouse Field on Sunday. Harwich scored four times in the third, four times in the sixth, and erased a first-inning grand slam that newcomer Benefield (Dallas Baptist) hit, sinking Chatham on the road, 11-6.

“They felt like fighting tonight and we didn't,” Holliday said. “We just got smacked right in the face and didn't smack back.”

The Anglers recorded four or fewer hits for the second consecutive game, not topping double-digits since the season-opener, but Benefield’s swing in the first inning threatened to flip the trend. Walks and two hit-by-pitches loaded the bases, and Michael Brown drew another free pass that brought in the first run. Up strolled Benefield, the third baseman who arrived just days earlier and was immediately thrust into the starting lineup. He sent a high fastball over the fence and into a pile of bushes in left-center field. Benefield cracked a smile running the bases, skipping the final step to home plate before high-fiving a group of teammates — including Austin Vernon, the starting pitcher, who inherited a 5-0 lead before he even stepped on the mound.

For the first two innings Vernon threw, that was enough. He retired the first hitter on three consecutive strikes, then struck out three of the next four, and extended the dominance that defined his first start of the season when he held Orleans hitless through three innings.

He started to work his changeup into his arsenal in the second inning for the second consecutive start, setting up his full toolbox for the final stretch of his appearance. But in that frame, he also allowed a walk and a flyout to deep center field. That carried over into the third, where he walked the leadoff hitter on five pitches, allowed a bloop single — his first hit allowed this summer — and worked two-straight full counts, one that ended in a strikeout and the other a free pass that loaded the bases. Brock Wilken strolled to the plate next, swung at a 1-2 fastball that landed where Benefield’s had in the first, instantly pulling the Mariners back within one run.

“They give you a lead like that, all you gotta do is just basically go out and make people hit the ball,” Holliday said. “But it was just sloppy.”

It wasn’t a typical outing for Vernon, Holliday said, and those effects trickled down through the rest of the pitching staff. They got behind in counts. Gave Harwich a chance to hit balls in the zone. And when they tried to mix in breaking balls in the dirt, those pitches often wiggled past the two Chatham catchers and toward the backstop. Nielson took over in the fourth inning, and on his first matchup against a left-handed batter, Nick Lucky sent a pitch over the 400-foot sign in center as Caden Trenkly helplessly raced back.

Even with that grand slam and the second Harwich home run, though, Brown’s RBI walk had given Chatham some breathing room. John Michael Faile added to it the next inning, lifting his head away from the plate after a swing and staring toward the light post just past the left-center field fence, and then kept staring — maybe hoping — to make sure it didn’t end up like the other balls that hung in the air off his bat and just stayed there. He hit a record-breaking 23 homers at North Greenville this past season in 45 games with a .438 batting average, but slumped through the opening stretch of Cape League games with two hits in his first 14 at-bats.

This one, though, sailed toward the same spot as Benefield’s. But after that swing, Harwich mowed through the Anglers’ order in order, retiring nine-straight hitters, and set the tone for the rest of the game. They put five runners on in the first inning and five total in the eight innings after. Holliday said that his players are “looking for the perfect world and it’s not there.” They struck out 13 times against the Mariners, the last one a wild swing and miss from Josh Rivera, adding onto their CCBL-leading strikeout total.

And when that paired with a lack of command, which continued with Watters as he allowed another run to score in the seventh on a groundout and in the eighth on a wild pitch after Logan Chapman took over pitching, that proved disastrous for the Anglers.

“We have to perk up,” Holliday said. “And again, maybe we're just not that good. Maybe we're just good when certain guys pitch. I don't know.”