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'The ultimate team': How Chatham dominated the Cape League and cruised to the title in 1992

by Jake Klein, 08-15-2022

'The ultimate team': How Chatham dominated the Cape League and cruised to the title in 1992

Before the crowd settled in at Whitehouse Field on a windy Saturday night in Harwich, Jeremy Carr walked on four pitches to start the season. He then stole second before moving to third on a groundout and racing home on a wild pitch. Before the Chatham A’s sent their cleanup hitter to the plate for the first time in 1992, they had the lead.

For the rest of the summer, they played from ahead.

“That was one of the best summers,” said John Schiffner, then an assistant coach under A’s manager Rich Hill. “It was real good baseball. You took one look around the Cape that year and you said, ‘Yeah, Chatham’s the best team in the league.’”

But Chatham’s roster wasn’t loaded with high-end prospects. In fact, no 1992 Cape League team produced fewer big leaguers than the A’s. Only one player from Hill’s squad — third baseman Greg Norton (Oklahoma) — ever reached the majors.

“It was just a bunch of grinders,” Hill said. “It wasn't just chock-full of big guys. Everybody loved each other, everybody was into it, nobody wanted to go home early.”

“That was the ultimate team,” Schiffner said. “That was baseball the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Norton, who Schiffner called the team’s best player, and Carr (Cal State Fullerton), who played in all 41 regular season games, were the catalysts of the A’s victory at Harwich on Opening Day. After Carr’s mad dash around the bases in the first, he lined a single to center in the third that moved Chad Holbrook (North Carolina) to third, allowing Norton to plate the runner with a grounder. In the eighth, Carr led off with a bunt single, went first-to-third on the next hit and scored when Norton drilled a hit down the third base line.

When the final out landed in Carr’s glove, Chatham was 1-0 and tied for the East Division lead. It relinquished that lead once the rest of the summer.

Veteran Presence

Hill’s construction of the 1992 A’s roster started with the foundation — four returning players. He re-upped with Carr, starter Steve Duda (Pepperdine) and closer Scott Smith (Kentucky) after each spent the previous season with Chatham. He also brought back catcher Scott Vollmer, Duda’s collegiate battery-mate at Pepperdine who was Chatham’s catcher two years earlier in 1990.

“Those returning guys were the rocks,” said 1992 A’s assistant coach Alan Jaeger. “It all started with them.”

Every weekday at 7 a.m., Duda and Vollmer left the house behind Short ’n’ Sweet Ice Cream and got on Route 28. They picked up Carr and Smith and drove to downtown Chatham, where their orange juice and coffee awaited them at Sandi’s Diner.

Then, they joined pitching coach Dave Taylor at Veterans Field and coached children at the A’s Baseball Camp. At the time, the NCAA mandated summer league players to work 20 hours per week, and Chatham’s baseball clinic jobs were usually reserved for veteran players.

“They really take care of the returning guys there,” Smith said. “They treated you like a king. The whole town did.”

Chatham’s pitching staff featured 10 pitchers, six of whom were upperclassmen — the most in the league. Its ace took the mound for the first time in 1992 on the second night of the season.

Duda surrendered two runs in the first inning of Chatham’s home opener against Cotuit on June 16. He allowed a triple and a single to start the game, then sailed a pickoff throw before a squeeze bunt made it 2-0 Kettleers. But he struck out the side in the second inning and fanned eight more Cotuit hitters before he was pulled after the seventh inning.

“I saw him pitch a little bit [for Pepperdine], but I just remember thinking, ‘Woah, somehow he looks even better,’” said Jaeger.

An eighth-inning RBI single by Paul Petrulis (Mississippi State) gave Chatham its only run. Duda, now 0-1 after a seven-inning, two-hit performance, was the tough-luck loser, but — a year after twirling a no-hitter, starting the All-Star Game and pitching to a 2.89 ERA — he reestablished himself as the Cape League’s premier starter and Chatham’s go-to arm.

“It really allows some of the kids, when it's their first time up there, to get an understanding of what to expect.” Smith said of the importance of the veterans on the A’s staff. “It set the tone for the whole year.”

West Coast Influence

With his own Cape League debut scheduled for the next night, John Bushart took in Duda’s first start from the left field bullpen at Veterans Field.

Although Bushart — a 6-foot-5- left-hander from Cal State Northridge — was the physical opposite of Duda — a 5-foot-11- righty — the two shared a pitching philosophy.

“For us West Coast guys, it was about going nine and not giving up a run,” Duda said.

“The LSU guys had something called the ‘inevitable two,’” Duda remembered. “If they only gave up two runs in the first inning [in the Southeastern Conference], that was good. Coming from the West Coast, if you gave up two runs, you risked losing that game.”

1992 Chatham A’s team photo copy 2
The 1992 A's, featuring eight California natives.


Schiffner remembers Bushart having the unique ability to place any of his pitches in any part of the zone. He changed speeds with his curveball and changeup. Then, Schiffner said, just when the hitter was expecting another offspeed offering, Bushart would throw a fastball.

“He’d throw 91 under your hands and you couldn’t catch up to it,” Schiffner said. “He made low 90s look a lot faster.”

He started on the road against Brewster in the third game of the season and outdid Duda’s performance from a night earlier. Scattering nine hits across 7.1 innings, Bushart allowed one run in a 2-1 win over the Whitecaps.

At Cal State Northridge, Bushart was part of a Matador pitching staff that had four starting pitchers and typically played four games a week—there was no bullpen. In one instance during the spring of 1992, he pitched both ends of a doubleheader sweep against Sacramento State.

“When you went, you went nine,” Duda recalled. “That was our mentality with John—if he was going to start, he was going to finish.”

There were concerns about players from small West Coast schools pitching on Cape Cod, and Duda and Bushart heard them. They weren’t high-velocity pitchers with nasty stuff. They didn’t warrant the “oohs” and “aahs” from the scouts the league was known to draw. They were, however, Rich Hill’s type of player.

Hill, then the manager of Division III Cal Lutheran during the spring, is a self-proclaimed “West Coast guy.” He was once a second baseman at San Diego State, where he saw the California style of pitching firsthand.

“He had a lot of California polish,” Schiffner said of Hill. “He was never going to force anything. It was all about finding that player who’s going to buy in — who’s got a little extra toughness but they also have a personality to go through the grind of a Cape League season.”

Dominant Duda

Duda’s return to Chatham in 1992 was a mutual decision.

“Why wouldn’t we have wanted him back?” Schiffner asked. “He was a leader. He was a fun guy. He was the first to congratulate someone if we got a base hit or made a nice play. And he was a really good pitcher.”

After Chatham lost the 1991 Cape League Championship to Hyannis, Duda knew he’d return.

“There was a winning tradition. We were truly motivated to win for the town and for the team,” he said. “I didn’t get drafted, so it wasn’t like I was in Chatham to improve my draft capital. I wasn’t there to impress the scouts. I wasn’t there just to get some work in. I was there to win.”

On June 24, 1992, exactly a year after he no-hit Yarmouth-Dennis, Duda delivered another masterpiece, this time against Brewster. He pitched through on-and-off rain but faced just two batters more than the minimum in the one-hit effort.

Duda’s shutdown of the Whitecaps allowed Chatham, 7-3, to break the tie atop the Cape League’s East Division and jolt a game ahead of Brewster. He made his first three starts in a 14-day span, pitching to a 2-1 record and a 0.89 ERA. After his tough-luck loss on the second day, Duda took the ball every four or five games, rattling off five straight wins from June 19 to July 11.

On June 29, in the start immediately following his one-hitter, he dealt eight shutout innings against Orleans. When he departed the Veterans Field mound after the eighth inning on July 5 against Brewster, it had been 26 innings since he had surrendered an earned run. That streak was finally snapped six days later in South Yarmouth at 29.2 innings when Y-D’s Todd Greene sent a home run over the center field fence, 360 feet from home plate at Red Wilson Field.

“He hit a pop-up,” Duda recalled. “And it was a home run because of how short that fence is.”

But with 3.1 scoreless innings after Greene’s homer, Duda earned another win, advancing to 5-1 by the season’s midpoint.

“He just never lost steam. Every single time he went, we knew we’d have a pretty good shot to win,” Jaeger said.

Duda gave Chatham another chance to win on July 16, when he pitched into the eighth inning in a one-run start at Eldredge Park in Orleans. But the game was tied 1-1 after the seventh and Duda gave way to Scott Smith, who escaped trouble and earned the win after Harry Berrios (LSU) homered in the top of the ninth.

Duda never pitched less than seven innings in a start in 1992. Two runs on seven hits across 7.1 innings against Y-D on July 22 made for his worst start of the season, which brought his ERA over 1.00 for the first time since the home opener.

His 69.1 innings led the East Division in 1992, and only two Chatham pitchers have eclipsed that mark since. But his ability to consistently go deep into games was thanks to his pitching style.

“I was lucky to be throwing 88. My job was to get out there, work fast, get contact, let the defense make great plays, and get the offense back up to bat,” Duda said.

Duda made just one start in the 11 games after the All-Star break — a complete game two-hitter against Bourne at Veterans Field, capped off by Carr’s walk-off infield single that beat Bourne.

“We didn’t use him that much down the stretch,” Schiffner said. “That was intentional. He threw a lot of innings and we knew we wanted him ready for the playoffs.”

Closing Time

The 1992 A’s played 17 one-run games — by far the most in the league — and won 12 of them.

“It didn’t bother them,” Schiffner said. “And it didn’t hurt that we had the best closer in the league.”

Scott Smith logged eight saves in the regular season for Chatham, six of which spanned multiple innings. He surrendered two earned runs.

“Why go to a middle reliever when we didn’t need to?” Vollmer said. “We’d go right from our starter to Scotty, and it worked.”

Jaeger compared Smith to Major League’s “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn. He stood at 6-foot-3 with a mop of sun-bleached locks spilling so far out of his cap that, when he returned to University of Kentucky, he ran extra laps for violating his coaches’ no-hair-below-the-collar policy. He delivered from a low three-quarters arm angle, throwing primarily sinkers and sliders from hip level. But his fastball could reach 93 mph, Schiffner said.

His coaches and teammates called him ’Nooga’, an ode to his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his infectious easy-going southern nature.

“He kept them loose. He was a big personality,” Schiffner said. “But he never turned down taking the ball. It was always, ‘Give me the ball, skip. I’m going out and we’re going to win.’”

But Smith wasn’t a closer by trade. He was a starter in high school, at Kentucky, in Chatham in 1991 and for his entire pro career, which lasted until 1996. The 1992 Cape League season was the only time in his career during which he closed games, so the transition was the focal point of his summer work with A’s pitching coach Dave Taylor. Smith’s tendency as a natural starter was to throw whenever his arm felt ready.

“You can’t do that when you're a closer, because you might have to go in two or three days in a row,” he said. “I worked with [Taylor] on the mentality and preparation. Learning how to manage your body is such a key component to being a closer.”

On some nights, Taylor had to remind Smith not to play catch during batting practice or before the game because of the chance he’d be deployed at the end of the night.

“Having my body adjust under the direction of a coach like him was priceless for me. I just never had an experience like that before,” Smith said.

On July 9, the A’s carried a 5-0 lead into the eighth inning against Falmouth, but starter Derek Manning (North Carolina) allowed three runs on Mark Loretta’s double and then reloaded the bases with two outs. Hill bypassed the front end of his bullpen and turned right to Smith. He induced a groundout to Mike Smedes (Oklahoma) at first to escape the eighth with the lead and then three straight groundouts to nail down his fifth save.

“I think making him the closer was a phenomenal move,” Jaeger said. “He was the perfect guy for it.”

Cracking The Kettleers

The A’s rolled into Elizabeth Lowell Park on July 2 with an 11-5 record and just one loss in the past week. Yet Chatham wasn’t the Cape League’s hottest team; that distinction belonged to Cotuit.

The Kettleers entered the game winners of six of their last seven and 11-4-1 overall. Thanks to Mike Saipe’s complete-game effort at Veterans Field on June 14, they already had a victory over Chatham under their belts.

On July 2, Cotuit manager Roger Bidwell gave the ball to his ace. John Kelly was the only pitcher in the league keeping pace with Duda. Three starts in, Kelly’s 0.92 ERA was second in the league by three points — but him and Duda were nothing alike. Kelly, a right-hander from Leominster, Massachusetts, who pitched at University of Connecticut, boasted a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, and with it the Cape League’s highest strikeout rate.

Kelly dominated the A’s. He pitched the whole game, allowing five hits, walking two and striking out eight. Cotuit’s Mike Giardi tagged Chatham for a two-run single in the fourth and Mark Melito launched a three-run homer that was part of a four-run fifth for the Kettleers. Vollmer singled in the eighth to score Carr, but Cotuit won with ease and Kelly leapfrogged Duda for the league’s ERA lead.

The A’s remained atop the East and weren't struggling, but could now only at best salvage a split of the season series with Cotuit. Their next matchup against the Kettleers was less than a week later in Chatham. That week, pitcher Ron Rantz (LSU) drew the A’s elephant logo on the top of the home dugout.

“We called him Jumbo,” Smith said of the 6-foot-6, 275-pound fireballer. “He was great at keeping the guys loose.”

Again, Kelly started, and again he shut down the A’s to take the league’s ERA lead. This time, it was after eight innings, five hits, no walks and three strikeouts. Chatham’s only run in the 4-1 loss came when shortstop Keith Grunewald (North Carolina) doubled and Berrios singled him home.

“It wasn’t that there was anyone we didn’t think we could beat,” said Vollmer. “I guess we just didn’t beat them.”

Chatham got one more crack at Cotuit when they went back to Lowell Park on August 1. This time, Kelly didn’t pitch, but Tim Kubinski dealt nine innings and allowed two runs — sacrifice flies from Carr and Vollmer. Luckily for the A’s, he was outdueled by Wally Maynard (South Carolina) who also went the distance in a complete-game shutout.

The 2-0 win was Chatham’s only victory over Cotuit in its four regular season tries; the Kettleers were the only team Chatham didn’t beat or tie in a season series.

All-Star A’s

The 1992 Cape League All-Star Game was held at B.F.C. Whitehouse Field in Harwich. Seven Chatham players — Duda, Smith, Berrios, Carr, Vollmer, Norton and Grunewald — were selected to the game, the most of any team. Hill, having captured the division title in 1991, was the East’s manager for the game.

For the second year in a row, Duda got the starting nod. But he allowed a leadoff single to Loretta. Back-to-back Cotuit hitters then reached with two outs when Greg Thomas walked and Steve DeFranco singled to load the bases. After a long battle with the Kettleers’ Lou Merloni, Duda finally escaped the jam. He didn’t allow a run, but threw over 30 pitches, and Hill pulled him from the game.

“I was just glad to get off the mound,” Duda said.

After he came out, Duda went straight to the bullpen, where he sat back and watched three future Major Leaguers warm up to enter the game. Orleans sidewinder Kelly Wunsch pitched the fourth inning and his Firebird teammate Wayne Gomes — throwing 94-mph sliders, as Duda remembers — got the seventh. Brewster’s Billy Wagner pitched the eighth, striking out all three batters he faced with upper-90s fastballs en route to earning the East MVP honors.

“I was honored to be an All-Star and start the game,” Duda said. “But I just wanted to get out of that thing and watch all these horses come in.”

Before the seventh, Vollmer left the game and replaced Harwich’s Reed Aljian as the bullpen catcher. In the dimly lit right field corner of Whitehouse Field, he crouched behind the practice plate as Wagner pumped fastball after fastball at him. Duda and Smith laughed.

“That was scary,” Vollmer recalled. “I just came out [of the game], Billy Wagner’s probably throwing 98 and the lights don’t work very well.”

The game itself was dominated by the West Division, which deployed eight pitchers and held the East to two hits — both by Chatham players. Berrios singled to break up the no-hit bid with two outs in the fifth but was stranded when Carr flew out. In the eighth, Carr singled off Hyannis reliever Mike VanGilder, stole second and scored his team’s only run when Todd Greene reached on an error.

“That was just so special,” said Smith, who pitched the top of the ninth for the East even though it trailed. “There were probably seven or eight Major Leaguers in that game, so to be able to say I was part of it is just awesome.”

The Mental Game

Six hours before first pitch, well before the start of batting practice, eight A’s players sprawled on the outfield grass of Veterans Field. Positioned in a circle, their eyes closed, they listened. One man, kneeling in the middle of the circle, spoke, taking the group through a guided meditation with a stress on breathing and visualization. The A’s did this every day.

In the early 1990s, most Cape League coaching staffs were small. Many teams had only a manager and a pitching coach. Some had a third assistant. The 1992 A’s were one of two teams that carried a fourth.

“That was probably a big staff for back then, but we all had a role. That was a great staff,” said Schiffner.

In 1991, Hill and Schiffner coached alongside Long Beach State pitching coach Kip Fagg. When Fagg took a turn into scouting at the start of 1992, Hill replaced him with Taylor, his former pitching coach at Cal Lutheran and then the head coach at Oxnard Community College. Jaeger was the fourth coach.

Jaeger pitched at ​​Pierce Junior College before he transferred to Cal State Northridge in 1986. He was a pitching coach at Mission Junior College and College of the Canyons in the late 1980s. By 1990, he was running his own practice, where he offered specialized training programs on refining the mental state of baseball players. Hill was one of the first to put Jaeger’s tutelage to use.

“He was just a southern California baseball guy, he was big with the mental game and so was I,” Jaeger said. “He asked me to work with his team at Cal Lutheran and I guess he liked it because he asked me if he could take me with him to Chatham. I’m glad he did.”

Jaeger’s emphasis was on meditation and the art of zen. He also studied yoga. To Chatham’s players, these concepts were virtually unheard of.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Smith said. “We had this curious little fella introducing us to his zen meditation, and I was just like, ‘What is this?’”

Smith gave Jaeger’s routine a try. He never skipped a day the rest of the summer.

“I think that’s a big part of why I had so much success that year,” Smith said.

“At first I had my doubts about it,” Carr said. “But once I did it, I saw that it works.”

Jaeger’s meditation — which took place in the outfield on most days, but sometimes in a nearby locker room — started with a focus on breathing. This eased the players’ muscles so he could put them through a cycle of flexing and relaxing until they entered a relaxed state. He then brought them to what he called “focus.” They imagined floating down a river and reaching a lake. He brought the focus back inward, where they found themselves in a black space — what Duda called “an empty void.” From there, Jaeger brought them into “visualization mode,” where it was all about picturing themselves on the mound or in the batter’s box.

Duda visualized throwing whatever pitch he wanted — fastball, curveball or changeup — wherever he wanted. He blocked out the stands behind home plate and the hubbub of the ballpark in the background.

“There were times where I threw a pitch and thought to myself, ‘I’ve thrown that pitch before. I’ve seen that,’” Duda said.

Schiffner knew right away that Jaeger took the right approach to spreading his philosophy. He never forced any players to participate and never held it against them if they decided his meditation wasn’t for them. He showed a genuine desire to help the players improve and a genuine interest in the success of the team.

“He wasn’t the Alan Jaeger that everyone knows just yet,” Schiffner said, “But he was on his way. You knew he was going to be good at what he does.”

Jaeger also specialized in arm care, an area in which he worked closely with Vollmer. His “J-Bands” are now one of the best-selling baseball products in the United States. He was also a pioneer of long tossing to build arm strength.

“He introduced me to his arm work. I was long tossing every day and my arm got so much better in that one summer,” Vollmer said.

While working with the A’s, Jaeger was in the process of writing his first book, “Getting Focused, Staying Focused,” which was published in 2000. In the dedication of the book, he thanked the 1992 A’s team, the Chatham Athletic Association, Hill, Schiffner, Taylor, general manager Jack Hammond, Peter and Diane Troy and seven Chatham players.

”I look back on that summer so fondly,” Jaeger said. “I’m so glad I was able to have that experience.”

“What he taught me, I carried that on with me the rest of my life,” Smith said. “I used that in the rest of my playing career after the Cape, and I still use it to this day.”

Going Streaking

Chatham hit a blip at the start of July, losing three of four from July 2 to July 7 and two of four from July 17 to July 22. It coughed up the East Division lead for the first time.

The A’s trailed Brewster by a single point at the All-Star break, but opened the final stretch of the regular season with a trip to Cape Tech High School to face the Whitecaps and a chance to regain the edge in the division. The Chatham offense erupted for 11 runs — highlighted by a two-run homer from Berrios and a 4-for-4 performance by Petrulis — to back Maynard, Brent Frafjord (Marietta College) and Tom Price (Notre Dame). The three pitchers surrendered five combined hits in the 11-2 win.

By August 1, Chatham’s roster looked different. Holbrook left the Cape to deal with a back injury and Norton returned to University of Oklahoma to take summer classes. Hill replaced them with a pair of Odessa College teammates, outfielder Brian Garrett and infielder Lamont Mason. In their first game, Garrett doubled and scored in the third. Mason singled and scored in the eighth.

Schiffner remembers Garrett and Mason for their speed. At a major league tryout camp, he said, Garrett ran a 6.19-second 60-yard dash.

“He might’ve been one of the fastest human beings in the history of college baseball,” Schiffner said. “[Hill] found two guys from Odessa and they both ran. It was crazy.”

With Norton gone from the middle of the order, Hill slid Carr into the second spot, allowing Garrett to lead off. Mike Neal (LSU) moved from second base to third to fill Norton’s spot in the defense and Mason became the everyday second basemen, usually hitting ninth.

With their new lineup, the A’s rolled through the final quarter of the season. After taking back the top spot in the East from Brewster, Chatham rattled off 10 consecutive wins, the longest streak of the year in the CCBL.

The streak featured victories of all shapes and sizes. After Chatham thrashed Harwich 8-2 on July 27, it needed heroics the next three nights to pull out one-run victories.

Frafjord nailed down an emergency save on the road at Falmouth with the game-tying run on third and the winner on second. The next night, Mike Smedes (Oklahoma) clubbed a solo home run in the eighth to win a seesaw battle against Yarmouth-Dennis. The night after that, Carr hit Chatham’s third-straight infield single, capping a two-out rally by scoring Petrulis for a walk-off win over Bourne.

With Brewster’s loss to Wareham on August 2, Chatham clinched the top seed in the East with six games still to play. The streak was finally snapped on the second-to-last day of the regular season, but the A’s rebounded to close with a 3-2 win over Brewster, who would be their first round opponent in the playoffs.

Chatham won 10 of its final 12 regular season games, sitting first in the East Division and the CCBL as a whole. The 1992 A’s tied the 1985 team with 31 wins, the most in the team’s history. They stood four victories from their ultimate goal.

“We knew we were good,” Duda said. “It wasn’t a secret. But we weren’t thinking about that. We were there to win.”

Beating Brewster

When the cool air reached Long Island Sound and collided with the pre-standing warm air, thunderstorms were sent across New England. A cold spell descended upon Cape Cod, delaying the start of the CCBL playoffs by a day.

Duda took the mound at Veterans Field to open the postseason against Brewster, but it was nearly 10 days since his last start. He struggled to command the zone and the A’s fell behind 1-0.

In the fourth, Grunewald singled on a liner to right, his second hit off Whitecaps ace Scott Standish. After his first, he was picked off first base to end the inning. Standish caught Grunewald leaning again, but this time the Chatham baserunner took off for second. The throw from first was in time, but Todd Walker dropped the ball. Vollmer knocked an opposite-field single on the next pitch to score Grunewald and tie the game.

With Veterans Field wet and soft from the previous day’s rain and a pair of star pitchers on the mound, Hill didn’t hesitate to call for small ball. Petrulis dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt down the first base line, advancing runners on first and second.

“We utilized our talent very well,” Schiffner said. “If it was a situation that warranted a bunt, we did, but only if it was a guy who could handle the bat that you trusted to get a bunt down.”

On the next pitch, Paul Ottavina (Seton Hall) hooked a two-run double off the right-field fence to blow the game open. Duda found his groove in the middle innings and cruised to a complete two-run four-hitter in a 4-2 Chatham win.

“This figured to be a low-scoring series,” Brewster manager John Hughes told The Times after the game. “[Duda] did a really good job of keeping our guys off the basepaths.”

Having played a meaningless regular season finale against each other before sitting through a scheduled off-day and a rainout, each manager got a complete game from his Game 1 starter. Hill gave the ball to Manning in Game 2. Hughes gave it to Indiana State left-hander Casey Whitten. The result was another pitcher’s duel.

Manning cruised early, posting three-straight zeroes. Whitten walked three in the first three frames.

“He struggled early,” Hughes said after the game. “He threw a lot of pitches in the first four innings.”

Despite traffic on the bases, Chatham only brought in one run early. Garrett led off the third with a ground ball single to left. On a nearly-identical play to the previous night, Garrett took off for second as the Brewster pitcher picked first. Again, the Whitecaps couldn’t complete the play as first baseman Kevin Curtis bounced the throw into center field. He advanced to third on the error then scored on Carr’s grounder to short.

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The A's celebrating their first round win over Brewster. (Photo courtesy Cape Cod Chronicle)


Manning entered the eighth with four hits, six strikeouts and one walk to that point. But his velocity was dipping noticeably, so Hill pulled him for Frafjord after Bob Lisanti hit a one-out single and Brewster’s two best hitters — Darrell Nicholas and Jake Benz — were next up. Frafjord came into the game to create a right-on-right matchup with Nicholas. He got the Whitecaps left fielder to ground into a fielder’s choice. After four pitches from Frafjord, Hill signaled to the bullpen again; he wanted the left-handed Price to face Benz, and Price got a three-pitch flyout to end the inning.

In the ninth, they turned the game over to Smith, who nailed down the save to send Chatham to the championship.

“I was thinking if we could get this game we’d be alright,” Hill said after the win.

Hill’s Third Shot

In 1991, Hill took the A’s to the Cape League finals, but they were swept by Hyannis in two games. In the spring of 1992, his Cal Lutheran team went to the NCAA Division-III title game, but fell to William Paterson University, who were skippered by former Falmouth manager Jeff Albies.

Twice, he led a dramatic turnaround — from a last place Cape League finish in 1990 to the finals in ’91 and from the NAIA ranks to the NCAA D-III title game. But twice Hill came up short.

“I’ve been in this situation now three times in a row,” he said following the series-clinching win at Brewster. “I’m hoping the third time is a charm.”

Jaeger and Schiffner saw up close how excruciating those defeats were for Hill. Schiffner was alongside him for the 1991 Cape League defeat. Jaeger worked with the 1992 Cal Lutheran team that came up short.

“That mattered to him, so it mattered to us,” Jaeger said. “If not for anything else, we wanted to help him win the championship.”

When Cotuit won Game 3 against Wareham on the back of a dominant pitching performance by John Kelly, Hill’s chance to prove himself would come against the team which his A’s struggled the most.

Smedes’ Big Night

If Game 1 of the Cape League’s best-of-three Championship Series had been a night earlier, Mike Smedes wouldn’t have been in Chatham’s lineup. His arm was sore after pitching five innings in the last regular season game, and he re-aggravated it during the semifinal series against Brewster.

Hill told him to test it out in batting practice, and a few screaming line drives were enough to convince the skipper to leave his left-handed power batter in the lineup at first base. He was, however, dropped to eighth in the Chatham batting order, so his first at-bat didn’t come until there were two outs in the second.

After a single and a walk, Ottavina was on second and Petrulis was on first.

Smedes cracked a line drive off Kettleers starter Rob Steinert that tailed away from Cotuit right fielder Mike Giardi. Giardi dove, but the ball landed in front of his outstretched glove, bouncing past him. Ottavina and Petrulis scored as Smedes chugged into third with a two-run triple.

As Hill dealt with Smedes’ prospects to play in Game 1, he faced a decision on his pitcher for the game.

Duda was off limits until at least Game 2, having started Game 1 against Brewster. Manning was unavailable until a possible Game 3.

Hill could’ve gone with the left-handed Price against the lefty-heavy Cotuit lineup, but he opted instead for Bushart because he was on a full cycle of rest.

The Cal State Northridge right-hander struggled early. On five hits, Cotuit scored two runs in the first two innings. Then Bushart found his curveball and allowed just one hit over the next 4.2 innings.

“Once I got my curve over for strikes, that really helped,” he told The Times.

After his two-out triple in the second tied the game at 2-2, Smedes came up again with Petrulis on first and two outs in the fourth. He cranked Steinert’s 0-1 pitch onto the right field hill beyond the Veterans Field fence, giving the A’s a two-run cushion with his fourth RBI in the first four innings.

In the eighth, Steinert loaded the bases by allowing singles to Carr and Berrios and hitting Ottavina on the foot. He brought in another run by hitting Petrulis — who was already playing through a broken nose — on the chin.

With Chatham holding a 5-2 lead, Smedes came to the plate again. Mike Blais relieved Steinert before the at-bat. Smedes didn’t hit the ball hard like he did in his earlier at-bats, but he plated another run with a slow grounder to second.

Smith escaped trouble in the ninth by getting Cotuit catcher Randy Ortega to bounce into a double play, and Chatham held on for a 6-3 win to advance to within a game of the title.

Chatham got what it failed to produce in all four regular season meetings with Cotuit — an offensive outburst. The A’s combined for five runs in the previous 36 innings against the Kettleers. Smedes, on a night where he almost didn’t play, matched that tally himself by driving in two runs on his triple, two on his homer and one on the fielder’s choice.

Instant Classic

Chatham had a chance at the clincher the next day back at Lowell Park. But with rain in the forecast for the rest of the week, Cape League commissioner Fred Ebbett had no choice but to add a wrinkle. Before Cotuit left Veterans Field after Game 1, Ebbett huddled the two managers to brief them of his new plan.

For many Cape League players, August 15 was the reporting date for the start of classes. They already had flights lined up and trips home planned. Ebbett couldn’t push back the date of a possible Game 3. He had to move it up.

Game 2 — originally scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Lowell Park — would now be played at noon. If Cotuit won to force Game 3, the teams would drive back to Chatham to play the decider at 7 p.m. at Veterans Field.

Hill told Schiffner, Taylor and Jaeger about the revised time table. They didn’t tell the players.

“Rich made a conscious decision to say ‘let’s not tell them that,’” Schiffner recalled. “We didn’t need them thinking about Game 3 before they played Game 2, because [if Cotuit won Game 2], we’d be disappointed by the loss, they’d be all rip roaring and we’d have to go back to Chatham for a winner-take-all.”

Cotuit started Kelly — on three days' rest— who allowed two runs in 17 innings against the A’s in the regular season. Chatham countered with Duda, who was also on three days’ rest.

“Our college coaches trained us,” Duda said. “I’d pitch at Pepperdine on a Saturday and come back and pitch on a Tuesday. I had the knowledge of how to come back on three days’ rest.”

Days earlier, Kelly was awarded the league’s Most Outstanding Pitcher Award, beating out Duda despite a 1.20 ERA in 75.1 innings that fell significantly short of Duda’s mark of 0.91 in 69.1 innings. Kelly did have the edge in wins, seven to six.

“Pitchers shouldn't be judged on wins and losses,” Duda said. “Wins and losses are a team thing. But the accolades weren’t important to me. The recognition wasn’t as important to me as the championship.”

Smith won the Russ Ford Award for Best Relief Pitcher, beating out Cotuit’s Robert Linfante, who pitched under then-Oklahoma State pitching coach Tom Holliday during the spring. Linfante didn’t allow an earned run in 18.2 innings, tallying 10 saves. Smith had an 0.69 ERA in 24.1 innings with six saves.

The stretch of bad weather continued, as cloudy skies were met with cold temperatures exacerbated by high wind speeds. Pitching on the road for the second time in the playoffs, Duda struggled to get loose and walked two batters in the second before Mark Melito singled them home. For the second game in a row, Cotuit led 2-0.

Then Duda hit his stride. After throwing 20 pitches in the first inning and 25 pitches in the second, he worked an eight-pitch third, six-pitch fourth, nine-pitch fifth and an 11-pitch sixth.

It was in the sixth that Chatham tagged Kelly for the first time. Vollmer led off the fifth with a single to third. When Berrios smacked a high liner into right-center, Schiffner — Chatham’s third base coach — didn’t hesitate to send Vollmer all the way from first.

“He wasn’t the fastest guy, but he got a great jump on it. You could tell it wasn’t going to be caught,” Schiffner said. “I figured ‘we have to try right here because we might not have another shot.’”

Vollmer let out a grunt as he rounded third, but made it safely with Chatham’s first run on Berrios’ RBI double.

The next batter was Smedes, who knocked a single into right. Schiffner waved Berrios, but Chatham’s designated hitter slowed down as he rounded third. But Cotuit left-fielder Greg Thomas bobbled the ball, and Berrios raced home to tie the game at two.

Duda seemed to have a second life with his team back in the game. He didn’t allow another hit until Merloni singled in the eighth.

“He got stronger as he went along,” Jaeger said.

Every inning after the fifth, Hill asked Duda how he felt. Every time, he said he felt fine. Schiffner also checked in with Vollmer, making sure Duda’s stuff wasn’t deteriorating.

“I told him it was better than it was at the start,” Vollmer said.

Duda dueled Linfante, who replaced Kelly in the seventh, as the game passed the ninth and the 10th and went to the 11th. Linfante, well beyond his season-high in pitches, shut Chatham down in the top half. Duda, still on the mound with one out in the 11th, ran into trouble for the first time since the second.

Rick Ellstrom, the league’s MVP, smoked a ground-ball double down the third base line. With Smith warming up in the Chatham bullpen, Hill walked to the mound.

“I told him I could get the next guy out,” Duda said.

Hill told him he wasn’t planning to take him out. Duda retired the next two hitters on four pitches to end the inning.

With one out in the top of the 12th, Carr walked on four pitches and stole second, exactly what he did to start the season. He went to third when Ortega’s throw bounced into center field.

Carr scored after Garrett laced a single up the middle and Hill put an end to Duda’s day after 11 innings and 125 pitches.

“Going out there and throwing 120 or 130 pitches in a game was nothing to blink at,” Duda said. “If I threw 125 pitches, I did that over 10 innings, so I was throwing, on average, 12 to 15 pitches an inning. I was not struggling—those are easy innings.”

As Smith jogged in from the Chatham bullpen in the right field corner of Lowell Park, he turned to Chatham’s dugout. “Boys,” he said. “We’re going home.”

Smith retired Cotuit in order in the 12th, forcing a popup to Vollmer to end the game.

Months after lifting the NCAA National Championship trophy in Omaha, Duda and Vollmer hoisted the Cape League trophy on a brisk afternoon in Cotuit.

“You never get used to it,” he said. “That was an incredible year for me.”

And his manager finally got the elusive championship victory.

“There’s always a feeling of relief after you win,” Hill said. “But they were a special group.”