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CHATHAM — In a must-win game, the Orleans Firebirds had done what they needed to do. The East Division bottom-dwellers raked three runs on four hits in the top of the first inning.
But the Chatham Anglers — who are already locked in as the East Division two-seed — made sure the Firebirds’ joy was short-lived. Greg Jones (UNC Wilmington) led off the bottom of the frame with an infield single before stealing two bases and crossing the plate on an Erik Miller (Stanford) wild pitch.
With two outs, Michael Busch (North Carolina) caused Orleans fans’ stomachs to drop even further.
The lefty obliterated a 3-1 pitch high into the foggy sky down the right field line, a two-run shot to tie the game at three. The three-run frame erased the Firebirds’ early lead and propelled Chatham (22-18-3) to a 6-5 win over Orleans (13-29-1) on Wednesday night at Veterans Field, eliminating the Firebirds from playoff contention.
"To play a team with everything on the line when you have nothing is kind of an odd feeling,” Anglers manager Tom Holliday said. “This doesn't happen in college baseball. This is a little bit like a pro thing. They're in, you're not. They have it, you don't."
Busch’s long ball disappeared into the opaque sky before dropping inches fair on the jam-packed hill beyond the right-field fence. As the ball floated in the air, the Veterans Field crowd cheered in anticipation of a potential homer, then erupted when first base umpire Phil Capazolla signified it was fair.
While Busch’s blast tied the contest at three, it was a pair of pinch-hitters that won it for the Anglers.
Blake Sabol (Southern California) and Colin Simpson (Oklahoma State) — who will both start come playoff time but rested to start Wednesday’s contest — smacked back-to-back singles with one out in the eighth. A batter later, Ashton McGee (North Carolina) grounded the ball to third and Sabol beat the throw home, giving Chatham a 6-5 advantage.
“I’ve been playing with that speed my whole life, that was something we really emphasized at USC,” Sabol said. “I just put my head down and ran for it. I looked at Coach Whisler, too, and he gave me the OK."
For the sixth time this summer, the notorious Chatham fog played its part by halting the game.
In the third, Tristin English (Georgia Tech) slapped a one-out double to the left-center field gap, bringing Busch to the plate. Busch popped a routine fly ball to left field but Pat DeMarco (Vanderbilt) lost it in the fog, allowing it to drop to the outfield grass for a single. Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson emerged from the visitor’s dugout in a fit of anger.
Nicholson irately demanded the game be delayed due to fog, and the umpires gave him his wish. The two sides waited out a 35-minute fog delay before resuming play.
"It was going to be a doubleheader tomorrow or a game on Friday,” Holliday said about the result if the game was called due to fog. “I don't want that. The best way to stop that is to beat them tonight.”
Two batters after the game restarted, Orleans catcher Phile Clarke’s (Vanderbilt) throw to second was in time to catch Busch stealing, but neither middle infielder was covering the base. The ball sailed into center as English waltzed home. An inning later, Spencer Torkelson (Arizona State) reached base on an error by Martinez, enabling McGee to score.
But the Firebirds would not submit. The visitors applied pressure in the top of the fifth as JJ Bleday (Vanderbilt) walked and Spencer Steer (Oregon) doubled to put two runners in scoring position. Chatham pitcher John McMillon (Texas Tech) then fired a wild pitch and the return toss from Jake Taylor (Oklahoma State) sailed into the visitor’s dugout.
The errant throw allowed Bleday to slide in safely and Steer to stroll home with ease on the dead ball, knotting the game at five.
McGee’s fielder’s choice that scored Sabol was the only run in the final four frames. Zack Noll (Point Loma Nazarene) and Reeves Martin (New Orleans) tossed four scoreless innings in relief to secure the Anglers’ win and end the Firebirds’ playoff hopes.
"We play every game the same. We're trying to win,” Sabol said. “Going into today, we had a couple guys knowing we could knock them out. But our goal today wasn't to knock them out, it was to win the game."