What a weekend for baseball, lets play EIGHT!
The Thornhill Reds shocked the senior baseball community with a remarkable four day stretch, that saw them upset and take down some of the largest provincial super powers. During a dizzying forty-eight hour period the Reds beat the five time defending Provincial champion Tecumseh Thunder, talent laden and offensive juggernaut Strathroy Royals, the Windsor Stars, a long time measuring stick of the elitist Ontario clubs, and this year’s Champion Sarnia Braves.
Few expected much from the undermanned Reds after a season that saw more losing at tournaments than wins. “We didn’t show up.” Coach Nolan Revin said after an 0-3 trip to Port Lambton in June. “Not we didn’t perform well and blew the games, we literally didn’t show up. We had 10 guys all weekend, it wasn’t much fun on the field.”
It was more of the same in London, where thirteen Reds were able to scrap together two very close one run losses to Etobicoke and Sarnia, before another loss to Michigan sent them home 0-3 once again in any baseball west of Mississauga.
The Reds focused on the Hap Walters tournament where they knew they would have a chance to play some good teams ahead of the Elimination tournament, as well as start putting their top lineups on the field behind some of their front arms. The Reds went 2-1 in the round robin and out of eighteen teams, earned a berth into the quarterfinals as a top eight finisher. The Windsor Stars were too much to handle that weekend however, and the Reds were forced to settle for an admirable showing.
Friday Aug. 2
Game one of the Elims presented an awkward kind of confidence to Revin as he explained playing Martingrove as “One of those games you are expected to win. You have to win.” Asked if he ever considered using a combination of relievers or how he came to starting Appel against a team with just two wins and thirty plus losses he stated “Very briefly. I’ve seen teams overlook teams or try to throw off and it burns them. We knew we had to start a reliable PITCHER, Josh was excellent; he got us started off on the right foot.” 6-0 was the final on Friday afternoon, as Appel worked six innings of shutout ball for the win. The ex Brockport U right hander struck out two and allowed just two hits. Kris Fielding paced the offence in the opening game out of the DH slot, with a 2-2 effort that included a double and four RBI. Ryerson U reliever Max Dieks worked the seventh inning, fanning the side to complete the shut out, and the Reds were headed to the winners bracket and a matchup with the offense laden Leaside Leafs.
A previous engagement in Amsterdam booked to leave Saturday morning meant Jaz Shergill would get the game two assignment Friday, a decision that was made the day of the draw. “That was easy.”, Revin said. “We certainly weren’t putting him out there against Martingrove, game two was his one hundred percent considering he had a family thing he couldn’t miss. It killed him that it fell on the same weekend, but he did what we signed him to do at the beginning of the year.” The ex IBL and European/Australian pro fired a five inning, one hit, one walk, shut out, as the Reds offense went off in a 10-0 mercy win. The right hander struck out three, and dominated the Leaside lineup in a game they never really stood a chance. “It’s always good to beat Leaside, they have such a long storied history there. I grew up running around that park, it’s a pretty strong rivalry we have.” Revin stated. He cites his childhood memories of Talbot, as his father Brian played a number of seasons there after stints with the IBL Leafs and 1972’s Team Canada, it was he who brought senior baseball to Thornhill in the early eighties with a team that first played out of Bishops Cross named the Black Rainbow Challenge. The chippy game was led by a couple of Reds veterans with the twigs as well, as both Sean Sutton and Argenis Paz banged out three hits each, driving in three of the Thornhill runs combined on the day.
Day one ended perfectly, as the Reds were 2-0 and hadn’t allowed a run.
Saturday Aug. 3
“I think we have a good shot to be 2-0, considering we have Jaz going game two, and then we get to put Chaddy out there against Tecumseh or Mississauga. Lets go!” It was pretty bang on foresight for Coach Revin, who looked ahead to the matchup about a week prior. “Nick and I discuss various scenarios, I bounce stuff off some of the veteran guys like Sutty or Paz, a lot of the bigger decisions we make together. Sure in game, I make calls, but we like to treat it like this is OUR team. The guys pay for baseball, they miss work, their family, girlfriends, whatever they sacrifice, I like to give them their fair share of steering the bus.” Its a formula that has brought the Reds success in the GTBL over the past handful of years, winning four of the last six league titles and earning Revin four coach of the year selections. “I’ve had a lot of talent over the past number of seasons. I spend a lot of my winter looking for and talking to potential recruits. If you want to be good you gotta work at it. It’s a consuming compulsion to win.”
Game three wasn’t going to be easy. The Tecumseh Thunder entered the 2019 tournament as the five time defending champions, equalling the success of the Windsor Stars at the apex of their dominance. The Thunder lineup had recently been strengthened with a depth that seemed overwhelming. Cunningham, Delaney, Lamantia, Goddard, Duncan, a middle of the order with National experience and pedigree. Left hander Cody Seremack would start for Tecumseh and surrender a first inning double to SS Argenis Paz, who was promptly singled home by Sean Sutton for a 1-0 Reds lead. In the second inning, Cameron; an ex-D1 reliever at Tennessee-Martin would allow three two out hits to the deep Tecumseh lineup, and the game was tied at one headed to the third. The game would remain quiet until the Thornhill fourth when a leadoff single from Zach Lampreia turned into the winning run, as Ben Teplin would single him home three batters later for a 2-1 Reds lead. Cameron calmly went to work from there. He allowed just three staggered hits the rest of the way including a shimmering three up three down seventh, and was mauled by his teammates after completing the jaw dropping upset.
The Reds were now 3-0 with one run allowed, and tons of momentum. Their spirits were further lifted when they quickly learned they had received the bye, and were off until Sunday morning. “Team leaders stepped up right away and started telling the guys they needed to get back to the hotel, get a good meal, get to bed early, as the grind was just about to begin” Revin echoed his guys, “We have a chance to do something special here, boys. We’ve been the only ones who have believed in us all year. You don’t get this chance often, lets all hang out maybe come back to the park and watch some ball.”
No one really knew how much rest they were gonna need.
Sunday Aug. 4
There was a buzz in the hotel early Sunday morning, as Reds players were seen mulling in the lobby or nibbling on breakfast early in the day. This wasn’t normal practice for a team who is generally slow moving in the early hours. The boys were rested. Well, most. It is senior baseball, there are always a few who enjoy the nightlife, casino, whatever the town has to offer. Surprisingly however, even they, they were ready to go too. The club was sitting in a great spot. They would play in the undefeated game in two hours. They had Andy Orfanakos to send to the mound. The veteran righty had been quite consistent all year in delivering quality starts, and had pitched well for Team Greece in Bulgaria just a month earlier. A win would send them to 4-0 with a strangle hold on the competition as the only undefeated team, and a loss meant having to battle the rest of the way for survival. As the Reds readied to play Sarnia, a small crowd began to drift into Cullen Stadium and the atmosphere grew. It was again Lampreia and Sutton that put the Reds up early, but after a couple innings of play Thornhill trailed 4-1 as the Braves already had five hits. Thornhill battled back to tie after five complete, as Sutton drove in his second of the game and Kris Fielding delivered a clutch two out single to plate another, after Dan Apostoli had trotted home on a wild pitch. Reds closer Pat Orr would take the ball for the sixth, where the Braves offense was able to string together a number of hits and a 7-4 win, giving the Reds their first loss of the double knockout. “Another close game with those guys.” Coach Revin said, as he alluded to an earlier 2-1 loss in July, “We can beat them, their beatable.”
After a draw for a bye between Windsor and Strathroy went to the Stars, the Reds focused their attention on the Royals, a team they have struggled with in the past. “They have been tough on us the last number of times we’ve faced them. Their offense is outstanding, and they always have a quality arm going, it’s gonna be a dogfight.”
Mack Major got the nod for the Reds in the biggest game of the year, and usually that would come with a lot of expectations, but not in 2019. “He’s battled some shoulder soreness virtually all year, he hasn’t been anywhere near as sharp as years past. It’s been hard on him, he likes to win, more like he HATES losing, so pushing him to stay positive and work through things has been a year long focus.” But boy did he deliver. The Reds would win going away 7-2, after a four run first that saw them send all nine men to the plate. After that, it was all Mack. The long haired slinger scattered seven hits, while striking out five and walking just two. His only real blemish a two run home run off the bat of the Strathroy two bagger in the sixth. It was quite the performance from the young arm, as the Reds were through to Monday and the thought of winning a Provincial Championship grew closer.
Sunday eve saw a number of the Reds gather for a team meal while some elected for ice and bed. Conversation around the table drifted to the morning and the daunting task of facing the Windsor Stars for the fourth time in 2019, and Thornhill sitting at 0-3 in those games. The good news was this was the Elimination Tournament. The Reds have had great success against the Stars in the Elims during the Coach Revin era. In fact, the last two times the Reds have played the Stars in the Elims, they have eliminated them with a 5-2 win in 2017, and a 1-0 win in 2014. It was at that dinner that Chadwick Cameron would accept the ball for the second time on the weekend. “He was my first choice.” Said Revin, “I didn’t even finish the sentence and he had said yes, he wanted the ball. He was locked in from there.”
Monday Aug. 5
Another early morning rising, again Reds sighted in the lobby, more at breakfast, but not all eating. “I don’t know why I ordered this.” Centre fielder Sean Sutton says, looking down at a plate full of french toast, home fries and fruit ‘No way I can eat this.” Perhaps some nerves perhaps not, it didn’t matter The Reds were playing Monday.
Pitching fourteen innings against top teams on a weekend is not an easy task. It can be done, there are stories. Legends. “Remember that time when..”, “Remember that year when..” Remember in 2019 when Chadwick Cameron beat Tecumseh 2-1 on Saturday morning and Windsor 1-0 on Monday? WOW. The Reds had done it again. They had knocked out the Stars, and moved to the Provincial final. “Chaddy” was simply amazing, seven more innings of six hit shutout ball, striking out four including the last two hitters he faced with the tying run standing on second base. The Reds only run a bases loaded walk to Kravice Batts which scored Kris Fielding, and the celebration was on. It was already a personal best for the Reds franchise and coach Revin, but the thought of playing in the Ontario final was worth appreciating and the Reds focus continued to sharpen. An undefeated Sarnia squad stood waiting for their opponents, and Thornhill was ready to do battle. Someone had to beat Sarnia twice, and the Reds were gonna give it a go.
As game time neared in game seven, Harman Brar had already been given the nod, and the veteran arm knew he was being asked for a couple innings of work this late in the weekend. The rest of the lineup choices began to dwindle for Revin, as SS Argenis Paz was done with a leg injury, and OF Sean Sutton was forced to move down to the seven slot, teetering around on one good leg for the last half of Sunday and all of Monday. Zach Lampreia lay on a bench, dehydrated and sick with fever, having been ill midway through the Stars game, he wasn’t missing out on Monday baseball for the life of him. “I’m good.” was always the reply to “Hey Lampy, you ok?” as Revin made the rounds to check on guys bodies. “My back is killing me.” joked the manager in his pre game meeting, “I have so much respect for you guys doing this, keep believing in yourselves. Keep making routine plays, one inning at a time, lets go!”
Sarnia hit first after the Reds won the flip for home, and after a lengthy battle, plated one run after loading the bases with just one out. Brar would retire another in the second and hand the ball over to Max Dieks, who turned in another outstanding performance. After the Reds mustered a 2-1 lead in the second inning, Dieks would toss three scoreless, sending Thornhill to the sixth with the one run lead still intact. Quite a job for an underager to step up out of nowhere, to provide such crucial innings to the Reds in the Provincial final. After a Sarnia lead off single, walk and popped up bunt the Braves had runners at first and second with one out, and Pat Orr was summoned to clean up the mess. Two hits and a walk later, the Braves had the lead. 3-2 Sarnia, and after the Reds failed to score in their half of the sixth, they headed to the seventh down one. Orr handled the Braves with ease in the top of the final frame, setting the stage for the biggest walk off in Thornhill history. Former Frontier League pitcher, and Sarnia ace Mike Damchuk was on in relief, and the Braves needed three outs for a trip to New Brunswick. After six games of clutch at bats, Sean Sutton led the inning off with a single through the right side, and was quickly replaced on the bases by Mack Major. After a Pat Orr bunt was mishandled leading to first and second and no out, junior call up Aiden Colangelo came off the bench to execute a perfect sacrifice, moving the winning run to second along with the tying run just ninety feet away. The Braves elected to walk lead off hitter Kravice Batts, and left handed hitter Dan Apostoli walked to the plate with one out and the bags full. The former Milton Red Sox had come to the Reds a year earlier after graduation at Laurier and a move back home, and fit right in. The well liked OF sliced a ball over Sarnia third baseman Brad Hill’s head, scoring Major and Orr from second, and sending the Reds bench spilling onto the field in a frenzy. Apostoli was mobbed by his teammates, and the Reds had done the unthinkable. Thornhill had won their sixth game of the weekend, and forced a one game sudden death final for the Ontario crown. Bench coach Nick Cunjak couldn’t control his emotions as he barrelled onto the field screaming ‘This is the most fun I’ve had in baseball, I love you guys, I love you guys!”
Baseball Ontario mandates in a championship that a team playing it’s third game be given at least one hour break, and the Reds had time to regroup and begin to refocus on one more win. Mack Major was announced as the starter and the Braves ace Mike Damchuk wanted the ball back to atone for the seventh inning sorrow he had just suffered.
Neither team was able to get anything going offensively as both men attempted to pitch their team to the East Coast. The Reds managed just five hits all game, and couldn’t find a way to plate a run. Major however, wasn’t about to let the lack of offense stop the Reds from winning if he had anything to do with it. In his second outing in twenty four hours, the righty allowed just two hits, walked two(and two IBB), and struck out two. The seventh inning saw the Braves load the bases on a hit, sacrifice bunt and a couple intentional walks. With two outs, the first pitch to the Sarnia hitter squirted away from the Reds catcher and rolled towards the backstop. The Braves were 1-0 winners in the Ontario final. It was a harrowing way to lose for the Reds, as the game seemed to be over in an instant to which Revin later had this comment “It was a numbing experience for sure. The whole ride has been, really. My phone has been going nuts since the Tecumseh game(Sat AM), the amount of people behind us was amazing. With every message I kept telling the boys that people were starting to believe, what a group of men, to see tears in some of their eyes made me very emotional myself. I had a hard time keeping it together placing those finalist medals around their necks.”
And so it was. Thornhill forced to settle for second best. Runner up. Finalist. Usually that’s good enough to get you to Nationals. Usually Ontario has two berths. Not 2019. One team, one winner. Some might think Thornhill is upset. Nope. Angry? Nope. The Reds are flying high, because in a year that no one expected them to do anything, they did better than they believed themselves. The bonds that were built between these men can’t ever be forgotten or destroyed, who knows what 2020 will bring.