By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, Aug. 12—It’s not like the outlook is bleak for Napanee Shoeless Joe’s Express at the Softball Canada junior men’s championship tournament. They’re tied for fourth place in a tournament where the top six teams qualify for the championship round.
Still, they’re not playing their best ball, and as the preliminary round heads into its final day Thursday, that position may be more precarious than anyone here would like.
Twice Wednesday the Express took a lead into the seventh inning, and in each case Napanee surrendered the tying run. In the afternoon contest against the defending Canadian champion Irma, Alta., Tigers, that led to an 8-2 defeat in nine innings; in the night game, the Tavistock Athletics didn’t wait for extra innings, as they scored twice in the top of the seventh inning for a 4-3 victory over the nine-team tournament’s host team.
Shoeless Joe’s is now 3-3, tied with the Saskatatoon Diamondbacks, a team Napanee has already defeated.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is contained in these tidbits:
• The Express has been beaten by all the teams ahead of it in the standings: Ontario champion Stratford, 6-0, as well as Alberta and Tavistock, both 5-1
• Napanee has blown a seventh-inning lead in each of its three losses
• In its last 11 innings, the Express has just five base-hits
• In the last three innings of Wednesday night's game, Napanee left six men on base, four of them in scoring position, with batters going 0-for-5 when they were there.
No doubt aware of all this are the two teams Napanee will play Thursday: Quebec, and Newfoundland-Labrador. Both 2-4, they’re likely licking their lips at the opportunity to put themselves into the championship round at the expense of a team that, at this point, could be reeling.
Based on what they might have seen Wednesday night, those teams might have more reason to be optimistic about their chances against a team that isn’t playing much like the Napanee side that won the silver medal at the last two Canadian championships.
Consider the seventh inning, for instance. Leading 3-2, Tavistock’s lead-off batter, pinch-hitter Brett Kropf, singled to shallow centre but reached second base when the ball wasn’t fielded cleanly. As the next batter prepared to sacrifice, and Napanee third baseman Josh Maguire charged the plate to defend a bunt, Kropf easily advanced when no one covered the bag. Essentially, the Athletics got the tying run to third base without having to spend an out.
At that point, reliever Eric Morgan had the crowd roaring as he struck out the next two batters, but then Deven Kropf and Tyson Zehr both singled. With the game now tied, Kropf scored what proved to be the winning run on a wild pitch.
Napanee was looking good in the seventh, though, with Taylor Brown stroking a single up the middle with one out and the 4-5-6 hitters due up. The situation, however, quickly unraveled.
The next batter, Cody Brooks, bounced a ball in front of home plate. To spectators it appeared he may have fouled the ball off himself, because he didn’t start running to first. When Tavistock made a play on the ball, however, he took off.
Napanee then caught a break. The ball was thrown into right field, and Brown rounded second and headed for third. He made a wide turn and when the throw came cleanly to home, he turned around, but he didn’t make it back in time. A crisp throw from backup catcher Travis Hyde beat Brown sliding back into the bag.
Instead of one out and runners at second and third, there were now two out and Brooks, who had moved up on the play, at second.
After Jeff St. Pierre was intentionally walked, Tavistock pitcher Travis Gerber got Mackenzie Pringle on a fly ball to left and the game was over.
Express coach Brent Mills didn’t want to talk about it after the game.
The outcomes create some interesting scenarios. Should Napanee lose both games Thursday, the Express would end the round-robin 3-5. Beating Napanee would boost both Quebec and Newfoundland to 3-4 and if they happen to win their other games—reasonable, given Newfoundland plays the Saskatoon Bullets, who are 1-5; but less so for Quebec, which plays Alberta—they would both finish the preliminary round 4-4, dumping the Express into—gulp!—the consolation round.
On the other hand, Napanee still has its fate in its own hands, and two wins Thursday would place them fourth and send them into the playoff round with a so-called double life, meaning they’d have to be beaten twice to be eliminated.
A year ago, that’s exactly how the Express started its run to the gold medal game: after a 1-2 start they finished the preliminary round 5-3.
The difference, however, is that in the middle three games of last year’s tournament, Napanee scored 37 runs in 15 innings of three mercy rule-shortened games. This year, the bats are not so alive; the Express has scored just 14 runs in its last three games, covering 21 innings—with nine of them coming against a Saskatoon Bullets team that has but one win so far.
Wednesday, two of Napanee’s runs came on a second-inning home run by Josh Maguire, the other on two Tavistock errors, a base on balls and an infield ground out. Other than that, Napanee’s offence consisted of three singles, one of them on a bunt by Cole Bolton to lead off the fifth inning.
Shoeless Joe’s resumes play at 11 a.m. against Newfoundland-Labrador and ends the day against Quebec at 7 p.m. Napanee’s other team, Abundant Insulation, will play unbeaten Stratford at noon and the Saskatoon Bullets at 5 o’clock.