By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, Aug. 13—The members of Napanee Shoeless Joe’s Express believe they’re right where they want to be going into the playoff round Friday at the Softball Canada junior men’s championship.
After two victories on the final day of the preliminary round Thursday landed them in fourth place, the Express gained a coveted double life for the playoff round, meaning Napanee will remain alive even after its next defeat.
The dubious prize that goes with that, however, is a first-round date in the championship draw Friday at 6 p.m. with the Ontario champion Stratford-New Hamburg Cubs.
One wonders how eager a team would be to face the Cubs, given that they breezed through the nine-team round robin undefeated, never scoring fewer than six runs per game, and four times invoking the mercy rule on a beleaguered opponent.
“We had a good battle with them earlier in the week,” Napanee coach Brent Mills said Thursday night, after his team ended the preliminary round with a 9-2 victory over Newfoundland-Labrador.
“We know we can play with anybody. (Stratford) finished the round robin really strongly but we know that we’re able to play with them. We proved that. It should be a good ball game (Friday) night.”
That's not withstanding the marvellous effort of which Mills refers—a 3-0 lead after six innings—was ultimately spoiled when the Cubs scored three times in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game, and four times in the eighth after Napanee regained a three-run lead in the top half of the first extra inning.
Asked whether the memory of that soul-destroying outcome might haunt his team, Mills was precise.
“Coming into the tournament we knew there were teams here that we’d have to fight to beat,” he said. “We proved in that game that we were there, that we could play with them, so there’s no problem there.”
Indeed, Napanee has won five of eight meetings with a Stratford team that cast a wide net to recruit players this year, two of whom, pitcher Greg Hammell and catcher Craig Lyons, accompanied the Express to last year’s Canadian championship.
Mills notes that all three of the losses to Stratford—or New Hamburg, or whatever the Cubs were called at the time—came in the last inning of the game, two of them in extra innings. Opposite that, though, comes the fact that the three defeats came at pretty critical points in time: in two games at the provincial elimination tournament and the preliminary round here.
The fact that Napanee failed to beat any of the three teams that finished ahead of it in the round robin is mitigated, Mills believes, by what he saw in his players Friday in response to another last-inning loss Wednesday against Tavistock, the No. 2 Ontario team here.
“They were a little bit looser,” he said of the way they played Thursday night against Newfoundland in a game where the outcome was very quickly no longer in doubt.
“They were ready to have fun. We knew we’d already clinched the fourth spot but they came into the game knowing that we were there to win the game, so they came ready to play. We didn’t make many mistakes, if any, defensively … we were loose; the boys were having fun tonight.”
Napanee put itself into an advantageous position with an 8-1 victory Thursday morning over Quebec, in a game where his players proved to Mills they had put the disappointment of losing twice Wednesday behind them.
“(Wednesday) night was so tense, and even after the game it was really tense,” Mills said. “They did a great job this morning of letting all that go and coming out to the park (believing it was) a new day today. They came to the park loose, ready to play ball; we got some hits, we got the win, and they came with the same attitude tonight.
“It was great to see. It was a pleasure to be at the park tonight.”
Mills said the instructions of the coaches after Wednesday night’s game were simple.
“We said to the boys, ‘Take the night, be mad about it, and come ready to go tomorrow.’ The leaders of the group stepped up. They came to the park with the mentality that … it was within our control to be where we wanted to be, so we just had to take care of business.”
Napanee took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning against Newfoundland and after leaving the bases loaded in the second, the Express scored twice in the third—on two walks, a single and an infield ground out—twice more in the fourth—on Mackenzie Pringle’s two-run homer, his third home run of the tournament—and three times in the sixth, on Keegan Scott’s three-run, inside-the-park home run.
Rookie lefthander Kyle Ainslie, facing Newfoundland lefty Nic Pittman—on International Lefthanders Day, of all things—pitched brilliantly. He went the distance, allowing just four hits—never more than one in an inning—while striking out nine.
Brett Irwin and Josh Murphy each had two hits in a 10-hit Napanee attack. The Kelly's Pub team from St. John's, which has won three of the last nine Canadian championships, ended the preliminary round 2-6. Two of its hits were triples: a one-out hit by Riley Kenny in the first that Ainslie left stranded there, and an RBI triple in the fifth by Brandon Pomroy that drove in Newfoundland's first run.
After Stratford, at 8-0, the defending champion Irma Tigers of Alberta and Tavistock both finished 6-2, Napanee was 5-3 and the Saskatoon Diamondbacks were 4-4. A tie-breaker game will be played Friday at 1 p.m. to determine which of the three teams tied at 2-6—Newfoundland, Saskatoon Bullets or Quebec—will get the final berth in the championship round.