By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, Aug. 15—They’ve been playing with fire all tournament, and three times this week at the Softball Canada junior men’s championship, the members of Napanee Shoeless Joe’s Express were badly burned.
Tonight they decided not to let the embers smolder.
Though the Tavistock Athletics put a runner on base in every inning—in fact, threatened to score in all but two—three Napanee pitchers did a masterful job of keeping the sparks from becoming a victory-killing conflagration. As a result, the Express defeated the Athletics 7-2 to go into play Sunday as one of three teams with a chance to win the national championship.
Assured of at least the bronze medal, Napanee will play the defending Canadian champion Irma Tigers of Alberta at 1 p.m., with the winner earning a berth in the championship game at 3 o’clock against the Ontario champion Stratford-New Hamburg Cubs.
Stratford, undefeated through 10 games at the nine-team tournament, earned its berth in the gold-medal game with a 10-3 win over Alberta Saturday afternoon. It was the second time in as many playoff-round games that the Cubs invoked the mercy rule on an opponent.
The silver medalist at the last two Canadian championships, Napanee played perhaps its best game of the tournament against Tavistock, the No. 2 Ontario team and a team that had beaten Napanee in the preliminary round.
That 4-3 game was one of three the Express lost this week in the final inning, and in each case, once the opponent caught a spark, Napanee seemed unable to extinguish it in time to prevent a loss.
This time, though, the Express stayed calm in their crises, particularly in the middle part of the ball game, at a time when the score was still close. In the third inning, for instance, Tavistock loaded the bases with one out and managed just a single run; in the fourth there were runners on second and third with one out and the A’s failed to score; in the fifth first and second with one out led to no runs; in the sixth first and third with one out led to just a solitary run. A lead-off single in the ninth died on second base.
In all, the Athletics would leave 11 men on base, eight of them in scoring position.
“The pitchers did a good job of bearing down and getting us out of jams, limiting the damage,” Express coach Brent Mills said. “They were really focusing on where they were throwing the ball and both catchers did a great job behind the dish calling the games.”
This time Napanee did it with some fine fielding, as three pitchers combined to strike out just four.
“We had good defence tonight,” starter and winner Cole Bolton said. “We didn’t make any mistakes. When they got on base we trusted our defence and we threw balls that were going to get us ground-ball outs.
“Our infield did the work for us tonight. That’s how you win ball games—timely outs when we were in jams.”
Napanee made but one error, and it did factor in the first Tavistock run, but the defensive execution was considerably more sharp than it was Friday night, when the Express made six errors in the 12-5 loss to Stratford. Despite that defensive debacle, Bolton said the pitchers retain confidence in the players behind them, who responded with an error-free performance in the morning victory over Quebec.
“We for sure do,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is look at what we did tonight. It started from Day 1 in the season, we’ve preached that we need to get ground ball outs and good defence wins ball games.
“When you’re playing on the Sunday of a national championship, it’s defence that wins you the game; it’s not usually the home run, it’s not usually the big hit—it’s winning the 2-1 ball game, winning the 1-0 ball game, and that’s what we hope to do tomorrow.”
That the Express will have a chance to do so came from scoring in each of the first four innings, and adding two insurance runs in the top of the seventh, an inning that has not been kind to the Express at this tournament.
An error, two singles and a bases-loaded walk produced a run in the first inning, Bolton hit a two-out solo home run on a 3-2 pitch in the second; three singles, a sacrifice and a sacrifice fly generated two runs in the third, and a long fly to centre by Bolton that was muffed on the warning track, and was followed by another error on the relay throw to third, allowed him to score Napanee’s fifth run in the fourth.
Run-scoring singles by Jeff St. Pierre and Mackenzie Pringle in the seventh sealed the victory.
Taylor Brown and St. Pierre had three hits apiece in the game, as the top of Napanee’s batting order came to life, with nine of the team’s 10 hits coming from its first five batters.
The offensive display was a continuation of a nail-biting 10-9 win over Quebec in Saturday’s first game, one where the Express collected a dozen base-hits. It was a game where Napanee overcame a 6-2 deficit with four runs in the bottom of the sixth, and then, after allowing Quebec to score three in the top of the seventh, staged another four-run rally in the home half of the inniing.
“It was up and down, a bit of a roller coaster,” Bolton said. “We hit the ball well all morning; we just couldn’t seem to get the timely outs that we needed.”
He said the team wasn’t discouraged after falling behind—yet again—in the seventh inning.
“We said, ‘You know, we pushed four across in the sixth, we can do it again. Our bats have been swinging well all day,’” Bolton said.
“We just kind of rolled our momentum into the second game. We only had a short break between the two games, so there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and lull ourselves into a sleep. We stayed up and kept the momentum going. Our bats stayed hot again for us.”
Napanee led 5-2 when Eric Morgan, working in relief of Bolton, walked the first Tavistock batter in the sixth inning. Mills brought rookie Kyle Ainslie into the game and the young lefthander, who was terrific in the 9-2 win over Newfoundland-Labrador in the final game of the preliminary round, gave up just one hit the rest of the way and that was the only ball to be hit to the outfield. He struck out the last two Tavistock batters.
It was the final piece of what Mills called a team effort on the mound.
“The boys were pretty tired and Kyle came in and threw two good innings,” Mills said. “That was great. The other boys were starting to wear down and he came in and shut the door.”