by Bruce Cramer
(AP) Allen, TX – The Peanuts Men’s E League Softball Team wrapped its spring season in dramatic fashion, rallying from deficits in both the semi-final and championship games, to capture the league tournament crown Thursday night on Field #4 at Spirit Park in Allen. The tournament title completed a ‘clean sweep’ for the Peanuts, where the squad captured both the regular season and the league tournament titles in the same year. The championship marks the third title for this storied franchise and its first since 2017.
In the semi-final matchup, the Peanuts rallied from a nine-run deficit over the final two innings to best Scared Hitless, 21-20, and advance to the championship game. In the finale, the score was much closer, but the Peanuts manufactured a run in the bottom of the sixth inning to break a 12-12 tie and defeat Deep South, 13-12, to capture the vaunted title.
“Champs!” said a jubilant Manager Matt Tenner following the championship game. “I am just at a loss for words. This win is right up there with my wedding day, the birth of both of my daughters, my Cubbies winning the World Series, Tech qualifying for the Final 4, and Budweiser changing its name to ‘Merica. It was that special.”
The win and atmosphere marked a complete turnaround for the Nuts and was in stark contrast to the mood that permeated the Peanut locker room just a few short months ago. In November, the Peanuts wrapped its inaugural season in its new ball park, dropping all 12 league games (0-12) and finishing in sole possession of last place for the first time in team history.
“We were, obviously, in the wrong league,” said Tenner. “Regardless of league, however, like the Dallas Cowboys, we did not play to the level of our stagium [stadium].”
In 2015, the City of Allen agreed to fund a new ballpark for the Peanuts, named Spirit Park, located in far North Allen. While some stadium projects in the Metroplex have been met by stiff opposition groups, this one was not. New stadium construction was overwhelming embraced by the Allen community and seen as a response to the on-field success and love of their hometown team.
“I think [the name] Spirit Park truly embodies the grit and competitive nature of the community and our squad,” said Pitcher Rick ‘Penguin’ Robinson. “But, Nuts Stadium or the Penguin Palace would have been good too.”
“Ford Fields had really shown its age over the past few years,” said catcher and Bench Coach Mark Mason. “We loved it and the Peanut Gallery loved it, but now we are playing on turf in the Palace.”
The tension at Spirit Park was palpable Thursday as the teams took the field in the four-team, winner take all tournament. The game featured the regular season champion Mighty Peanuts and the #4 seed, Scared Hitless. This was a quick turnaround for both squads as it would be the second time in just two weeks that the teams would face one another. Last week, the Peanuts cruised to an easy 11-3 victory over Scared Hitless at Spirit Park.
This week, however, it was a markedly different Scared Hitless team. Due to late season call-ups, the squad had a new shortstop, third baseman, and left fielder.
“Yeah, the playoffs are ‘Ringer Time’”, said shortstop Paul Sebert. “Even though it is just beer league softball, it is an amazing coincidence that once we are in the tournament, these teams miraculously find all sorts of former college and minor league ballplayers.”
When asked if the Nuts might employ a similar strategy, Manager Tenner responded by saying, “We would not be against doing that [finding some ringers], but unfortunately we have a hard enough time just finding guys that can play week to week, let alone play well.”
The Peanuts, based on its seeding, was granted home team status throughout the tournament which proved to be extremely important. As those that follow this team closely know, Tenner has struggled with the coin toss consistently and has literally defied mathematical probability with his accuracy in calling the coin toss incorrectly.
“That was a blessing in disguise,” said left centerfielder Chris Baker. “By taking Tenner’s probability out of the mix, we were guaranteed the last at bat, which we needed not once, but twice.”
With the injection of new talent, Scared Hitless jumped out to score 5 runs in the top of the first inning, plating runs with multiple line drive hits. In the bottom of the first, the Peanuts responded with 3 runs of its own to trail just 5-3.
In the second, Scared Hitless scored 5 more runs while the Peanuts could only manage 2 runs before Pitcher Rick Robinson hit a homerun to end the inning, leaving the Peanuts trailing 10-5.
This homerun rule is new to E league softball in 2019. Previously, if a homerun was hit it constituted an out for the offending side. This season, any homerun hit ends the half inning of the offending team, regardless of the number of outs.
“Unbelievable,” said catcher Rick Saavedra shaking his head. “Here is a guy that tried so hard for years and years to hit a homerun when it would have counted and was to our benefit. Now that we are in this new league, he hits it out with regularity.”
The third inning saw Scared Hitless add to its lead scoring 4 more runs to lead 14-5. The Peanuts managed 4 of its own to end the third inning, trailing 9-14.
The fourth inning started as every other inning had for Scared Hitless as they plated 6 more runs to lead 20-9 with just 5 minutes remaining in the game. Things looked bleak for the Nuts as the comeback began.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Peanuts rallied with key hits by the top of the order led by right fielder and lead off hitter, Brady Cole. With just one out, Cole, Robinson, Tenner, and Sebert all got on base safely and scored. Third baseman, Roger Alvarez, hit a line shot to the gap and got safely to second. With two outs in the inning and less than a minute remaining, second baseman Ben Nelson recorded another RBI to score Alvarez leaving the Nuts deficit at 14-20.
Given the time and score, Tenner directed first baseman, Rusty Dubree to take a deliberate 3rd out to force an additional, and decisive 6th inning. Executed to perfection, Dubree stepped on home plate, swung, and was called out.
“Decisions [like this one] are why Tenner is the best Manager in the biz,” said Mason in his post-game interview. “He is so even keeled and makes his decisions quickly and decisively. He could have asked Nelson to sacrifice himself, but I think he knew Dubree was the man for the job.”
“I was so impressed with Dubree’s selflessness,” said utility infielder / outfielder Eric Jarrell in his characteristic Cajun dialect. “There appears to be no ‘I’ in Rusty. Laissez les bon temps rouler!”
As a result of the strategic genius of the Peanuts’ Skipper, the Nuts forced a 6th inning and gave this gritty squad a chance to complete the comeback.
This chance, however, would not come without a new wrinkle. New to the rules in 2019 is the one-pitch inning. If any inning begins with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, the additional inning switches to the ‘one pitch rule’. Under such requirements, each batter is offered one pitch. The result of that pitch could be a ‘called strikeout’, a ‘called ball’ which walks the batter, a swung on foul ball resulting in an out, or a ball hit in play.
In the top of the 6th inning, Scared Hitless began the one pitch excitement and Robinson was magnificent pitching balls that appeared to be strikes consistently, forcing the Scared Hitless players to swing.
The Peanuts’ defense finally flexed its muscle while Robinson put the ball consistently over the plate. The Peanuts allowed 2 Scared Hitless runners on first and second base, but were able to collect two outs in the process. With two on and two outs, Alvarez stepped up to deliver the defensive play of the game.
Robinson forced a sky-high infield pop-up (from the next Scared Hitless batter) right at the pitcher’s mound that appeared, at first, to be routine. As it was hit, first baseman Dubree moved toward the mound, while the other infielders watched Dubree and Robinson in anticipation, expecting it to be caught.
As the ball came into view and closer to the ground, Alvarez realized it was going to drop and he lept into action. Leaving his position at third base, Alvarez ran across the diamond like a cheetah on a gazelle, scooping up the ball with his glove hand. Realizing Dubree was next to him and unable to recover to first base, Alvarez continued his sprint where he beat the Scared Hitless batter to the first base bag completing the unassisted play and ending the inning.
“His [Alvarez’s] baseball IQ and awareness is just on a different level,” said Mason of his teammate. “If we all had his skillset, we wouldn’t be playing in the E League.”
While the Nuts were excited to have held their opponents to zero runs, the Mighty Nuts still trailed 20-14 with one half inning of one pitch softball remaining. Jarrell led off the inning with a hit, while outfielder Bruce Cramer followed with a fly ball out. With one out and Saavedra at the plate, the Nuts started a rally that was one for the ages.
The next seven batters, Saavedra, Mason, Cole, Robinson, Tenner, Sebert, and Alvarez all got on base safely resulting in 6 runs and a tied game at 20-20. With Alvarez still on base, Nelson roped the walk off single to plate the game winning run and end the scoring at 21-20.
As each run scored and the reality of extending the season became a real possibility, the Peanut Gallery grew stronger. The faint cheers of the middle innings were gone and the Gallery swelled as it witnessed true history. Players and fans from other games gathered to join the Nut faithful as they cheered with excitement and disbelief in what they were seeing.
“They will be talking about this one for awhile,” said Tenner after the game. “I know there were some kids out there that we inspired to play E League softball tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if 30 years from now one of those kids was raising his or her arms in victory and talking about how they were there the night the Nuts rallied from 11 runs down.”
On To The Finals
The second game featured the matchup most experts predicted as it paired the top two seeds in the tournament, the Peanuts and Deep South.
The Nuts featured a similar lineup to the first game with the lone exception of left fielder Cramer and right center fielder Tenner swapping positions.
“We really missed starting left fielder Mark Haisler and utility infielder / outfielder PJ Gillard,” said Tenner. “Haisler really anchors that position in left field and it is impossible to replace a perennial All-Star. As Manager, you do what you can and you find a guy to plug in there. In the second game, that guy was me.”
The exuberance from the comeback victory seemed to carryover into the second game for the Peanuts. In the top of the first, the Peanuts held Deep South scoreless, while scoring 5 runs of its own to lead 5-0 after one inning. Again, the bats of Cole, Robinson, Tenner, Sebert, and Alvarez led the way.
Deep South would rally, however, scoring 3 runs in the second and holding the Nuts scoreless to cut the Nut lead to 5-3 after two.
In the top of the third, the Nuts were gifted an inning ending homerun hit by Deep South, while scoring 3 runs of its own and extend its lead to 8-3.
Deep South rallied in the top of the 4th, however, to make it a game and set up the dramatics. The Nuts were able to record 2 runs in both the 4th and 5th innings, while Deep South scored 6 runs in the 4th, one in the 5th, and 2 in the top of the 6th to knot the score at 12-12 after 5 ½.
The Nuts defense was led by outfielder Baker and infielders Sebert and Alvarez who tallied 3 outs each. The defensive play of the game, however, was delivered by Cole. In the top of the 6th inning, with two outs, two runners on base, and the score tied at 12, Cole charged a short fly ball from deep right field to make the catch while on a full dead sprint toward the infield.
“We don’t call Cole ‘the Blur’ for nothing,” said Mason. “You can’t coach speed.”
With the game tied at 12 and the Nuts needing just a single run for the championship, Cramer led off the inning with an infield single.
“It would be generous to call it an infield single,” said Saavedra after the game. “It was more accurately a poorly hit ball, saved by an error, but we’ll take it.”
With Cramer on base and seemingly ready to run, Tenner made his second key strategic decision of the evening. Tenner called for a courtesy runner to provide more speed on the basepaths. While most in the Peanut Gallery expected ‘the Blur’, Tenner opted for the speedy Baker to relieve Cramer.
“Manager of the year,” said Robinson. “This guy [Tenner] knows time, score, and situation.”
Asked if he was offended by the swap, Cramer quipped, “I am a team guy, at least he picked a [Washington State University] Coug.”
The move proved, again, clairvoyant as the next Peanut batter, Saavedra, hit a sharply hit ball to the outfield advancing Baker past second to third.
Trained Professional Walk Off
With Peanut runners on first and third and no outs, Mason stepped to the plate to provide the dramatics. Mason swung hard and hit the ball directly to the shortstop which he fielded cleanly.
As the ball was hit, Baker jumped off third and stopped. The shortstop looked him to his stop and then stepped toward first to get the out. That slight hesitation was all Baker needed. As the right handed shortstop turned his head toward first, Baker sprinted toward the plate. The shortstop recognized that he couldn’t afford to give up the game winning run and swung around and fired home.
Baker lept into the air as the catcher tried to corral the catch and tag the speedy runner. Baker hurdled his glove and landed squarely on homeplate, scoring the walkoff run, ending the scoring 13-12, and providing the Nuts its well-earned championship.
Baker and Mason were swarmed as the fans and Nuts ran onto the field in jubilation.
“Its Pluckers and t-shirts for everybody,” said Dubree referring to the to the wing party and t-shirts granted the winners.
After the game it was announced that Manager Matt Tenner would collect, yet another, Manager of the Year Award as selected by the Softball Writers of America. This is the 7th time over his 15 seasons that Tenner has been tapped for the award.
The Nuts will be, inevitably, the preseason favorites by all media outlets as they look to defend their title this summer, Thursday nights at Spirit Park in Allen.