by Bruce Cramer
(AP) Allen, TX – After a week one rainout, the Peanuts Men’s D League Softball team officially opened its spring campaign Thursday night with a loss to preseason league favorite, Mooyah, 15-8 at Ford Fields in Allen. The Peanuts looked rusty early in the contest and found itself facing a 14-0 deficit before scoring some runs to make the final score a respectable, 15-8 loss.
“You could tell we hadn’t practiced much during the off season,” said Manager Matt Tenner. “It took a few innings and a couple plate appearances for us to remember how to play the game.”
“Skip [Tenner] tried to get us on the field a few times over the past month,” said center left fielder Chris Baker. “But youth practices and rainy weather kept the fields unplayable. I guess life for middle aged dads just gets in the way of championship softball.”
Mooyah was selected the unanimous preseason favorite in the Thursday night D League Associated Press (AP) poll collecting all 25 first place votes, while the Peanuts were projected as the second best team by the AP and the third best team by the Softball Writers of America. This is the 17th season for the Peanuts and the 14th under the direction of Manager Tenner.
Uniquely, the vaunted Thursday D League is comprised of just 4 teams this season as perennial Peanut rivals Cobra Kai, Dirt Bags, Scared Hitless, and Cottonwood Creek all opted to drop down to the inferior E League.
“That means we are in the playoffs,” said shortstop Paul Sebert. “The top 4 teams in our league make the playoffs and I expect we will finish in the top 4.”
Some difficult decisions may be on the horizon for Tenner, however, as his team is showing some early signs of aging. Similar to the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1990s, the Aikmans, Irvins, and Smiths of this Peanut squad may have to embrace a different role or at the very least, a significant pay cut.
“The core of this team–the ‘day one Nuts’– is still intact and we like it that way,” said Tenner. “Some of these guys are legends and fan favorites. If we decide to make any moves this season it will be for youth. Clearly, we could use youth, speed, and talent.”
One legend that made his return Thursday night was pitcher, Rick “Penguin” Robinson. Robinson had been sidelined and saw no action last fall as he underwent potentially career ending shoulder surgery. Still hobbled by the inability to throw overhand, Robinson pitched 6 innings, giving up all 15 runs on 18 hits, but issued zero walks.
“It was great to see the Penguin back out there,” said right fielder Brady Cole. “He is the straw that stirs the Peanuts’ drink. Without him we are like a bike without a steering wheel.”
Confused by Cole’s remarks, but accepting them as a compliment, Robinson said that he owed his quick return to the mound to “The Big Man, my remarkable work ethic, and P.J.’s surgeon buddy. It is nice to have connections.”
In addition to being one of the best infielders in Peanuts’ history, P.J. Gillard is an executive for outpatient services at Baylor, Scott, & White that was able to ‘accelerate’ the timeline for Robinson’s surgery and rehab.
The other Peanut coming off the disabled list was catcher, Mark Mason. Mason punctuated his debut by sporting a yellow and black sequined cap, thick gold chain, gold sunglasses, and a diamond ‘P’ necklace to ‘celebrate the occasion’.
“Mason looked ridiculous,” said left fielder Mark Haisler. “Mason proved, once again, you can get anything on Amazon. The plastic gold chain, the strut, the ‘yo, yo, yo’ routine made him appear like an older version of Vanilla Ice, but that would be offensive to Vanilla Ice.”
In what has now become routine, the game began as most Peanut games do, with Tenner losing the coin toss and the Peanuts becoming the visiting team. Tenner’s coin toss success average is so low that the team has stopped officially tracking the CTS statistic.
Spirits were high in the top of the first inning as Peanuts lead-off hitter, Brady “the Blur” Cole got on base with a walk. His walk was immediately followed by a Robinson single to right field and runners on first and second. Thereafter, Mooyah halted any Peanut momentum to record 3 outs and shut down the threat, unscathed.
The walk in the first inning, unfortunately, would be the high-water mark of Cole’s plate appearances as he went 0-2 with two strikeouts. “Tonight,” commented Cole, “I hit four balls, none of them clearing the front of the plate. I hit more foul balls tonight than I have hit in all 17 seasons combined.”
Cole was not alone, however, as utility infielder / outfielder Bruce Cramer, first baseman Rusty Dubree, and shortstop Paul Sebert each joined in the fun and contributed a strikeout on the evening. In all, the Mooyah pitcher tallied 5 strikeouts and kept the Peanut hitters off balance, relying heavily on knuckleballs and quick pitches.
In the bottom of the first inning, Mooyah scored 4 runs to lead 4-0 including a towering 3-run homerun. “It was clearly wind aided,” joked centerfielder, Baker.
In the second inning, Mooyah made short work of the Peanuts, holding them scoreless again. The Nuts went 3 up and 3 down as Gillard, Baker, and left fielder, Mark Haisler batted. Mooyah responded, again, to the futility of the Nuts to plate 4 more runs and lead 8-0 through 2 innings.
The Mooyah second inning was capped by their second homerun of the game and the league limit of 2 homeruns per side, ensuring that any additional Mooyah homeruns would be outs.
“That second homerun was a line drive shot,” said Baker, “and I had a front row seat. The good news was that any more balls hit over my head I could count on as outs.”
In the third inning, the bottom of the Nuts order reflected the top of the order as Dubree, Cramer, and utility infielder / outfielder Eric Jarrell proved that they could contribute to a shortened inning and keeping the Nuts scoreless. In the bottom of the third, Mooyah scored 6 runs, extending its lead to 14-0.
After 3 innings, things looked bleak. Peanut play was littered with missed opportunities both at the plate and in the field.
While good players don’t blame their equipment, Nuts’ first baseman Rusty Dubree admitted he was playing with a new, larger glove. The glove replaces his 30-year-old, Dale Murphy signature, Little League glove he has used since joining the Peanuts.
“I just don’t have the same feel for my glove yet. We are not yet one, like I was with ‘Dale’,” said Dubree. “I expect it to take a week or two before we are working in total harmony.”
Dubree had a solid game in the field, but his play did prompt one teammate to inquire if he “still had the receipt for that glove” in the midst of the difficult third inning.
By the top of the 4th, the rust of the offseason began to recede and it was replaced by the pride and ‘never say die’ attitude that has been the trademark of this scrappy team. Led by Robinson, Tenner, Sebert, Gillard, and Baker, the Nuts were able to score 4 runs, avoid the dreaded ‘run rule’, and extend the game.
“All we needed was a sliver of hope,” said Jarrell. “And you don’t want to give these Peanuts hope.”
Like a different team altogether, the Peanuts disposed of Mooyah quickly in the bottom of the 4th with 3 quick outs and the defensive play of the night. The 4-6-3 double play combination of Gillard, to Sebert, to Dubree is something that the team hopes is repeated often this season.
“They say the strength of any good team is up the middle,” said catcher Mason. “And for the Nuts this is clearly the case. I would put our shortstop, second baseman, 2 center fielders, and catcher up against anyone in the league in terms of talent.”
Left fielder Mark Haisler had a strong defensive outing, contributing to 3 outs and running down a long fly ball into foul territory. Haisler was busy all night, acting primarily as a backstop for sharply hit line drives into left field.
“Haisler got a workout tonight,” said his fieldmate, Baker. “Glad he had a chance to break in those new cleats early in the season. The white plastic is way too shiny.”
In the 5th inning, the Nuts continued to show signs of life as they scored another 4 runs to cut the Mooyah lead to 14-8. The highlight of the inning was the speed of Robinson on the basepaths.
Following a nicely hit line drive to right field, Robinson rounded first base way too wide. The Mooyah right fielder noticed Robinson and immediately fired a dart toward first to catch him clearly off base.
Shocking to all in attendance, Robinson had a strategy. More shockingly, perhaps, was that his strategy was successful. As the right fielder’s throw began its trajectory toward first base, Robinson lurched into action, sprinting with his head down, and sliding into second base safely with the throw behind him.
“Rarely does anyone slide in this league,” said Sebert. “Yet, the Penguin, always seems to find an opportunity. Perhaps he needs to come home dusty so that Ashley [Rick’s wife] believes he was actually out playing softball?”
Mooyah plated one run in the bottom of the 5th to complete the scoring 15-8. While the Peanuts had an opportunity to bat in the top of the 6th, the Peanuts went quietly into the night, ending the game.
Despite the loss, the mood of the team was rather upbeat. In post-game interviews, Tenner said, “If we can play that poorly and lose by just 7 runs, this could be quite a remarkable season!”
It is that ‘positivity’ that keeps us coming back to report on the antics of this scrappy squad.
Note: Due to Texas spring break, the Nuts will not be in action until March 22nd where they will face the Hit Squad at 8:30pm at Ford Fields in Allen.