LOWELL, Mass. -- When a baseball game goes into extra innings, especially five extra innings, each team cares less and less about preserving an inning and becomes ultra focused on getting that one run it needs.
Such was the case Saturday in the Division 2 state final at LeLacheur Park. As the sun faded behind the bleachers and the stadium lights came on, Hingham’s Cody Clifford came to the plate with the bases loaded. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he sent a ball back up the middle, giving his team the hard fought 7-6 victory over Auburn.
The game almost did not see one extra inning, let alone five. The teams went into the seventh, and normally final inning, tied 5-5. Auburn (20-5) took a one-run lead in the top of the inning and seemed to sap all the momentum out of the game. That was, until Hingham (21-6) came back and answered with a run of its own in the bottom of the inning.
Luke Ferris singled to start the inning, and was promptly bunted over to second by Matt Glenzel. Steve White struck out, leaving the Harbormen down to their last out. Joe Leahy took a 2-0 pitch and belted it off the right field wall for a triple, which scored Ferris. In a somewhat gutsy call, Auburn coach Eric Swedberg decided to intentionally walk the next two hitters to load the bases. His gamble paid off when Austin Irvin flew out to third, ending the inning and sending the game into extras.
In the 12th, Even Flanagan and Irvin drew back-to-back one-out walks. John Carlson flew out to center to advance the runners up a base. Swedberg decided to intentionally walk David Hutchins, who was 2-for-6 until that, and load the bases. That brought up Clifford, who ended the game and sent his team and its fans home happy.
“My mind went blank,” said Clifford of the final hit. “I was looking at the right fielder. I thought he might throw it into the first baseman because I hit it out there pretty fast. I went straight into the base and touched the base.”
The Hingham players hit coach Frank Niles with the ceremonial Gatorade bath after the game, putting an end to the most successful season the team could ask for.
“This is a great way to go out senior year,” said Clifford. “It’s a great ending to my baseball career. It could not have ended any better. I’ll always remember this day from here on. It’s really surreal.”
Embrace the unusual: If there is one word to describe Saturday’s game, it is unconventional. Both teams removed their starting pitchers, and Auburn even put their pitchers back in the game. Tyler LaMonda started the game for the Rockets and was relieved by Mike Vaitkunas.
While conventional wisdom is that once a pitcher is done throwing, he will at the very least play a different position. Auburn chose to put LaMonda back in the game to throw the ninth inning. They then put Vaitkunas back on the mound for the tenth, and he threw the final three innings.
Hingham had an unorthodox decision of its own when it decided to allow Clifford to hit in the 12th. He was removed from the game in the fifth inning by Luke Ferris after striking out in his first two at-bats. Ferris was then pinch hit for in the eighth by William Boynton. Conventional baseball managing is that once you take your hitter out of the game, he does not return for the remainder. However, Niles decided to put his senior third baseman back in the game at its most critical time.
“Cody is a good hitter,” said the coach. “When we took Evan Flanagan out [he was pinch run for in the 12th] we had to make a splash. I clarified the rule first because Billy [Boynton] was DH’d for but we could’ve re-entered him back to second base. So we’re sitting back there, I didn’t want to do it earlier because if they didn’t allow me to put Boynton back in, I didn’t want to go there because I wouldn’t have my best defense on the field.”
“Cody’s a good hitter,” he emphasized. “He got a big hit against Plymouth North in the tournament. He’s a good hitter. He didn’t swing very well prior to the last swing, so I’m happy for him.”
Carlson pounds 'em: John Carlson relieved Evan Flanagan in the fifth inning, and pitched the final eight innings for Hingham. The left was particularly effective with his sharp-bending curveball, getting the Auburn hitters to swing above the ball. He finished with nine strikeouts, walked five, and allowed only one earned run in eight innings of relief.
“I knew I had to throw strikes up there,” he said after the game. “My curveball was working pretty good for me. I just didn’t walk too many guys, that was the key.”
There was no sign of anyone warming up in the Hingham bullpen at all during the extra frames, indicating that Niles was going to stick with Carlson as long as he could and as long as he remained in control of the Auburn hitters. Carlson said himself after the game he was willing to pitch as long as he had to until his team won the game and that his arm actually felt better as the innings wore on.
“He’s one of the toughest kids,” said Niles of Carlson. “He came in relief earlier in the tournament. He’s a can-do guy, he really thinks he can do it all the time and he’s a battler. He said, ‘I’ve got plenty Coach, I’ve got all you need.’ So it was a type of day where I didn’t know how many innings he had gone, I didn’t know how many pitches he had thrown, but it really didn’t matter.”