Just in case they needed it, the Briarcliff Bears got another reminder on Friday night that the Keio baseball team can never be counted out.
The Unicorns came from behind three different times, finally emerging with a 9-8 victory at Dutchess Stadium on a two-out, bases-loaded bloop single to right field by Yoichiro Ohashi in the bottom of the 10th inning that plated the tying and winning runs and brought an end to a contest that lasted nearly three and a half hours.
“Listen, Keio is probably the most fundamentally sound team in Section One,” said Briarcliff coach John Schrader after his team was unable to protect one-run leads in both the ninth and 10th innings. “They are so well-coached, they have so much respect and they’re just so fundamentally sound. They really do an excellent job. They get guys on base, they bunt, they steal, they delay steal, they slash. They do about everything in the book that you can think of.”
Playing under the lights at the minor-league home of the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Bears jumped out to a 5-1 lead after an inning and a half and seemed well on their way to concluding the 20-game regular season with their 18th win. But a two-out, three-run triple in the bottom of the second by starting pitcher Reiya Matsumoto got the Unicorns right back in the game and paved the way to Briarcliff’s second loss in its last three games.
“It never helps when you lose two like that,” said Schrader, whose Bears had dropped a road game to Westlake earlier in the week. “But I’m really confident that our group is the type that can regroup and be successful going into the playoffs.”
Both teams put runs on the scoreboard in each of the first three innings, then went scoreless for the next five. The Bears grabbed a 1-0 lead in top of the first as leadoff hitter Jack Ryan singled to right field, stole second base and then scored on Noah Campo’s sharp single to left. But Keio answered with an unearned run in the bottom of the inning before Briarcliff starter Spencer McCann stranded a runner at third by striking out Ohashi and then retiring Hideki Shigeno on a grounder to first.
Briarcliff erupted for four runs in the top of the second inning, which began with hits from John Gross, Mike Hardy and Danny Huegel that loaded the bases. All three of them wound up scoring on consecutive ground balls by Ryan, Joe Scanga and Campo. Cleanup batter Luca Lombardi drove home the Bears’ fifth run of the evening with a line-drive single to center field.
Unfortunately for the Bears, McCann had some trouble finding the plate in the bottom of the second, walking two batters and hitting another. With the bases loaded and two outs, Matsumoto helped his own cause by drilling the first pitch he saw from McCann to the right-center-field gap for a three-run triple.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Schrader, asked later if the big hit by Matsumoto had changed the complexion of the game. “It absolutely turned around on a dime.”
The Bears added another run in the third, taking a 6-4 lead as Gross walked, moved all the way to third base on a wild pitch and then scored on Huegel’s grounder to second. But a couple of walks by McCann in the bottom of the inning helped the Unicorns score twice and tie the game. After the one-out single to center by Daisuke Oki that brought home the tying run, Schrader summoned senior southpaw Matt Juvelier, who got out of trouble with a timely strikeout and then a double-steal attempt by the Unicorns that ended with catcher Julian Matthews tagging out Ryutaro Fukumoto on a close play at the plate.
After scoring six runs through the first three innings, the Bears only sent nine batters to the plate over the next three. In the top of the seventh, though, facing new pitcher Yuki Nakagawa, Scanga hit a booming triple to the left-center gap with one out. But Campo grounded to short, then Lombardi hit a chopper in front of the plate and was thrown out, stranding the go-ahead run at third.
Briarcliff also stranded two runners in the eighth, then turned to its third pitcher, Ryan Nieto, to keep the score tied. He yielded a leadoff walk and a one-out, bloop double to left before making a Houdini escape with a strikeout and a weak grounder that he fielded toward the first-base line.
The Bears finally ended their scoring drought in the ninth inning without even hitting the ball. Both Ryan and Scanga were plunked by pitches. After Ryan stole third base, he came home on a balk to give Briarcliff a 7-6 edge. But back-to-back doubles in the bottom of the inning by Ohashi and Shigeno tied the score again.
In the top of the 10th inning, Briarcliff regained the lead as McCann led off with a single, moved to second on a wild pitch, then to third on Hardy’s groundout before scoring on a clutch two-out single to right by Huegel. Keio had an answer once again in its half of the inning, loading the bases on a pair of singles and a hit batsman.
Nieto retired Masaki Miyata on a popup to first baseman Campo for the second out, but Ohashi then sent his Keio teammates racing onto the field in celebration by dropping a flare into short right field in front of McCann for the game-winning two-run single.
“You know what, the atmosphere that we had tonight was definitely sectional playoff play,” said Schrader. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s good experience going into the playoffs.”