Canterbury Red Sox triumph in softball thriller
The Lazarus Lads from Canterbury banished "Black Friday" to the back burner to snare the national men's softball crown in style after one of the most sensational comebacks in the sport's colourful history.
Greg Newton's Canterbury Red Sox squad won its second National Fastpitch Championship title in three seasons after vanquishing defending champions Auckland 2-0 in yesterday's grand final at Albany.
Their lower batting order came to the red-and-blacks' rescue with rookie Paul Barker, Josh Harbrow and Josh Thompson stringing together successive single base hits to centrefield to score two vital runs in the fourth inning.
The Canterbury bench streamed out the dugout to hug their team-mates on the diamond after Black Sox shortstop Tyron Bartorillo took the final two outs with a slick double-play as Auckland had a runner at second base in the seventh inning.
The big hero was pitcher Penese Iosefo, who played through the pain of a groin injury and sore ribs to shut out a deadly Auckland batting lineup led by Black Sox star Donny Hale.
But the Red Sox feared they were dead and buried on Friday after losing three games to slump to a three-win three-loss record.
Captain Gareth Cook admitted there was a very real threat the Red Sox "could have been playing for fifth or sixth place" at one stage.
The Cantabs cooled their heels in their Albany motel on Saturday, knowing their fate rested in others' hands. They needed North Harbour to beat Hawke's Bay - which they duly did in a tie-breaker - to give Canterbury a get-out-jail-free card.
"Black Friday, we called it," Canterbury's Black Sox outfielder Daniel Milne said before celebrating the Red Sox' second national title in three seasons. "A lot of soul-searching went on."
But Milne said Canterbury never lost the belief they could go on to win once they were handed their lifeline.
Longtime manager Jayden Moore agreed. "Once we got into that top four, we thought we would have the ability to beat Auckland, Wellington and Hutt Valley," he said.
His charges went on to play three of the best games of their lives.
The Red Sox bats came alive from Saturday morning's 7-1 win over North Harbour with Milne and Bartorillo blasting automatic home runs. Moore reckoned that slugfest injected a surge of confidence that continued for the rest of a storybook weekend.
Captain Cook - the unluckiest omission from the Black Sox world championship team - slugged a three-run triple in Saturday night's 6-5 win over Wellington.
Canterbury then edged out Hutt Valley 7-5 in yesterday morning's semifinal with Harbrow collecting three safe hits, Harbrow hit Stephen Ratu home in the eighth- inning tie-breaker, and Matt Holmes batted in Harbrow.
Up stepped veteran Darren Davies - who won a national title with Canterbury in 1996-97 - to crack a triple to score Holmes with his third hit of the ballgame.
Canterbury had five hits in the final - to Cook, Ratu, Barker, Harbrow and Holmes.
Iosefo restricted Auckland to four hits but didn't give top- order men Ben Enoka, Nathan Nuknuku a sniff as he took three strikeouts and was backed up by a blemish-free field.
Black Sox coach Eddie Kohlhase said it was "a great ball game, a kind of throwback to the [low-scoring, tense matches in] the 80s" and he hailed Iosefo's tenacity and courage.
Moore agreed Iosefo had turned in a herculean performance. "Even on the day we lost three games, he was great . . . he only gave up three runs in those first two games."
Milne heaped praise on the Canterbury lower order, especially Barker - a 32-year-old at his first NFC after 10 years in the social softball grades. "Chewy has been excellent all week and he did it again today."
The champion Canterbury Red Sox squad was: Gareth Cook (captain), Daniel Milne, Tyron Bartorillo, Penese Iosefo, Stephen Ratu, Darren Davies, Steve McFarlane, Matt Holmes, Josh Harbrow, Paul Barker, Josh Thompson, Scott Sutherland, Aiden Cocker, Clayton Ellis, Nathan Watt. Head coach: Greg Newton, assistant-coach: Mike Mountford. Pitching Coach: Murray Britt.