KITCHENER – Mike Andrulis sprinted far to his left, barehanded the ball on one bounce, and fired a strike to Mitch Delaney at first base to throw out the runner by a split second.
In any game, it would be a remarkable play. But it was even more so because it was the last play of the ninth inning at Jack Couch Park Tuesday night, and sealed a Panthers’ 6-5 win over a charging Toronto Maple Leafs club – giving Kitchener a 2-1 playoff series lead.
Had Andrulis not made that play, Raul Borjas would have scored from third and the Panthers would have a tie ball game on their hands. The acrobatic play highlighted the importance defense, often overlooked on scoresheets, has played in the Panthers season and playoffs so far.
That should be no surprise. The Panthers led the league in fielding percentage heading into the playoffs, at .966. No other team handled the ball better, or made fewer mistakes.
The Intercounty Baseball League club turned 37 double plays and committed 53 errors in the regular season, the fewest of the league’s eight teams. The Leafs, by comparison, were charged with 73 errors.
Pitching, of course, has helped a lot too. Sean Reilly, the Toronto Maple Leafs slugger, said before Tuesday’s game that new arms added to the Panthers this season have made them a much more formidable opponent.
He said import Marcos Reyna, a Californian with vicious a curveball who got the save for Kitchener Tuesday night, was particularly “nasty.”
The Panthers came into the playoffs with the fourth best staff ERA in the league, at 5.97, which is good by Intercounty Baseball League standards. Toronto’s pitchers, meanwhile, had the worst ERA in the league, at 7.18.
But when it comes giving up home runs, only Burlington’s pitchers do it more often. The Panthers coughed up 60 long bombs in the regular season, to Burlington’s 64. Compare that to Brantford pitching staff, who only gave up 24 all season.
The Panthers batters launched 43 of their own this season, putting them in the middle of the pack for power. Toronto, powered by the likes of Reilly and Jon Waltenbury, led the league in home runs, with 57.
But fortunately for the Panthers, those power numbers spiked as soon as the post-season started. Bryon Bell has four home runs and 11 RBI in the playoffs so far, hitting at a torrid .615 pace – making him the league’s most potent hitter since the regular season ended.
Teammates Tanner Nivins and Rick Murray haven’t been slouches, either – Nivins has six hits and four RBI in the series, for a .545 average, while Murray has driven in 11 runs.
The Panthers series vs. Toronto returns to Kitchener Thursday night, for a 7:30 p.m. start at Jack Couch Park.