HARTFORD — The No. 1 seed in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League is still playing in the postseason.
But it’s been a struggle for the Record-Journal Expos.
After winning 19 games en route to the regular-season title last week, the Expos (20-6) haven’t exactly played like the GHTBL’s top seed at Trinity College. After dropping their playoff opener 8-1 to Rainbow Graphics, the Expos found themselves down 5-0 to Ulbrich Steel on Thursday night.
The Expos, however, kept their season alive in dramatic fashion. Down a run in the bottom of the seventh inning before tying the game with one out, Jason Sullivan’s double in the eighth inning lifted R-J to a come-from-behind, 6-5 victory over Ulbrich Steel.
Thursday night’s walk-off victory means R-J will play another elimination game at Trinity on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. against the loser of Friday night’s game between the No. 2 seed Vernon Orioles and No. 3 People’s United Bank.
“We have to play every game to win now. Tonight, we never gave up and battled all the way through,” player-manager Charlie Hesseltine said following Thursday night’s win.
“We knew the circumstances. We knew that if we lost, that was it,” Hesseltine added. “This gives us a lot of momentum heading into Saturday. (But) we are just taking it one game at a time. It’s win-or-go-home now.”
The Expos appeared to be about to pack their bat bags for good entering the seventh inning.
While R-J had cut Steel’s lead to a run, the Expos were still down 5-4 with three outs to go. But after Hector Gonzalez walked to lead off the eighth inning, Sullivan’s blast to the right-center field wall allowed Gonzalez to race around the bases and plate the winning run.
Before Sullivan’s heroics, the Expos looked to be on their way to another 0-2 postseason. A year ago, R-J lost both of its GHTBL playoff games. And until tying Thursday night's game, the Expos had trailed Rainbow Graphic and Ulbrich Steel for 13 ½ innings at Trinity.
R-J, however, sent the GHTBL elimination game into extra innings when John Doyon singled to center field after a one-out double by Hendrickson in the seventh inning. Doyon’s hit was just the sixth by the Expos, who rallied with the help of some shaky Ulbrich defense.
Ulbrich committed five errors, which led to the first four Expos’ runs.
“We settled in after they got up early. We knew we had to fight,” Sullivan said. “Go bat-by-bat, and get it to the next guy.”
“I think we can grind it out. We all just come out here to play baseball and have fun, whether it’s a ‘win-or-go-home’ game or not,” Sullivan added. “We just come out here to play as much as we can, put our hearts into it as much as we can, and hopefully win the next game.”
Starting Saturday, it’ll take three more elimination-game wins for the Expos to reach the championship series at Palmer Field in Middletown (Aug. 13-14). And if R-J makes it to Palmer Field, it’ll take two more wins over the team out of the winners’ bracket to claim the championship.
But winning streaks are nothing new to this group of Expos, who won 13 straight regular-season games.
Still, after two Steel at-bats Thursday night, it wasn’t looking like the Expos would get past its first elimination game.
Ulbrich led 1-0 after one inning and took a 5-0 lead in the second inning on Pete Barrows’ bases-loaded double.
After Barrows’ double, however, Hendrickson was nearly untouchable on the mound. The league’s leader in complete games with seven, Hendrickson once again finished what he started.
Hendrickson pitched eight gutty innings, allowing just two hits from the third through eighth innings. Hendrickson retired the final 10 Steel batters in order as the Expos rallied.
“A.J. settled down and it really helped that he held them at bay. He gave us a chance to win,” Hesseltine said.
“My goal every single game is to finish,” Hendrickson said.
But after falling behind 5-0, Hendrickson knew something had to change — and fast.
“I came out too amped up,” Hendrickson said. “I was trying to throw the ball too hard and got away from my strengths. I just slowed myself down and started to hit my spots.”
And as for the rest of the postseason?
“We have to come out every day with energy and grind away,” Hendrickson said.
As was the case Tuesday night when it had just six hits in losing to Rainbow Graphics, R-J’s bats were silenced most of the game by Steel starter Dan Livingston. The Expos generated just three hits over the first six innings against the sidearmer.
It was a far cry from last week’s 18-8 rout of Steel when the Expos clinched the regular-season title.
The Expos got two unearned runs in the second and third innings before Doyon’s tying single in the seventh inning.
Steel’s fifth error of the game set up the Expos in the third inning. After Ulbrich second baseman Paul Prior misplayed a ground ball to load the bases, R-J scored twice on a single by Gonzalez and sacrifice fly by Sullivan.
Ulbrich’s defense was its undoing in the second inning as well when it committed four errors in the frame. But the Expos couldn’t take full advantage of Steel’s miscues.
R-J managed just one hit in the inning, and scored two unearned runs to get within 5-2. But with one out and runners on first and second, the Expos failed to plate another run.