Did anyone think the Bethesda Big Train could be beaten?
It sounds like a silly question, but for many, it was a legitimate question. Yes, yes the team had lost during the regular season--they were not some supernatural force incapable of losing even one game. But those losses did not carry the same stakes as this one. Did anyone think the Big Train could lose this game, the first game of the CRCBL Championship Series against a team they had dominated all season long in the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts? Maybe more to the point, did anyone think they could lose 9-0?
In the first round of the playoffs, the Big Train rolled over the Alexandria Aces, outscoring them 35-8. Four of those eight runs came long after the series had been locked up--garbage time, as some would call it. Put simply, Bethesda looked as if they were on another level than their competition, sharks among minnows.
They entered Monday 7-1 on the season against their championship opponents, the #1 team in the CRCBL practically all season, and heavily favored in the series by anyone who knows the slightest about the Cal Ripken League--they were a team who set more records (10) than they had losses (7). Seriously.
But Monday night's game served as a reality check. A shocking reality check. After plowing through opponent after opponent all regular season, the Big Train's loss in game one puts them in a place they have seldom resided this season: their backs cornered into a wall with no room for error.
They now trail the Thunderbolts in the series 1-0, meaning a singular loss from here onwards will send the team home without the hardware they expected to carry out on their last day together as a team since they first arrived in Bethesda two months ago. At the same time, if there's a team out there capable of stringing together two consecutive wins to capture the league title, it's the same team who has captured three consecutive league titles leading up to this point, the same team seeking to add its sixth championship of this decade.
It helps when the team has a legendary manager in Sal Colangelo, who has seen it all in his days as Bethesda's manager. After the game, a couple of Big Trains' prominent stars spoke out about his influence on the team.
"Sal [Colangelo] was like, 'you just earned another day with each other,'" Christian Jayne (East Carolina) said. "We'll be playing on Wednesday, so we're all in good spirits."
Matt Thomas (William & Mary) added, "[Sal Colangelo said] just to stay at it. We've been the best team in the league just about the whole summer. We know that we're better than those guys--it's just about playing hard and sticking to the approach."
Despite the loss, anyone who saw the game would have a difficult time saying that the Big Train played as poorly as the score would indicate. Bethesda managed just four hits but walked six times and had several opportunities to score early. Drew Hamrock (Virginia) singled to open the second and made it to third with no outs but was ultimately stranded there. Gio Diaz (St. Mary's CA) made it to scoring position with one out in the third, but Bethesda left men on the corners without scoring to end the inning.
Mike Bechtold (James Madison) turned in a solid start himself, allowing two earned runs over five innings of work and striking out five while keeping the Big Train in the mix early on in the game.
While it is difficult to excuse a nine-run blow-out, a combination of runners left on base, hard-hit balls that seemingly took aim at Thunderbolts fielders, and misfortune on the base-paths extended the Thunderbolts' margin of victory by a couple more runs than it perhaps could have been.
That may be the reason Bethesda remained calmly confident following the defeat.
"We'll be fine. We've got a good pitcher going tomorrow in Dalton [Ponce], a good bullpen left in Chase [Lee] and Elliot [Zoellner]. The biggest thing is to stick to the approach--we only got four hits tonight, but that's not really the offense we are," Thomas said.
"You know, it's just one of those days today. Hats off to the T-Bolts because they played well. We hit some balls hard, but we just have to go out there tomorrow and play better. Hopefully continue to do what we've done all season, come out here and play hard, and it'll be all good." Jayne added.
For the Big Train's fans, this loss may ultimately prove fruitful. Losing means that, in the event Bethesda pulls it together and comes away with the victory in this series and captures the league championship, they will do so at home. They now have the ability to retain the title at Shirley Povich Field in front of the legions of fans who have supported them all season. For a team as community-oriented as Bethesda, that's a big deal.
The team has another opportunity Tuesday to showcase their winning ways for the entire league to watch. But their backs are against the wall. No longer do they have the slightest room for an off game. And even for the best teams, bad days are part of the sport--but perhaps they want it this way.
Needing consecutive victories to crown themselves champions, the players have a difficult road ahead if they want to live up to the hype, the winning culture, the expectations ever-present within the Big Train organization. But for these players spending a summer in Bethesda with their own development at the forefront of their minds, the Major Leagues all of their eventual dreams, this situation serves as the perfect microcosm of what they can expect on their path towards the big leagues. It represents an ideal opportunity to grow as players--the exact reason they joined this team in the first place.
In Bethesda, winning is the expectation, and the players know that. Still, any expectations here pale in comparison to those these players will face on their route to the MLB. In that process, failing to meet expectations will mean failure as a player--it would mean their dreams go unfulfilled. If they want to prove they can succeed at the next level, they have to prove they can succeed at this one first. They have to show that, amidst a myriad of expectations and controversy constantly tossed their way, they will remain unaffected, steady as a boulder constantly bombarded by the in-and-out movement of the tide yet firmly holding its positioning. This is their opportunity to do so.
With a dramatic 9-0 loss to the Thunderbolts in game one of the League Championship Series, they have positioned themselves to show that they can get the job done, even with their backs against the wall. The question now remains: will the Big Train rise to the occasion?
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