Following the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs baseball season.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Leafs Fall in October, Season Ends

2021 IBL Championship Series - Game 5, October 1 - Toronto Maple Leafs at London Majors

Majors win 8-4, win series 3-2

Evan DiMichele and Kyle Perrett look on from the Maple Leafs' bullpen as the London Majors celebrate.

The 2021 IBL season has ended, and the London Majors are IBL champions.

They won Game 5 at Labatt Park 8-4 over the Toronto Maple Leafs to capture their first league title since 1975.

The Leafs' truncated, compressed, electrifying season ends in disappointment.  After clearing every other hurdle during their postseason run, they could not find a way to win on the road in London.

On Friday night, the Mapes chugged into their opponents' ballpark with a full head of steam, fired up by Sean Reilly's walk-off home run at Christie Pits the night before.  They were one win away from clinching the title, and in the deciding game they took an early lead.

First baseman Jordan Castaldo doubled to start the game, and scored on a sacrifice fly by third baseman Johnathan Solazzo.

A Castaldo single in the 2nd drove home center fielder Connor Lewis.

DH Reilly doubled to start the 3rd, advanced to third on a single by second baseman Garrett Takamatsu, and came home on a single by Solazzo.

London's bullpen scrambled into action as starter Owen Boon looked to be on the ropes.

Midway through the third the Leafs led 3-0 and the park was deathly quiet.  The PA announcer gently pleaded with fans to make some noise.  In the bottom of the inning the Majors provided some incentive.

Marek Deska cruised through the first two innings on the mound for Toronto, but got into a jam in the bottom of the 3rd.  He gave up four hits including a three-run home run by Byron Reichstein - this third in two games.  London jumped ahead 4-3 and momentum shifted for a final time in this series.

London added a run in the 4th to make it 5-3.

From that point, Boon settled down and made it through six innings.  He handed it over to Eduardo Perez the rest of the way.

The Leafs mounted a final dangerous rally in the top of the 8th.  They loaded the bases but could only get one more run across the plate, courtesy of a sac fly by catcher Justin Marra.

With the innings and outs trickling away, the Leafs got sloppy and recorded three errors late in the game.  With the wind in their sails, London tacked on more runs and came away with an 8-4 final score.

After the final out, the Majors convened at midfield for the traditional pileup.  Fans ran onto the outfield.  Bottles emerged from beneath jackets.  London celebrated its first championship in 46 years.

The last time the IBL postseason stretched all the way into October was in 1982.  A month of monsoon weather wreaked havoc on the schedule, but Toronto eventually defeated London.  This time Toronto fell short, and the Leafs fell in October.

Toronto 4 14 3
London 8 11 0

W - Boon (2-1, 3.42)
L - Deska (3-1, 6.26)

Friday, October 1, 2021

Leafs One Win Away From Title

2021 IBL Championship Series - Game 4, September 30 - London Majors at Toronto Maple Leafs

Leafs win 6-5 (13 innings), series tied 2-2

The calm before the bomb: Sean Reilly's 13th inning home run sent the Pits into a frenzy.

Dustin Richardson saved the game, and Sean Reilly won it.

Facing elimination in the IBL Championship Series at Christie Pits last night, Richardson pitched seven innings of relief and Reilly's walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th gave the Toronto Maple Leafs a 6-5 victory over the London Majors.

The Leafs are one win away from their first IBL title since 2007.  A final, winner-take-all game will be played tonight at Labatt Park.

Game 4 will go down as a classic.  The Leafs fell behind early, trailed 4-0 as late as the 6th, then staged yet another Christie comeback to send the game into extras.  A duel of relief pitchers ratcheted the tension with each inning, until Reilly blew the lid off the place. 

A sizeable crowd settled into the Pits as the sun set on the waning hours of September.  Bundled up against the cool evening, the local rooters were eager to see the series extended.  

Justin Cicatello and Pedro De Los Santos started on the mound for Toronto and London respectively.

For the first four innings, the contest was exclusively between Cicatello and the Majors' Byron Reichstein, with Cicatello taking the worst of it.  Reichstein hit him for leadoff home runs in the 2nd and 4th innings.  The visitors added another run to take a 3-0 lead through four.  

Meanwhile De Los Santos scattered three hits across the same span.  The Leafs loaded the bases in the bottom of the 4th, but the visitors escaped the jam.

Adam Filmon doubled and Carlos Arteaga drove him in to give London a four run lead and raise the volume coming from the Majors' bench.  The Leafs had yet to score and the remaining innings were becoming increasingly precious.

In the bottom of the 6th Toronto finally got to De Los Santos.  Right fielder Marcus Knecht singled and stole second, then roared for home on a single by left fielder Chandler McLaren.  An error moved McLaren to second, and he scored on a single by center fielder Connor Lewis.  London's lead was halved, 4-2 through six.

Cicatello emptied his tank in the top of the 7th.  After walking two batters, he was relieved by Dustin Richardson, whom manager Damon Topolie entrusted to see the game through to the end.  If we only knew how far away the end still was.

Richardson surrendered an RBI double to Cleveland Brownlee to close the book on Cicatello.  From then on, he began striking Majors out with purpose.

The Majors got messy in the bottom of the 7th and the Leafs took advantage.  Catcher Justin Marra led off with a single and DH Reilly reached on an error.  Both runners advanced on a wild pitch, and Marra scored on a groundout by Knecht.  After third baseman Johnathan Solazzo was hit by a pitch, shortstop Dan Marra doubled to bring Reilly home.  The Majors clung to a 5-4 lead after seven.

As he had in the first game of the series, De Los Santos kept returning to the mound deep into the game.  This night it was one inning too many.  He walked Lewis to start the frame, then gave up an RBI single to Reilly that tied the game 5-5 and brought the Pits to its feet.  De Los Santos was immediately relieved by Lucas Kelley, who escaped without any further damage.

The entire park now awaited the winning run.  Richardson and Kelley swapped halves of a scoreless 9th to send the game into extras for the first time this series.  From the 9th through the 12th, London managed just two hits while the Mapes scraped out three, but neither side could get a run across.

With the month of October once hours, now minutes away, Richardson must have looked like the Grim Reaper to Majors batters.  Over seven innings, he struck out twelve of them.  

Kelley could not match that output but he kept the Leafs off the board until his luck ran out in the 13th inning.  With one out, Reilly stepped up to the plate and smoked a four-base hit that landed in the trees beyond left field.  

I have watched the clip of this moment approximately 50 times, each time observing the reaction of a different character in the frame.  

Standing on deck, Garrett Takamatsu knows the game is over and he triumphantly whips his bat aside.  The Leafs bench rises in unison to watch the ball go.  The fans seated behind home plate leap to their feet.  Fans on the hillside jump up and down.  Catcher Hayden Jaco remains in his squat until the ball clears the fence, then walks dejectedly to the visitors' bench.  The Majors fielders stand stunned for a few seconds, then trudge off the field.  The Leafs players bounce around home plate and the bullpen races in from left to join the welcoming committee.

The most mesmerising of all is Reilly.  After his colossal swing, he drops his bat in front of the plate, takes a few steps towards first, then punches the sky with both fists.  He rounds first and instead of slowly soaking in the moment, he accelerates around second and points to the Bushmen, who must have been losing their minds on the hillside with the rest of us.  Rounding third, he simultaneously hi fives Topolie and hurls his batting helmet into the sky.  Arriving home he jumps to stomp on the plate like a kid leaping and vanishing into a pile of Leafs.

The final pitch thrown at the Pits in 2021 produced its only walk-off home run of the year.

The IBL's Greatest of All-Time lived up to the moment and created a memory that will be talked about for years to come.

Once again, the home team wins and momentum shifts.  There has been the slimmest ray of light between these two clubs.  It has been a great series.

This postseason, the Leafs have overcome every challenge thrown in their path.  With one game left to play they face their final, greatest one: win on the road in London, and bring the Dominico Cup home.

London 5 11 4
Toronto 6 13 2
(13 innings)

W - Richardson (1-0, 0.00)
L - Kelley (0-1, 1.35)

The series concludes Friday night at Labatt Park in London, with a winner-take-all Game 5.  First pitch is at 7:35 pm.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A Major Home Advantage

2021 IBL Championship Series - Game 3, September 28 - Toronto Maple Leafs at London Majors

Majors win 6-4, lead series 2-1

The Leafs were unable to find a way to win one at Labatt Park, as London took Game 3.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and London Majors continue to trade jabs, but no knockout blows.

This IBL Championship Series continues to be one of close scores and home advantages.

Tonight at Labatt Park, it was the Majors who emerged on top of a 6-4 final score to take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five series.

London sent newcomer Eduardo Perez to the mound against Zach Sloan for the Leafs.  It was Sloan who took the first hit in the bottom of the first inning.  Two hits and a double to be precise - the two-bagger coming off the bat of Cleveland Brownlee to drive in the first two runs of the game.

A solo home run by right fielder Marcus Knecht in the 2nd, and an RBI single by catcher Justin Marra in the 3rd tied the game at two apiece.

The Majors retook the lead in the bottom of the 5th, when Huberto Ruiz rapped a two-run single.  Sloan was relieved by Mateos Kekatos, who walked in a run to make it a 5-2 game.

London padded their lead in the bottom of the 6th, when Ruiz singled again to drive in another run and make it 6-2.  Ruiz went on to make a stellar play in the top of the 7th when he robbed DH Sean Reilly of a two-run homer with a leaping catch against the left field wall.

The Leafs kept jabbing away.  In the top of the 8th, third baseman Johnathan Solazzo crushed a two-run homer off Nick Carrell to bring the Leafs to within two.

The night went to the home side.  Lucas Kelley pitched 1 2/3 innings of relief to close out the game with a 6-4 final score.

The Leafs now face a must-win game at home to keep this series alive.  Game 4 goes Thursday night at Christie Pits.

Toronto 4 8 0
London 6 13 1

W - Perez (1-0, 1.28)
L - Sloan (0-1, 7.94)
S - Kelley (1)

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Leafs Bash Back to Tie Series

2021 IBL Championship Series - Game 2, September 26 - London Majors at Toronto Maple Leafs

Leafs win 6-4, series tied 1-1

Justin Marra's three-run bomb proved to be the game-winner Sunday afternoon at the Pits.

It was Sunday afternoon at Christie Pits, and your humble narrator dabbled with the dark art of speaking something into existence. 

I was leaning against the fence along the third base line, watching the Toronto Maple Leafs warm up before Game 2 of the IBL Championship Series.

Johnathan Solazzo walked past on his way to the bench.  In the first game of the series, the Leaf third baseman had gone 0-for-4 and struck out three times.

"Hey man, gimme something to write about," I said to him.  We both laughed.

A couple of hours later, Solazzo hit a home run that put an exclamation point on a 6-4 victory by the Leafs.

In a short best-of-five series, every game feels like a must-win.  For the Leafs it was especially true after they dropped the opener in London.

Marek Deska took the mound, facing off against Owen Boon, the league's top ERA man who was fresh off a 16-K shutout that clinched the Majors' place in the finals.

Both starters breezed through the first inning.  

London got on the board in the 2nd, when Austin Wilkie hit a two-run home run.

Toronto responded in the bottom of the 2nd, when left fielder Chandler McLaren singled in right fielder Marcus Knecht to make it a 2-1 ballgame.

In the top of the 4th, London extended their lead thanks to a solo homer by Hayden Jaco.

In the bottom of the 5th, the Leafs got one back when second baseman Garrett Takamatsu singled in first baseman Jordan Castaldo.  It was 3-2 Majors after five and the game was moving along quickly.

Boon was not as dominant as he had been in his previous outing.  In the bottom of the 6th, the Leafs put two men aboard and Boon served up a pitch he would love to have back.  Catcher Justin Marra crushed a three-run homer and the throngs at Christie Pits went wild in unison.  For the first time in the game the Mapes enjoyed a lead, 5-3 through six.

Boon was done after six innings.  Braeden Ferrington relieved him to start the 7th inning, and that was when Solazzo gave me something to write about.  He blasted Ferrington's first pitch over the fence and the Pits went wild again.  After seven innings the Leafs led 6-3.

Deska also lasted six innings, and his final line was three runs off seven hits with two strikeouts.  

In the top of the 8th, reliever Andrew Hyde gave up a solo homer to Byron Reichstein to make it a 6-4 score.

All told, the Leafs got 13 hits on the day and ten of them came from the top four in the order.  Castaldo led the way, going 5-for-5 and scoring twice.

On the flipside, pitching and defence were the difference this day.  London was held to eight hits and they stranded four.

If Maple Leafs games featured walk-up music, the top of the ninth inning might have been greeted with the sound of a single church bell, tolling loud and slow.  The sound of a funeral.

Dustin Richardson emerged from the Leafs bullpen.  

A brief word about Dustin Richardson.  At all times, the look on his face is grim.  His entire demeanour is one of quiet grimness.  In a parallel universe, Richardson is the hospital doctor who comes to tell you your loved one isn't going to make it.  Or he's the man at the funeral home who moves everyone along without batting an eye.  In our universe, he brings that same grim finality to baseball games.

He's ruthlessly efficient, too.  It took him six pitches to record three outs and the game ended 6-4.  It was his third save of the postseason, and Deska's third win.  

The series is now tied 1-1.  Two more wins will capture the Dominico Cup.  The Leafs have regained the momentum that has carried them along for most of this postseason ride, and they will look to seize control of this series Tuesday night in London.

London 4 8 0
Toronto 6 13 0

W - Deska (3-0, 5.82)
L - Boon (1-1, 3.00)
S - Richardson (3)


Game 3 of this series goes Tuesday night at Labatt Park in London, with the first pitch at 7:35 pm.