Aces’ Historic Season Ends in Heartbreaking Wild Card Game

The Thunderbolts trailed by 11 runs at one point, but they rallied to win the game in extra innings

Bethesda, MD – by: Paul Fritschner – There was a point in Monday’s Wild Card game around the fifth inning where, in looking at the box score, it appeared as though the Aces were back to their peak form from earlier in the season. The lineup was placing hits all over the field, Andrew Coker (Clemson) was locked in on the mound, and the Aces were cruising against the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts. Winning 13-2 at the end of the fifth inning, Alexandria was in the driver’s seat and looked to be a substantial playoff threat. However, it all came crashing down as the Thunderbolts stormed back and eventually won the game in the tenth inning.

Because of a substantial amount of rain, the game was moved to the Bethesda Big Train’s Shirley Povich Field. It didn’t matter where the game was, because it started fast for the Aces, as Ray Zuberer (Western Kentucky) and Max Schuemann (Eastern Michigan) reached to lead off in the bottom of the first. That set up Nick Slaughter (Houston) who hit a home run to put the Aces up 3-0.

In the third, Schuemann singled, Slaughter did the same, and Eli Boggess (Morehead State) walked with nobody out. Mack Nathanson (Wofford) stepped into the box and demolished a grand slam that, at the time, broke the game open as the Aces extended their lead to seven.

In the fourth, after the T-Bolts scored to get on the board, the Aces responded with three of their own. Slaughter doubled in Schuemann, and Nathanson doubled in Boggess. Alexandria had their foot on the gas pedal and were not letting up, as the scoreboard at that point read 10-1.

Silver Spring-Takoma scored another run in the top of the fifth, but right on cue the Aces answered in the bottom half. Schuemann singled for his fourth hit, Slaughter singled him in, and after Boggess singled, Nathanson hit another double to drive in two more runs. At that point, it was 13-2, but the comeback was about to take place.

Hughes Page (Virginia) replaced Coker for the sixth inning. The frame started with a double and a groundout, but then it spiraled out of control from there. The next eight batters scored. After seven batters, Chase Evans (West Florida) replaced Page, but the hits and runs kept coming. The inning went like this: double-groundout-walk-walk-double-double-walk-double-single-single-single-flyout-flyout. All in all, the T-Bolts sent 13 batters to the plate. Eight of the nine members of their lineup scored, the inning’s leadoff batter scored twice, and everyone at least reached scoring position. When the inning was finally over, Alexandria still held a 13-11 lead, but all of a sudden the mood had shifted from lighthearted to tense in a matter of minutes.

The scoring stopped until the bottom of the seventh, when the Aces got an insurance run on an Ethan Cady (Lipscomb) single that scored Slaughter. With the score 14-11, Kevin Kelly (James Madison) took the mound, and pitched a very effective seventh and eighth, allowing only one run to keep the Aces in front. That run scored in the eighth, but then he was able to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth when the T-Bolts had the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run on first. Heading into the ninth, the Aces were clinging to that two-run lead.

Dom Masullo (Morehead State) emerged from the bullpen, and the Aces’ closer needed three outs to send Alexandria to Baltimore. The first batter he faced flew out to right, and the T-Bolts were down to their final two outs. Then, things started to unravel. Masullo had only walked two batters during the entire regular season, but he walked the next two batters he faced. With one out and two on, a double tied the game at 14. The Thunderbolts, at one point down 13-2 in the sixth inning, had clawed all the way back and tied the game. Masullo got the next two outs to tie the game, but the Aces now had to hit. A walk was a promising start in the bottom of the ninth, but a strikeout and a double play ended the inning and sent the game to extra innings.

Daniel Buratto (Santa Barbara CC) was tasked with the tenth inning. He got the first batter he faced to hit a long fly ball to center field, but then disaster struck. DaVonn Griffin (James Madison) settled under it, but the ball popped out of his glove and dropped to the field. Williams went into second, and the go-ahead run was in scoring position with nobody out. Two batters later, Alex Yi-Chen Jou swung on top of a ball and hit it barely a foot out of the batter’s box. The baseball sat right on the third base line as Slaughter picked it up to throw. The ball sailed way over Nathanson’s head at first base and down the right field line, allowing Williams to score and the Thunderbolts to take the lead.

The bottom of the tenth was quiet for Alexandria. The first two hitters grounded out, but Kam Smith (Northern Illinois) walked to keep the inning alive. Todd Elwood (UNC Charlotte) was the last batter, and he grounded out to second to end the game. A somber Aces squad emerged slowly from the dugout as the T-Bolts celebrated, and after the teams shook hands, the reality of what had just happened began to set in. The Thunderbolts had rallied from being down 13-2 to win by a final score of 15-14.

Andrew Coker came through with a great performance as the starting pitcher. He threw five innings, allowed two runs (only one of which was earned) on six hits, and struck out two while not issuing a walk.

In the first five innings alone, the Aces had 16 hits. Both Slaughter and Nathanson were a triple shy of the cycle, and the Aces had sent at least seven men to the plate in four of those five innings. The first five innings were something out of a dream, and the next five innings were straight out of a nightmare. Needless to say, even after the offense went cold in the second half of the game, all of that firepower from the beginning should have been more than enough to propel the Aces to the second round of the playoffs. Max Schuemann finished 4-5 with a walk, four singles, and four runs scored. Nick Slaughter was 5-6 with a home run, two doubles, two singles, five runs scored, and five runs batted in. Mack Nathanson was 3-6 with a grand slam, a single, a double, two runs scored, and seven runs batted in. The first five batters in the Aces’ order, Zuberer, Schuemann, Slaughter, Boggess, and Nathanson, scored all 14 runs.

The players gathered for a post-game meal, before milling around and saying their goodbyes. As the final few hugs and handshakes concluded, the lights were turned off at Shirley Povich Field without any warning. Just like the lights of the stadium, the lights of the season had been turned off just as suddenly only a few minutes earlier. The team got in their cars and drove away, anxious for the chance to rejoin their families back home and enjoy a couple of weeks of freedom before fall classes begin. The team spoke highly of their time in historic Alexandria, and seemed to enjoy all of those hours spent together, whether it was winning 28 games or simply playing “2 ball” after batting practice. There was a lot to be proud about this summer. The Aces sent six players to the All Star game, and as a team, they won the most games in the history of the organization. For the first time ever, they were ranked in the national poll, and at one point were even as high as number four in the rankings. In the end though, it was the same crushing result as 2016 – a playoff exit in the Wild Card game to a team they had not lost to in the regular season.