The Hammond Bears, only the fourth team in county history to reach the state baseball championship game, remained composed after a 15-3 defeat by Northeast (Anne Arundel) Saturday.
They realized going into the game that they faced the most formidable task of any team in the four finals held at McCurdy Field in Frederick: They had to knock off an undefeated Class 2A team that was averaging 13 runs per game, a team that beat the Bears 15-4 earlier in the season.
The Northeast Eagles also had scored in double digits while thrashing Centennial, Oakland Mills and Mount Hebron, the next-best teams in the county this year. Northeast, one of the best-hitting teams ever assembled in the Baltimore area, was ranked eighth nationally by Collegiate Baseball magazine, and 17th by USA Today going into Saturday's game.
The Eagles' record last year was 22-1; they were upset inthe state semifinals. They were 23-0 coming into Saturday's game.
Hammond Coach Bob Maxey described the Bears' chances realistically: "I thought if we played solid defense, and Joe (Nestor) pitched really well and they (Northeast) were off their sticks a bit, then it would be a close game."
But Hammond (19-5), a strong defensive team all season, played terrible defense, making five official errors and several other poor plays. They botched two potential double plays.
And Nestor (9-3) didn't pitch well, surrendering seven hits and walking seven batters in three innings. He also faced five batters in the fourth inning without getting an out before he was removed from the mound.
Nestor, who pitched the entire game Tuesday, walked only one person in that two-hit, 7-0, semifinal victory over Edgewood. And he had walked just 20 batters in more than 76 innings this season.
"Ithought if I could hold them to three runs, we could win it," said Nestor, whose solo home run in the second inning provided the Bears with a shocking 2-0 lead. "But I just couldn't do it."
Hammond scored once in the first inning, when Jeff Cyran reached on a two-base error and scored on a single by Jeff Lavis.
That 2-0 lead had many people wondering whether Northeast's 23-game winning streak was in jeopardy.
But the game turned out much like the first meeting between the two teams. Hammond led early and Nestor homered in that one too. But Northeast stormed back with relentless hitting.
"Northeast didn't have any weaknesses in its line-up, one through nine," Maxey said. "You can't afford to give that kind of team an inch. They could give the Hagerstown Suns and Frederick Keys a run for their money with that hitting."
Six Northeast players entered Saturday's game with batting averages above .400.
Northeast's No. 7 batter had three hits in the game, including a two-run triple. And their No. 8 batter hada two-run double and a walk. The clean-up batter had two hits, including a triple, and the lead-off batter homered, singled, walked and drove in three runs.
Every starting hitter in Northeast's line-up reached base at least once.
The Eagles scored six runs in the second inning and seven in the fourth, batting around both innings. In between, they squeezed out two more runs in the third inning.
In fourplayoff games, Northeast out-scored its opponents, 63-8.
Nestor, a senior left-hander, was relieved by Mike Lerner (8-1) in the fourthinning, and the senior right-hander threw three innings, allowing three hits, walking none and fanning three.
Lerner was more rested than Nestor, who pitched a complete game Tuesday. And he was definitely more effective.
"Did I start the wrong guy? Maybe. But I can't second-guess," Maxey said.
Hammond's top hitter this season, Jeff Lavis, had a simple summation for what happened: "We didn't hit like we can, and they did."
But the Bears actually hit much better than their box-score total of five hits indicates. They just hit with poorluck.
The top of the third inning was pivotal. The Eagles had scored six runs in the bottom of the second, and Hammond needed to retaliate.
Mike Alvarez, a right-handed batter, led off with a drive toright-center that ordinarily would have been a double or triple. ButNortheast's outfield was positioned perfectly.
"They obviously scouted us well and knew that he hits the ball there a lot," Maxey said.
Matt Cyran followed with a single to left. Jeff Cyran reached onan error by Northeast pitcher Charlie Buckheit (11-0), who did not walk a batter.
Then Lavis smacked a line drive that Northeast second baseman K. C. Murphy snared. Murphy easily doubled Cyran off first to end the inning.
Nestor lined a shot to shortstop in the fourth that was caught, and Jeff Busick and Alvarez both knocked base hits in the fifth off Buckheit. Busick scored Hammond's third run on a sacrifice fly by Matt Cyran. Jeff Cyran ended the inning by grounding outto third base.
"Buckheit threw mainly heat, but he was hittable,"Lavis said.
Maxey thought the game should have been much closer than the 15-3 score.
"Northeast is a good quality team, maybe the best in state history, but the final score was not indicative of what it could have been," Maxey said. "The ump was a major factor. He wouldn't give us the low strike, and with those kinds of hitters, you can't afford to get behind in the count."
Maxey said seven of Northeast's 10 hits were off fastballs. "They were ignoring the curves and sliders and sitting on the fastball," Maxey said.
The hip injury that forced Nestor to miss a start in the regionals was improved by Saturday, he said. And he thought he had all of his pitches working well.
"We needed to play a perfect game to win, and we didn't," Maxey said. "But we had a great season, and I'm happy we got this far. It'sbeen fun. This is the best team I've coached overall."
The only county team to win a state title was Glenelg in 1983. The 1980 Mount Hebron Vikings made the finals, as did the 1979 Glenelg team.