American Legion Twins coach John Butler wasn't surprised with his team's performance during the second game of a doubleheader against visiting Service on Wednesday afternoon.
He expects that high level of play.
But the cirumstances under which the Twins rebounded in the second game following their 5-1, error-filled loss to the Cougars in the opener left Butler, well, surprised.
"It was an entirely different group of guys that came out and played the second ball game," he said of their 10-3, seven-inning victory at Coral Seymour Memorial Park, during which the Twins recorded just a pair of errors after making six in the opener. "They're capable of playing even better than what they even played.
"I don't give them a whole lot of praise sometimes," Butler laughed, "but today because they bounced back after such a horrific first game, and bounced back and played fairly solid, we see how the improvement's going to go."
It wasn't merely that the Twins -- who have now split their first three doubleheaders to begin the season in keeping par at 3-3 overall -- committed only two blunders in the second game, once in the first inning and again in the third, but it was the plays they did make that gave Butler a reason to smile.
It looked as if the Cougars (4-3 overall, 4-2 league) were going to strike first, but a couple of nifty defensive plays behind starter and winner Tyler Marcuson prevented the early lead.
With runners on second and third after Marcuson allowed a leadoff single to Jack Cronin and Stephen Ferntheil reached on an error by shortstop Josh Gilbert, both runners advanced on a double steal before Gilbert redeemed himself in a major way.
He fielded a sharp grounder and rather than taking the easy out at first, Gilbert fired home to catcher Justice Elson, who applied a quick tag to nab Cronin at the plate.
And before the next pitch was even thrown, Marcuson caught Garrett Brown in a rundown between first and second, jump-starting an unusual 1-4-3-6-2 putout that nailed Ferntheil at the plate in escaping the first unharmed.
"It was good to see that everybody was paying attention on where to go," Butler said, adding his team had recently worked on catching early steals in practice. "It wasn't quite as pretty as what we worked on in practice. We had a couple too many throws, but overall, they knew it and they did try to execute it.
"At least the brain was working and knew where to throw the ball."
The Twins (1-2 league) weren't so lucky in the second inning, though, when Cory Crabb reached on an infield single, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a two-out, full-count single up the middle by Trace Woodruff.
After playing error-free baseball in the first game, the Cougars, fielding a handful of backups and younger players in the second contest, were plagued by miscues in the bottom of the second.
Mikey Griffin, who reached on a throwing error by shortstop Ferntheil, took second when starter Sam Sewell's pick-off attempt sailed past the first baseman and then tied the game on an RBI single by Justice Elson.
A fielding error by Woodruff allowed Steven Steger to reach base and Elson to score. Steger then came home on a passed ball and Marcuson, who singled to center, made it 4-1 when he scored from second on another errant pick-off throw by Sewell.
"That one hurt there," Butler said. "That actually gave us a little life."
Meanwhile, Marcuson settled in, retiring 10 of the next 11 batters he faced, the lone baserunner reaching on an error, before allowing two more earned runs in the sixth on three singles and a hit batter.
"Way best so far," Butler said of Marcuson's third outing of the season, in which he allowed seven hits while striking out five and walking none in a complete-game effort. "Tyler pitched really a good ball game. Around the plate and that's all we can ask."
The Twins struck for three more runs in the fourth when Steger and Jake Darrow opened the frame with walks, Steger scoring on a single by Gilbert and Darrow coming home when reliever Aaron Miller was called for a balk. Gilbert then crossed on Vinnie Madrid's liner up the middle for a commanding 7-1 cushion.
They made it 8-1 in the fifth on an RBI single by Marcuson and after the Cougars cut it to 8-3 in the sixth, the Twins came right back with two more runs in their half of the inning when Mitchell Thompson was hit by a pitch and scored on a grounder by Elson, who later scored on a passed ball.
Butler was content with another twin-bill split considering he fielded just nine guys for both games, as four players are injured and two weren't there.
"This winter when I was looking at the names on paper, I liked the team. I still like the team. I don't like a couple of the results that we've had, but I still like the team," he said. "Once we get everybody together, I think we're still going to be OK.
"We told everybody going into the season, if we can just not start 0-8, we'll look on the bright side," Butler added of last year's start. "The thing was because we don't have everybody here yet we're not disappointed. We're disappointed in some of the things that we have worked on that we don't execute to where our standards are, but it's coming. You can see that the guys are improving after each practice and after each ball game."
Especially after the first game. Gilbert tossed a gem in the opener, allowing just a single run on two hits and a walk through seven innings and 93 pitches.
The six errors overall didn't help, though.
"He was throwing the ball extremely well," Butler said, adding Gilbert could have tossed another inning. "It was just our decision we didn't want him to throw anymore."
Trailing 1-0 after Service scored in the sixth, Griffin relieved Gilbert and allowed four runs -- three earned -- on two hits in two innings of work.
"We're facing one of the tougher guys in the league," Cougars coach Ken Wooster said of Gilbert. "Our guys said that's probably one of the hardest throwing guys they've seen and I would have to agree with them.
"We're just happy to come out with the W against Gilbert. I'm sure we'll see him again."
Service made it 4-0 in the eighth when Cronin plated three runs on a bases-loaded triple with two outs.
The Twins found success with two outs in the eighth, too, when Gilbert also tripled and scored on a single by Marcuson before the Cougars scored once more in the ninth and held on for the win.
"He has been playing really well. We just see a big upside for him," Butler said of Marcuson, who went 2-for-4 in the second game. "And that's what we try to tell all these guys is that we know they're capable, but they just have to work toward reaching their goal."
Cougars 5, Twins 1, Game 1
Service 000 001 031 -- 5 4 0
Twins 000 000 010 -- 1 6 6
Brown, Grenier (9) and Nealley; Gilbert, Griffin (8) and Marcuson. W -- Brown. L -- Gilbert. 2B -- Service: Beard. 3B -- Service: Cronin; Twins: Gilbert. LOB -- Service 7, Twins 10.
Twins 10, Cougars 3, 7 inn., Game 2
Service 010 002 0 -- 3 7 6
Twins 040 312 x -- 10 7 2
Sewell, Miller (4) and Crabb; Marcuson and Elson. W -- Marcuson. L -- Sewell. LOB -- Service 6, Twins 8.
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