Runners stood at the corners with nobody out in the sixth inning Monday as the Holly Springs Salamanders looked to build on their 1-0 lead over the Martinsville Mustangs. But after a groundout and a double play, the opportunity vanished with little fanfare.
The Salamanders went on to win the season finale 2-0 behind a ninth-inning save from shortstop Danny Sheehan, who hadn’t pitched all season but relished a ray of spotlight given to him as a good gesture from manager Andrew Ciencin.
Just like Monday’s sixth-inning, the Salamanders’ 2016 campaign was rife with potential and flashes of what could be. But also just like that inning – one of 493 played during the Salamander’s 22-32 season – that potential never materialized.
It did rear its head though.
From June 20 to July 17, the Salamanders won 12 out of 19 games to bridge the end of the season’s first half with the beginning of its second. Holly Springs had new life, its record inching toward .500 as this group of college students chased those last precious days of summer.
But as the sun faded, so too did the Salamanders, dropping 13 of the final 18 games to slip out of contention for a second straight playoff bid.
“There was a lot of two-steps-forward and three-steps-back. And in baseball, that’s really hard to do and hard to win that way,” Ciencin said. “We had to play consistently every night and we just didn’t do it and that’s where it hurt us. We’d pitch well one night but wouldn’t hit. We never really put a complete game together.”
But not all was for naught.
The Salamanders saw over 34,000 fans slide through the gates at the North Main Athletic Complex (nearly 1,200 per game). They were treated to 11 home wins, including a record-breaking night of 17 runs and 21 hits in a June 20 win over Fayetteville. Ten days later, proving just how fickle baseball can be, the Salamanders needed 15 innings to plate just three runs against the same Fayetteville team in a game that lasted over four hours.
The fans were treated to Dillon Stewart, a native of Coats, N.C. – a tiny town located just 22 miles south along N.C. Highway 55 – who finished 15th in the CPL among players with at least 100 at-bats (.340), fourth in slugging percentage (.590), tied for fourth in home runs (10) and third in total bases (111).
They were treated to J.T. Rogoszewski, whose name nobody could pronounce but whose six wins were good for a tie for second.
They were treated to Sheehan, who led the CPL in assists with 142. It was a fitting end to the season when the final batter of the game grounded one back to Sheehan, who tossed the ball to first base for one final assist before he returns to his home in southern California.
Two former and one current Salamanders players were taken in the Major League Baseball draft. The team adopted a real life mascot – Xander, an actual salamander – while the other mascot, Sal, not an actual Salamander, went 0-for-the-season racing kids around the bases.
There was Superhero Saturday and Scout Night and Military Appreciation Night. There were dizzy bat races and dance-offs. There were long bus rides, one of which ended in a rainout before the players ever stepped on the field, and long balls, such as the second-place homerun derby performance put on by Stewart, the team’s lone all-star selection.
Most of all though, players from all over the country spent a summer in a strange town in North Carolina living together, traveling together and playing ball together.
“Coming out here and playing in front of the fans and playing in this atmosphere every night, it’s a good growing experience for them,” Ciencin said. “It’s definitely an experience.”
The Salamanders players will soon return to their respective schools to begin class and resume their old lives. North Main Athletic Complex will go into hibernation for the winter.
Opening day is just around the corner.