Please excuse Hank Morgan. He really is stoked about his Peninsula Pilots reaching the Coastal Plain League championship series. He truly appreciates the team's players and fans, and he absolutely basked in Tuesday's elimination-game victory over nemesis Edenton.
It's just that the coach can't show it. Smiles are tough to come by, you see, when a weeks-old root canal goes awry and the subsequent infection throbs worse than a foul ball off the instep.
"I couldn't even celebrate last night," Morgan said Wednesday afternoon after an emergency dental appointment and trip to the pharmacy.
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War Memorial Stadium, Hampton, VA
Two reasons why Tuesday's 4-1, Game 3 conquest of the Edenton Steamers merited revelry: The win advanced the Pilots to the title series for the second time in five seasons — they host Game 1 against the Columbia Blowfish on Thursday — and it came in their little shop of horrors.
Dating to last season, Peninsula had lost 11 consecutive games at Edenton, including a suspended contest that began at War Memorial Stadium. Moreover, the Steamers were a league-best 40-11 during the regular season, 9-3 against the Pilots.
"The experience with that team has made us better," Morgan said. "I think our challenge now is, because that felt like the crescendo moment to have overcome a lot of those demons with them, we've got to be careful about thinking that we've just climbed the mountain.
"Maybe we can see the peak, but there's a goal in mind with these guys to finish it. We talk about how fleeting the opportunity is to win a championship at any level. Most people can count on one hand the amount of times they've had a chance to play for one, much less win one."
In 14 Coastal Plain seasons, the Pilots have never won the title. They dropped the final of a round-robin postseason tournament to the Thomasville HiToms in 2006, and three years later, under the current playoff format, they were swept in the best-of-3 championship series by the Forest City Owls.
As this year, Peninsula was set to host Game 1 in 2009 and travel for Games 2 and 3. But after rain washed out the opener, and more rain short-circuited the next afternoon's attempt after 12 minutes, the Pilots and Owls bussed to Forest City, where the home team won two straight.
Thursday's forecast looks ideal, but Morgan, conceding he can't control the weather, isn't glued to the radar.
"Maybe it's age," he said wryly. "I don't think it's wisdom."
Baseball smarts, however, prompted Morgan and pitching coach Chris Ochsenfeld to "piggy-back" their deep staff in tandems late in the regular season, and the strategy continued to flourish as Peninsula defeated the Wilmington Sharks and Edenton — both series went the maximum three games, and the Pilots are 3-0 in elimination contests.
Jared Lyons (Tabb High and Liberty University) and Brandon Vick (Warwick High and Longwood) teamed to shut down Edenton on Tuesday, leaving Josh Heddinger (Georgia Tech) and Brett Harris (Old Dominion) rested for Game 1 against the — can we get Darius Rucker to the games? — Blowfish.
In their lone meeting this regular season, Peninsula defeated visiting Columbia 5-2 last month as Heddinger allowed two hits and struck out five over six scoreless innings. Scott Burkett (Jamestown High and Longwood) drove in a pair of runs in that victory and broke a 1-all tie Tuesday with a 2-run, sixth-inning double.
Morgan has Justin Bhatti (Norfolk State) and Alex Regan (Mount Olive) penciled in for Game 2 and "all hands on deck" for Game 3, if necessary.
The Blowfish and Pilots rank 1-2 among CPL teams in stolen bases, unwelcome news to the respective pitching staffs, welcome to fans of aggressive baseball.
"We've had some moments where we were a bit reckless (on the bases)," Morgan said, "but I feel like even when you're a bit on the reckless side, you're doing something to put pressure on the opponent."
As the playoffs began, Morgan told his players how much he'd enjoyed the season and how cool it would be to "maximize the schedule and play nine more games together."
But wouldn't three postseason series sweeps have been easier on his blood pressure?
"I should have said six (games)," Morgan laughed.
"We've got some tough little nuggets on our club," he added. "Our kids are gonna get after it. They want to be here. It means something to them. That's pretty satisfying to me, to be able to get to the finish line and see excitement and passion for seeing something through."
Toward that end, several of the Pilots have delayed their return to college, and if they close the deal in Game 2 or 3, Morgan knows just where in Columbia, toothache notwithstanding, to mark the occasion.
"Five Points," he said, "would be a great place to celebrate our first championship."