The stage was set in the bottom of the ninth inning in Sunday's Intertown Twilight Baseball League Finals.
In a winner-take-all Game 5, the Manchester Essex Mariners and Rowley Rams were tied at two with one down in the inning and nobody on base. Rams righty Tim Cashman was in the middle of a heroic performance as he had gone 8 1/3 innings on just three days rest after winning Game 3 via shutout.
The Mariners' hitter, Rusty Tucker, was also in the middle of an incredible performance as he pitched nine innings.
After seeing a couple of pitches, Tucker got a pitch he could drive and tagged a liner to left center field that center fielder Joe Esposito got a beat on. Esposito, however, ran out of room and made a last ditch jump at the fence to try to bring the ball back into play.
Initially, Tucker and the Mariners bench, which started to pour out of the dugout on the first base side, thought Esposito came down with the ball and gazed out to the outfield in disbelief. But the ball bounced into the marsh behind the outfield fence, just over Esposito's outstretched glove for a championship clinching, walk-off homer to give the Mariners a 3-2 win.
"I thought he caught it at first and that was my reaction," Tucker said. "But as soon as I realized it got over, I just sprinted around the bases. It was very close, probably a couple of inches."
"I put a good swing on it, got the barrel and got just enough of it to get out. That was one of the most incredible games."
The Mariners now celebrate their first championship since 2016, their sixth in the last eight seasons and ninth in the last 12. The team has played in the ITL Finals eight straight seasons and on Sunday earned their spot back on top of the league after dropping two incredibly close series to the Rockport Townies in 2017 and 18.
But Sunday's winner-take-all was only two outs away from being a Rowley championship.
The Rams, who were down two games in the series and won Game 3 and Game 4 to force Sunday's game, were ahead 2-0 with one down in the bottom of the seventh inning, when the Mariners put together a rally.
Rory Gentile got it started by lining a single to right center. He then scored when Kellen Field doubled to deep right. Field went to third on an errant throw back into the infield and then came in with the tying run when Mike Cain's hard hit ball to the gap was deep enough to score Field from third. The run made it 2-2 and sent the game into extras.
Both pitchers, who battled for seven full innings, continued to show good stuff in extras.
Tucker, who allowed four hits in nine innings, got stronger as the game wore on and while he used his offspeed stuff to get outs early on, he started to rely on his heavy fastball in the later innings and limited baserunners, leading to quick innings.
The Rams got on the board early with a couple of good at bats to take a 1-0 lead after two. They extended that lead to 2-0 in the top of the sixth when Justin Bolla connected for a solo homer to left.
"It takes me a couple of innings to find my groove and settle in," Tucker said. "But I didn't feel any fatigue (in extra innings). There was a lot of adrenalin with what was at stake and that pushed me through."
On the other side, Cashman, who allowed six hits, was just as game as he retired the first 12 batters he faced by mixing up his pitches and pounding the strike zone.
The Mariners got something going in the fifth, loading the bases with nobody out. But Cashman started a 1-2-3 double play and then got a grounder to short to end the inning.
"You have to give Cashman a lot of credit, he can pitch," Tucker said. "He didn't throw many pitches down the middle and he was all over the corners. He throws a lot of different variations of his pitches so it's tough to tell what's coming."