Feb. 27, 2007
IT'S A SCHMAL WORLD...
Last weekend was our chance to go on the road and get a feel for just what sort of team we might be this season. Our opponents in the Rice Invitational would provide the biggest weekend challenge to date. Rice and Nebraska were both ranked in all the major polls and Texas A&M Corpus Christi brought a 9-0 record to Houston.
We flew out of Miami International Airport Thursday afternoon. Unbeknownst to me, our Friday night starter, Mickey Storey didn't have his driver's license. In this era of heightened security scrutiny, that's not a good thing. But Mick flashed his student ID and was waved onboard. There must be some FAU fans in Miami after all.
It was Rodeo Week in Houston, so naturally we found a 300 lb pregnant cow grazing in a pen in the lobby of our hotel. There was plenty of straw on the ground and a couple of hay bales, upon one of which stood the biggest bottle of Jim Beam I'd ever seen. I didn't think it was good to drink when pregnant, but maybe it's different for cattle.
Rice freshman Diego Seastrunk hit a low and away pitch from Storey over the right field fence in the second to give Rice a 2-0 lead. We managed to threaten in the next three innings, but were unable to break through until a Widlansky double and a wild pitch led to Mike McKenna's groundout rbi in the sixth made it 2-1.
In the seventh, Cook and Martin singled. After a failed bunt, some good third base coaching and hustle tied the game. Nick Arata grounded into an apparent 6-4-3 double play, but Nick's slide into first base narrowly beat the relay from the second baseman. As the Rice first baseman turned to the umpire to voice his disagreement with the call, Coach McCormack alertly kept Danny Cook coming around third to score the tying run.
Rice's Tyler Henley led off their half of the seventh with a triple. Storey struck out the next hitter and Chris Salberg came in and got the next two. The game was still tied. Salberg would strand another Rice runner at third in the eighth, but we failed to get anything going against the Rice pen.
The drama continued in the ninth with a Rice leadoff double, and an errant pick off attempt leading to a runner at third with none out. We guessed right on Coach Graham's first squeeze play in five years and pitched out to nail the runner at home. After getting the next out, we misplayed a ball which resulted in a Rice runner at second and their star hitter Joe Savery coming to bat.
Savery was mired in an early season slump and our scouting report said he struggled with soft stuff, so I replaced Salberg with Joel Schmal. Savery sent a 2-1 soft curve over the center field fence. I watched the ball sail out of Reckling Park, tore up the scouting report and went out to shake hands in a loss for the first time this year.
The next night we came out flat against a good Corpus Christi team and fell behind the Islanders 12-5. The weekend looked as bleak as the weather in Houston. I couldn't imagine pulling this one out.
But the one hallmark of this club seems to be resiliency and an attitude that they can always battle back in any game.
We needed some good relief to stem the tide against the Islanders. Justin Phillabaum came in and gave us two good innings. Then we rallied for seven runs of our own in the seventh to tie the game at 11-11. Justin Martin had a two run homer and Will Block added a bases loaded triple to pull us even. Ah, college pitching!
It was time to give Schmal another call.
Some guys would have a tough time coming back the day after giving up a walk off home run in a big game, but Joel's a tough kid and there was no hesitation in my mind. He held off the pesky Islanders over the last three innings and we had a big win in the bag.
After a good meal at The Armadillo Palace we got to bed ready to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers the next morning.
Sunday morning was the first sunny day of the weekend and I thought we would get some early momentum in the first inning when shortstop Nick Arata made one of the most spectacular plays I've seen. Running full tilt into left, with his back to the plate, Nick dove parallel to the ground to snag Jake Opitz' apparent bloop hit and turn it into an inning ending double play.
But our pitching and defense didn't hold up as well throughout the day. It seemed each time we scored, Nebraska came right back at us. Salberg entered again and did a good job, allowing only one run over the last five innings, but it was too late. Robbie Widlansky had two home runs, one of which cleared the clock on the massive Rice scoreboard. Arata not only played great shortstop, he batted .545 with two clutch doubles on the weekend.
Our plane was delayed and we didn't arrive in Miami until after 1:00 AM. By the time we got back to Boca it was 2:30 AM and we were scheduled to bus up to Jupiter at 9:30 for an exhibition game with the St. Louis Cardinals.
I was getting into bed at 3:20 when my phone rang.
No phone conversation is a good one at that time. It was Joel Schmal. He was in the emergency room with what appeared to be appendicitis. Joel said he'd call back when they were certain.
After breakfast I stopped by the ER to see Joel. He was waiting for the surgeon. They would operate right about the seventh inning of the Cardinals' game. Schmal's a Cubs fan, but he didn't want to miss the Cards for this!
We lost 3-2 in Jupiter, though we out hit St. Louis. Widlansky hit a bomb that nearly hit Puljos as he was walking to their clubhouse in right. I saw Joel when I got back. He was groggy, but there were no complications.
That night I reintroduced myself to my family, and prayed Schmal was as fast a healer as he is tough.