March 13, 2007
THE WILD, WILD, WEST...
Western Kentucky was the first Sun Belt Conference series in this, our inaugural season in our new conference. For years we have been competing in the Atlantic Sun Conference, and its predecessor the Trans America Athletic Conference. But with the addition of football at FAU, the powers that be sought a football playing affiliation.
This has created a few problems, most of which are related to travel. I spent most of last Thursday trying to make flight arrangements for our trip to Louisiana-Monroe. There were some crazy flight plans tossed around before we finally came up with one that worked. Not only do I not know where all the good barbeque restaurants are located in these towns, I don't even know where the towns are located!
After an uneventful flight to Nashville, we arrived by bus in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Most of our guys walked to Steak and Shake for a midnight snack, but I took a rain check. The morning was spent picking up vans for our local transportation and scouting the town for the next two days' meals.
I feel more like a traveling secretary than a coach.
Friday night's game was one of those whose box score didn't come close to reflecting the actual game. We held a tight 2-1 lead until we exploded in the eighth for ten runs- nail biter to blowout in the blink of an eye. Mike O'Bradovich pitched a great game for us in his first Friday night start. We had a nice meal at the Montana Grill right by the hotel, and everyone went to bed happy and full.
No one could have dreamed what lay ahead on Saturday.
I've been involved in some wild games during my 33 years of coaching baseball, but last Saturday might rank at the top. It would be tough to reconstruct the errors , hits, hit batsmen, balks, wild pitches, and stirring comebacks by both teams, so I'm just going to focus on the last three innings.
We scored a run in the seventh to finally tie the game at seven apiece. But the Hilltoppers roared back with two in their half to lead 9-7. The ugly eighth proved a precursor of trouble to follow.
After two quick outs, Justin Martin got us started thanks to an infield error. Nick Arata did the same on a two base throwing error to put both runners in scoring position. The Western Kentucky pitcher then balked and Martin scored and Arata went to third. Will Block struck out, but shades of Mickey Owen, the ball got past the catcher and Arata scored the tying run and Block was safely at first base.
What else could go wrong for Western?
Bomback struck out, but, déjà vu all over again, Danny got to first as the go ahead run reached second. Our leading RBI guy, Robbie Widlansky stepped in, but the Western pitcher was up to the challenge. This time, so was the catcher, as he held on to strike three and the inning was over.
Chris Salberg jogged in from the pen and quickly dispatched the Hilltoppers in their half of the eighth.
On to the ninth.
Justin Martin had taken a foul ball off his kneecap in the eighth. He rolled around in the Kentucky clay for about ten minutes, but refused to leave the game. In the ninth he stood in the same red clay with two outs and runners at first and third. Still looking a bit wobbly, Marty drilled a two strike pitch for a double and we had our first lead since Mike McKenna's homerun four hours before in the first inning.
Salberg on the mound in the ninth with a two run lead in a zany game, what could go wrong?
The first batter hit a little nubber nine feet in front of home plate. Martin (a hero three minutes ago) limped out and grabbed the slow roller. The runner was directly in his way, so Marty tried to toss it over the runner's head to Ozga at first base. It went over the runner's head, over Ozga's head, and disappeared in the dark of the outfield, while the WKU batter raced into third base.
Like a contestant on Deal Or No Deal, who just watched the $500,000 case go off the board, I told myself, "It's alright..."
Tyler Bumgarner pinch hit and promptly reached on an error which scored a run and put the tying run at second. Are you kidding me? What else could happen?
How about a wild pitch? Bumgarner, catching his breath at third, was ninety feet from tying things up again. It didn't take long, as Jack Ambrose hit a ground ball that we threw away, tying the game for the last time.
There was still no one out.
I pictured the witch in the Wizard of OZ melting before our eyes.
Salberg walked Adam Duvall and the winning run moved up to second base. Before I could get a read on how Coach Chris Finwood would play it, Scott Kaskie got hit by a pitch, and the bases were loaded with none out.
The $1,000,000 case was off the board.
We brought Danny Cook in from center, tossed him an infielder's glove and hoped for a miracle.
The Twilight Zone continued as Terrence Dayleg slashed a hard groundball down the third base line. Block backhanded the ball on the foul side of the line and alertly threw home, not waiting for the umpire's call. Unfortunately, Coach Finwood was standing with his back turned, about five feet from Block. The throw slammed off the back of Finny's head and he crumpled to the ground. Everyone held their breath as Chris slowly got to his feet and tried to figure out what had happened.
Salberg reached back and got us a clutch strikeout, so we moved the middle infielders back and hoped for a groundball they could turn for a DP. Cookie trotted back out to center. We still had a chance. The batter, Hamilton, isn't a fast runner, so a double play would get us into the tenth.
Hamilton hit a slow roller to short and my heart dropped. It would be too hard to turn, but I saw Hamilton chugging down the line and felt we had a chance with a good throw. But our third error of the inning sealed our fate, and the Hilltoppers had their win.
What should coaches say to their kids after a game like this one? That was the question I asked myself as we packed our gear. This game was history, and I needed to make our guys understand that fact. There was nothing we could do to change what just happened, but it was imperative not to let it affect what we needed to do tomorrow.
I vividly described to them what the game looked like, but I also called it an aberration. There was no way it reflected the true abilities of the players involved in our meltdown. Those players, and the rest of us, needed to move on to the next day expecting to play well and win
Sunday's pitching was thin for both teams. We have a severe case of the shorts because of Schmal's appendectomy, Kloess' knot in his shoulder, Storey's inflammation, and Kenny Gray's sore arm. Our hitters knew they had to top the Hilltoppers and we needed to play good defense.
Thanks to homeruns by Tyler Stevens, Robbie Widlansky, and Danny Cook, we held a 6-1 lead in the 6th. But five runs and four pitchers later, the Hilltoppers had knotted things up again. Didn't we see this movie already?
In the eighth, Western elected to walk Will Block with two outs, and Tyler Stevens on second. I would have done the same thing. Will had really swung the bat well the entire weekend- might as well turn the switch hitting Bomback around to the right side. The wind had been blowing out to right field all day. I thought Finny's strategy was sound.
Bomback launched a three run shot through the wind, and into the bullpen in left. We led 9-6.
We entered the ninth up two runs after surrendering one in the eighth. Any of this look familiar?
Salberg got two quick outs then gave up two hits and a walk to load the bases. Chris had tweaked a groin muscle in the 8th inning and was trying to gut it out for us. I called in Obradovich and gathered the troops on the mound. Do you think anyone remembered our defensive collapse last night?
"We've got `em right where we want them- bases loaded and two outs! The best thing about the bases being loaded is you don't have to make a throw. Just step on a base. It's simple." Those were going to be my last words that game.
On his second pitch, OB induced a hard shot right off Block's chest at third. Will scrambled for the ball, stretched and stepped on third, just like we drew it up.
If last weekend was any indication, it should be an interesting conference season.