March 16, 2007
BACK TO BACK TO BACK...
This week gave us our first back to back mid-week games. The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers and the Northern Illinois Huskies are in Florida on their spring breaks and were our respective opponents Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Rutgers game is always a favorite for me because it's "The State University of New Jersey", as they refer to themselves. For years the baseball program was not very competitive. Then they hired Fred Hill from Montclair State and he has put the program on the map of college baseball. Freddie's produced a crop of Big Leaguers and several regional teams. His shortstop, Todd Frazier is a potential first rounder this year.
For a 5'9 man, Fred Hill has always cast a big shadow. My first summer coaching job was in his hometown of Verona, NJ. I had many of his former Legion Championship players on my team in the Essex County League. They were college players then, and all spoke of "Moose" with a certain awe and reverence which I felt I would never command.
Nine years later I replaced Fred at Montclair and his crop of juniors and seniors took me to the Division III World Series. I received an award that year and said that I felt like a "step-father" receiving a "Father of the Year" award! Meanwhile, down on the banks of the Raritan River, Freddie was working his magic. There's not a harder working recruiter in America. When you factor in the lack of facilities and tradition at Rutgers, it was amazing to see the players he was able to produce.
So, I always felt I was trying to reach his standards back there in Jersey. When we finally won the National Championship in '87, all but one or two of the guys were kids I brought in, so I felt that just maybe I had finally lived up to my predecessor. But I've always known it was the foundation he built that led to the success of those teams at Montclair.
Every year we've played since I came to FAU, my feelings have been much like those of a younger brother trying to look good to his elder sibling. Plus, I want everyone in New Jersey reading the Star Ledger to see that Florida Atlantic has beaten Rutgers.
We all have our own set of demons that drive us.
We entered Tuesday night's game needing a good pitching performance from Brandon Cooney. The big righty (no relation) has not thrown to his capabilities. We had a long talk Monday in my office. Nothing was held back- what's the point? We are what we are, and on Tuesday, Brandon was a guy pitching for his life. A competitive start and we have a shot to beat Rutgers and he gets to go against Troy on Sunday. The alternative didn't need to be spelled out to him.
Todd Frazier hit Brandon's second pitch over the rightfield fence. In truth, it was a wind-blown fly ball, but we've hit a lot of those ourselves and they count. Brandon recovered from that start and pitched well despite not having his good fastball. He threw his curveball for strikes and kept a good offensive team off balance until he tired in the sixth.
Rutgers benefited from a failed double play and a bases loaded walk to take a 3-2, but in the bottom of the sixth our guys did something I haven't seen in my baseball life.
When your ninth hitter is batting, you're usually hoping for a bunt hit or maybe a walk. But this year Nick Arata has been a different hitter. The first pitch Nick saw in the sixth was blasted deep over the Rutgers bullpen in left.
Leadoff hitter Will Block, not to be outdone by his Nova HS teammate, jumped on the next Rutgers pitch, sending it deep into the night- back to back jacks!
It was now 5-4 FAU and Coach Hill brought in a lefthander to face switch hitting Danny Bomback. The last time that happened was Sunday when Danny hit the game winner at WKU. As the lefty peered in for the sign, I said to Mike McKenna, "Would one more be too much to ask?"
Another first pitch and another bomb, three pitches- three homeruns...not too shabby.
Bomback added another roundtripper over the scoreboard in the eighth to ice the game for us. It was another close game with the boys from Jersey, and another FAU win, running our streak to nine straight since 1999.
Wednesday was scheduled to be a game that would be in the hands of our bullpen. The only problem was that I couldn't use our main two guys- Alex Pepe and Chris Salberg. They had pitched a lot between the WKU series and the Rutgers game. We needed some offense and someone else in the pen to step up for us to win.
The hitters set the tone in the first when Bomback hit a homerun, giving him three in his last three at bats. Mike McKenna added a grand slam in the second and we had a seemingly safe 7-1 lead. Anthony Bradley delivered a solid two scoreless innings in relief as we built the lead to 9-3.
Arata and Block were both out of the lineup. Block had a 102 degree fever and Arata had rolled his ankle trying to high five a teammate after scoring against Rutgers the previous night. We had two position players on the bench, (if you counted Block huddled in the corner) and four available relievers.
The eighth saw Lou Morey get hurt with some of the cheapest hits you'd want to see. It was up to Andrew Tomlin to get us out of a bases loaded- no out jam. The tying run was on deck and Tomlin did a good job, but the Huskies had four runs and the lead was down to two. But again, the hallmark of this team seems to be the ability to respond in kind to the opponent's success. Our first four hitters singled and Widlansky's double pushed the lead to 13-7. Tomlin's scoreless ninth nailed it down and we escaped the mid-week with back to back wins.
Now we face Troy in our first conference series at home. Bobby Pierce's Trojans are the defending SBC Champs and a solid program. We will be without pitchers Mickey Storey and Joel Schmal, as well as starting catcher Alex Silversmith, but the trainer just called and Arata and Block are good to go.
Friday's forecast is for rain. No one wants to play a doubleheader Saturday, especially my players. They know that Saturday is St. Patrick's Day and all they'll here is Irish music. They can handle one game of that, but two would be a push.