April 24, 2006
Our weekend series at Belmont University offered us a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was to win a series against the last place Bruins and avoid falling into the cellar ourselves; the opportunity was to jump up in the standings in our quest to qualify for the Atlantic Sun Tournament.
Our last trip to Nashvegas and Belmont was a rain soaked weekend that ended happily with half our team on a plane to get home for exams, while twelve of us stayed behind and won the final game of the series helped by a ninth inning triple play. As we landed in Nashville, it looked as though the forecast held more of the same.
We were quickly rained out Friday, as early morning storms washed out any chance of playing that afternoon. Most of the team headed for a mall and the movies. A full day off on the road is not exactly what I'd hoped for. This series was too big, and I didn't need all the free time to think about its ramifications.
My usual road trip guilt kicked in especially hard as I idled away the day. MB has friends in Nashville and it would have been nice to bring her along, but I hadn't made any of the necessary arrangements. Finding someone to care for two rugrats, a dog, and five cats complicated the thought, but the guilt hung over me like the weather.
Saturday dawned beautifully, and Mickey Storey was on the mound, and on top of his game. He held the Bruins scoreless for three while we took an early 2-0 lead thanks to Travis Ozga's home run. We eventually scored six times and held on as Mike Crotta finished the eighth and got his save in the ninth.
It was all Belmont in the second game, as they came out swinging and running the bases to the tune of a 5-0 lead after two innings. Josh Moffit struck out 11 for Belmont in a complete game 10-2 win.
My hopes for a series sweep were gone, and the sinking feeling in my stomach Saturday night was a reflection of our sinking conference standing. But this seems to be a year where everyone beats up on each other in conference play, and this weekend was no different.
Sunday's results presented us with a chance to move into sixth if we could pull out a win in the rubber game. Actually, we would be in fourth place as far as qualifying goes. Kennesaw and North Florida are ineligible for post season play, so sixth place becomes fourth. I'll take that.
Sunday started cloudy, but FAU was hot.
Brandon Cooney was sharp as each inning passed without a Belmont hit, while our guys got on the board in the fifth. Alex Silversmith walked, and Ozga delivered a perfect hit and run single to right, sending Alex to third. Danny Cook drove in the first run with a bunt single, and Block moved both runners over with a bunt of his own.
Mario Duarte is a freshman who plays great defense in centerfield. His job this season was supposed to be replacing McBryde in center when Mike would come in to close out games. The best laid plans of mice and men were torn apart, along with McBryde's hamstring. The loss of so many good offensive players this year has prevented us from playing a defensive guy in the outfield. At the airport, Mario and I had a long talk about his current and future situation in the program. I told him he would be playing against lefthanders, and to be ready.
Block's bunt brought Mario to the plate with runners at second and third. Our "defensive specialist" drove the first pitch over his counterpart's head in centerfield for a two run double, and a 3-0 lead.
We added two more runs in the sixth.
Danny Cook laced a leadoff double to right. I told Will Block to move Cook over by driving him in...it didn't really make sense, but I knew what I meant- so did Block, who drove a triple into the right center gap. Jordan Hafer took advantage of a dropped foul ball and knocked in Block with our second double of the inning.
A 5-0 lead in the sixth, with a no hitter in progress, things were looking as bright as the sun which had broken through the clouds. In the seventh, the Bruins finally got to Brandon with a leadoff double and a run scoring single. Things still looked good, but everything was about to change.
Belmont closed to within three on a solo blast by Wilson Tucker. Two walks, and a single later, the lead was down to two as we entered the bottom of the ninth.
It was hot and getting hotter. The pressure was squarely on us to finish off the momentum that was building. After Mike Crotta got the first out, Matt Reynolds tied it at five apiece with a clutch home run, and it was time for extra innings- four extra innings to be precise.
Mike Crotta hung tough as both teams battled to push across a run. Will Block did a nice job of holding his position on a steal, and successfully fielding a grounder with a runner at third to end the 11th. We had addressed that particular facet of infield play just before game time. Belmont runs a lot to take you out of your game, but Will remembered and we played on.
Silversmith led off the 13th with a single. I had told Travis Ozga between innings that he wouldn't be bunting if Sil reached base. We had bunted at least seven times this weekend, and Travis is a long ball threat. I told him to look for a fastball and try to drive it.
A passed ball moved Silversmith to second. Coach Fossas, who had agreed with not bunting, now felt the bunt was in order. If we got the runner to third, we could squeeze with Arata, a good bunter playing with a sore shoulder. It made sense, but I didn't want to get into a guessing match with Coach Jarvis about which pitch we'd be squeezing on. I liked our chances of Ozga driving the winning run from second.
Travis jumped on a high fastball and sent a deep fly to right center. For a moment I thought he got it all, but the sac fly moved Silversmith to third with one out.
Coach Jarvis brought the infield in, and I prepared to outguess the pitchout-the only way to defend a suicide squeeze. The first pitch was a strike. I hadn't wanted to go on that pitch; it's too easy for him to pitch out. But with an 0-1 count, Belmont was in the driver's seat.
I gambled, waited on another pitch-and lost.
The squeeze was out of the plan, now we needed Arata to put the ball in play. After a ball and two foul balls, Nick bounced a grounder to second. Silversmith broke for home but was going to be out by ten feet. He wisely pulled up as our entire dugout shouted "rundown!" As the Belmont infielders chased Silversmith for the second out, Arata slid safely into scoring position at second.
Will Block, Arata's teammate on two state championship teams at Nova High School, stepped in, fought off a couple of tough 1-2 pitches and chopped a high hopper just over the head of the Belmont third baseman, as his Nova buddy raced home with the go ahead run.
Belmont refused to go away.
The first two runners reached base off Crotta, who was now in his fifth inning of relief. I went to the mound and reminded Mike that they didn't bunt in this same situation two years ago when they tried a double steal which resulted in the triple play on a line drive to third.
They didn't bunt-instead a flyball to centerfield and a mental error by FAU resulted in the tying run advancing to second when we threw to the wrong base.
A long, hot day, a blown save, maybe our playoff hopes...all of these were staring 6-7 Mike Crotta in the face.
Mike Reynolds had already homered, and is a line drive hitter. I didn't want to face him with runners at second and third, so we walked Reynolds to set up the double play. A leather lunged fan yelled "You just walked a guy to face a .350 hitter!"
I was praying for a double play because I didn't want to face Wilson Tucker with the game on the line. He's Belmont's best player and most dangerous hitter. Ben Petsch lofted a pop up to short for the second out. There would be no DP- Crotta would have to face Tucker.
Mike threw a changeup first pitch and Tucker missed with a vicious cut.
There's no place to hide in these situations. It's just the guy on the mound looking in for a sign, and a hitter taking his practice swings and getting set to hit- no retreat, no surrender.
Crotta wound up and delivered a fastball that Tucker bounced to short. Arata gobbled it up and the game was over.
We "showered" in the sink at the field and changed in the parking lot...there was a plane to catch and not much time.
As we left the great state of Tennessee, I started thinking about next weekend and Jacksonville, thankful that we are moving in the right direction, and proud of our guys who all refused to surrender.