May 24, 2005
THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA...
AND ON TO DELAND...
Last weekend saw FAU and UCF both on the road in the great state of Georgia. Our goal was to win two out of three from Georgia State and assure ourselves of finishing in third place in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The dreamers amongst us reminded me that if Mercer won their series with UCF, and we swept, FAU would then finish in second place.
This would be our third straight week playing against a Geogia team. We had payed well at Tech, losing a heartbreaker in the tenth, and winning the third game 2-0. Last week, we swept Mercer at home. It seemed that we have been playing our best down the stretch, but, second place?
We unloaded against Georgia State with a record setting performance at the plate. Led by Jonathan Shapland's 5-for-5, we set a team record with 10 doubles, giving Mickey Storey his eighth win. Mick went five and lowered his conference best era to 1.98.
The key to a good road trip usually revolves around our meals.
I don't like to give players their meal money. Left to their own devices, they will invariably eat poorly, spending their cash on card games and junk food. Our teams usually eat as a group. This gives us the chance to make the meal allotment go further. We usually can strike a deal because of the number of diners, and I like the fact that the players are together at mealtime.
Coach Roig discovered a good Chinese buffet place just down the street from our hotel. The price was right and the food was good, so the deal was set. I was apprehensive. Stuffing yourself with Chinese food prior to a game wasn't the norm at most training tables. But George aptly noted that we've done worse things.
As we prepared for pre-game, I noticed Jonathan Shapland looking a little woozy- too much Crab Rangoon. He was sweating and looking pale. While the rest of the outfielders were shagging flies and throwing to bases, Jon was behind our dugout purging himself of the aforementioned lunch.
He looked none the worse for wear in the first inning as he knocked in our second run with a single to left center. His next four at bats would result in a school, and conference best, four doubles.
Each slide into second base was followed by Shap, hands on his knees and bent over, breathing (or heaving?) heavily, with time called. Before one trip to the plate, I looked at him bent over, heavily perspiring at the bat rack and asked, "Do I need to take you out?" He looked at me sideways and said, "Take me OUT?"
In his last at bat, we led 16-4, as the count ran to 3-0. Shap looked at me twice for the green light, but GSU coach Mike Hurst is a friend. There was no way I would show him up with a 3-0 swing and that lead. Shap looked at ball four and trotted to first with that sly smile of his. I sent out a pinch runner, so the two FAU fans in attendance could give him a standing ovation.
As we boarded the bus for the hotel, Dawn told us that UCF trailed Mercer by a run in the ninth. Dreams are for dreamers...UCF rallied to win. Mercer and FAU would need a sweep tomorrow.
The next day we sat around the hotel, then drove to the field, just in time to get caught in the downpour which had been predicted all day. But Mercer managed to play six innings and held on to win a rain shortened game. Please note that I don't agree with our conference policy that allows a game to be declared final after five in such an instance. The only time we shouldn't complete nine is in the last game of a series. But that's the rule.
The sun broke out as we reached the hotel. Our guys ate dinner on the patio of a nice little "Mom & Pop" Italian restaurant. They needed sunscreen.
We now had to play a doubleheader to close out the season. We threw Brandon Kloess in the first game and he was cruising towards his eighth win, 7-3, when disaster struck. After delivering a pitch in the eighth, Brandon jumped off the mound in pain. He said that he felt a pop in his elbow.
Brandon Kloess has had a great year for us. His record of 8-2 is second only to Storey, but more importantly, he really solidified the second spot in our rotation at a time that we desperately needed some stability.
The MRI yesterday showed a tear of the UCL. Brandon is done for the year. He plans to leave after the conference tournament and return home to Alabama, where he will have Dr. Andrews look at the film and proceed with surgery if warranted.
It's a tough break for a really nice kid who has been a key part of our late season surge. His family was at the game in Georgia and have had a chance to see some of his recent games. His Mom has kept the dugout stocked with chocolate chip cookies, but now she will have to mother Brandon through a tough time.
Our plan for the last game was to pitch Chris Salberg three innings and go to the bullpen. We want to start Chris in the first game of the conference tournament, because our likely opponent would be this same Georgia State team. They are heavy with left-handed batters and switch hitters. The southpaw Salberg should be a good countermeasure.
In the bottom of the second, I got word that Mercer had beaten UCF for the second time today. We needed to win this game and we're in second. Do we stick with our plan and remove Chris early, or go for the win to ensure a second place finish?
Coach Fossas said that Chris is a rubber armed kid, who would be capable of pitching on three days rest if he kept his pitch count down in this game. We had a comfortable lead after six, so we pulled Chris and iced him down for Wednesday. Our bullpen held on and we won 6-4. Second place was ours after a terrible start to the conference season.
Everyone had given us up for dead and written us off as a bad team in a rebuilding year. Someone had introduced me to a luncheon of businessmen and referenced the bad season we were having. It's true that we only have 33 wins, but we also have played three fewer games than normal. I'll take a .623 winning percentage, particularly considering the youth of our team.
As we head up I-95 to start the A-Sun Tournament, I admit that I like our chances. We would be better with Kloess on the mound in one of these games, but someone will just have to take his place. Our job is to find a way to win and survive to the championship game. The sure route to our fourth straight regional is to win that game, but our RPI and recent success will put us in front of the committee as a worthy contender for one of the last at large bids.
It's been a long, hard year. We have had to be patient waiting for our hitters to get going only to see our starting pitchers founder. Freshman and sophomores were written into the lineup more often than at any time in my career. Youth and an old man-what a combination.
But somehow we have evolved into a pretty good team, playing its best at the right time of year. What's next , I have no idea.
I just know that my stomach will start feeling like Shapland's in 24 hours. KC