June 1, 2006
LAST RUN IN THE A-SUN...
Twelve years ago FAU joined the Trans America Athletic Conference and played in its first conference tournament in Homestead, Florida. We were the fourth seed in the four team tournament field which included FIU, UCF, and Stetson.
So much for being Trans America- it was Trans Florida!
We faced a record setting pitcher from FIU named Evan Thomas, the leading strikeout pitcher in the NCAA. FIU had throttled us three times the previous weekend, but this opening playoff game was scoreless entering the tenth. We had started our back-up catcher Kirk Riddle, in an attempt to slow down the FIU running game. Kirk could catch and throw, but he couldn't hit a lick.
We needed a pinch hitter to get things going in the tenth against Thomas. Coach Mac suggested our back up first baseman, Pat Wilson; he was a lefty and had some pop. The problem was Wilson hadn't batted in a month. Pat didn't care. He went to the plate and launched a 3-1 pitch onto the roof of the hitting center behind the rightfield wall. I'll never forget the smile on Pat's face as he ran the bases.
That was our first win in a conference tournament.
We've had a few memorable games over the years, as the TAAC changed to the A-SUN and we were fortunate to be playing at the end of the season each of those years but one.
There have been a number of great players in those tournaments-some who went on to the Major Leagues. Southeast Louisiana's Chris Williams, Jacksonville's Nick Rigillio and Juan Padilla, UCF's Mike Maroth and Essex Snead, FIU's Mike Lowell, Stetson's Kevin Nicholson and Lenny DiNardo, and Florida Atlantic's Tommy Murphy, Carmen Cali, and Jeff Fiorentino, are some of the names I remember getting to "The Show" after playing in this tournament. My apologies to any my feeble mind has forgotten.
A few weeks ago, it looked as if Florida Atlantic might not get to play here in DeLand in this, our final A-SUN season. We head over to the Sun Belt Conference next year, a move prompted by the need to be in a football conference. But we will miss the competition and the comradery of the A-SUN. Our final push the past week got us into fourth place, and set up a rematch for tonight with the Stetson Hatters.
Normally, the tournament finds me in a nervous state of mind. We're usually one of the favorites, but this has been a different year. I hate to say "we're just happy to be here", but that's the truth. It doesn't mean that we'll do any less than our best to win this thing, but our kids faced each challenge as this season unraveled and, staring elimination in the face, played their best ball to get themselves here. Our goal is to keep that same intensity and get the job done in DeLand.
We play tonight, so I have all day to wait and see just when this feeling of contentment will end and the normal nervousness will start. I'm sure it will. For now, I'm off to watch JU battle the Camels of Campbell in the opening game. Luke made the trip, so I think I'll be a little busier at the park than normal.
Jacksonville rallied to beat a spunky Campbell team that was poised on the verge of an upset, and Mercer put up a nine spot in the second to cruise by East Tennessee State, and into the winners' bracket.
Mickey Storey took the mound against Stetson in the nightcap, and looked like he had the right stuff to keep us in the game. He was down in the zone and had his good curve ball. Jon Kluber was just as dominating for the Hats, but we scratched out two runs in the fourth on singles by McKenna and Albano, and an RBI single by Alex Silversmith.
We had a couple of chances to break the game open, but Kluber was up to the task each time. Mickey pitched out of a big jam in the sixth, and I felt we had a solid chance.
But in the Stetson eighth, things changed.
Storey had shut out Stetson through 16 post season innings, but the Hatters got on the board when Chris Johnson drove in Shane Jordan to close the gap to 2-1. Coach Pete Dunn went against the book and came up looking like a coach with 1000 victories. Pete sent the right handed Kevin Mierzwinski to the plate to hit for lefty Nick Palmisano. Mierzwinski had six RBI on the season , but promptly delivered one more with a game tying double to right.
The ninth.....Brad Pippa lined a one out single to right. The speedy Shane Jordan was up and we were looking for a bunt. Jordan laid down a beauty, but Mickey's throw went past first moving Pippa to third. Brandon Paritz lifted a sac fly to right and it was over.
What do you say to a kid who has pitched his heart out and come up short? Mickey was the last to leave the dugout and we spent some time talking. From experience as a pitcher, I knew there was little to be said that would console him. This was a season in which all the breaks seemed to go against him. On the heels of his outstanding freshman season, where the direct opposite held true, it was difficult for a young person to understand.
I told Mickey that his life was going to be just like the last two years-periods of joy and success, followed by challenges and sorrow. This year helped Mickey to grow as a pitcher and a person. It helped in his development as a man. I told him becoming a man was more important than all the success. He replied, "I hope you're right."
Now we need to regroup and face number one seed Jacksonville in the afternoon game today. They have a great team that throttled us back in Boca during the regular season, so we need to come out and play our best baseball. They have a few of their own personnel problems- Murphy is hurt and available only for pinch hitting. He got the game winning hit yesterday. A couple of other guys are in summer school and unavailable, but the lineup is still loaded.
As Luke and I had pancakes this morning, Fossas asked me how I have handled the highs and lows of coaching for so many years. Last night's loss hit Tony hard. It's only his second year, but he's learning how personal and deep the hurt of a loss in a big game can be.
I didn't really have an answer for him. As the years have progressed, the hurt of a loss seems far greater, and lasts much longer than the thrill of a win. I don't really know why. Perhaps, the older you are, the more fleeting life becomes. Maybe we're more aware of the dark side of life after a certain age. The cock-eyed optimism of youth has given way to a more pragmatic view of the world.
Coaches live and die with their teams, but the darkness of losing seems to haunt the halls of our hearts and minds longer than the kids who just played the game. I'm sure that's the way it was meant to be. We need our kids to grab the remote in their mind and change the channel.
Maybe there will be something better on today.
The 3:00 pm game is a hot one. We show up around 12:30 for BP in the cages and then wait for the first game to end. Luke had me throwing to him in the short cage when our guys were through. He seems to be having the time of his life and is making progress in overcoming his shyness.
My stomach's turning. No one wants to go two and out in any tournament. In light of the push we made the past few weeks to get here, a quick exit would really be painful. Sometimes I wish the games held the same innocence evident in Luke's approach to hitting. It's been too long since baseball felt that way for me.
East Tennessee came from behind and stuck a dagger in the hearts of Chip Smith's Camels. Campbell was the first team eliminated, and I hoped we wouldn't be the second. JU was a formidable opponent, but I felt we were also playing against the memory of their three game sweep earlier in the season.
Fossas felt it was key to hold JU down for the first three innings to give our guys time to get it going after last night's tough loss. Starter Joel Schmal must not have been in on the game plan as he went out and surrendered a first inning run to the Dolphins. Fortunately, freshman Will Block answered with a second inning homer to tie the game at one apiece. Now we needed Schmal to settle in for us.
As Schmal threw up goose eggs, we were setting records for futility and bad baserunning. Time and again we had runners on and only Mike McKenna's solo homer could get us a one-run lead. The Dolphins finally broke through and tied the game at two in the sixth. The whole time I kept thinking that JU was too good a team against whom to be squandering scoring chances. We needed to break it open or things could quickly turn.
Jay Bergman used to say that more games are won or lost in the last three innings, and he was right. We finally found the scoring touch in the last three frames, scoring six times and put the Dolphins away for good. Number nine hitter Danny Cook had three hits and two RBI to lead the way.
Meanwhile Schmal was up to the task of hanging tough and not letting the JU hitters back in the game. It was a hot day for the big guy from Indiana, but he was there to the end for his first complete game. Joel said he was glad to give the seniors another chance to play. Amen to that.
Because of our win, the bracket changed and we were given the chance to be one win away from the championship day. We would face East Tennessee Friday, with the winner playing a doubleheader on Saturday.
The worry wart in me thought about the fact that we had beaten ETSU three times a week ago, and that the odds were in their favor. The optimist in me felt that we had a great shot to win the whole thing and get to a regional again.
Another hot day in Deland, what's new?
Luke made friends with ETSU head coach Tony Skole's two boys, Tilo and Jack. The opposing head coaches spent the morning of their crucial conference tournament game sitting by the hotel pool watching their kids play. Tony's a good guy and has built his program the right way. He seems to care about his players and has had some big wins this season. It seemed weird sitting there with him and his family before battling for survival on the field.
Maybe our world leaders should spend some time with each other's families before declaring war. There might be a lot fewer graves to decorate on Memorial Day.
I liked our chances if we could get to the ETSU bullpen. They have used more pitchers than us and I liked the way we were swinging the bats. Coack Skole kept moaning about having to play a team who just got 18 hits against JU and swept him last week. I had a feeling he was setting me up for something.
The "something" turned out to be reliever Caleb Glafenhein who had already started the first two games in order to get the Bucs off on the right foot. He'd pitch an inning or two and turn it over to the rest of the staff. We had hit Glafenhein well in his one inning against us in Boca. Six runs on six hits during one inning last week had me hopeful of getting to their pen early.
Luke had been real good in our dugout during the first two games. Usually at home he doesn't spend much time there-dugouts are dangerous because of foul balls. But Luke would stand against the wall behind me for the lefties and was free to roam whenever a righty was batting. But as soon as he saw Tilo and Jack in the seats next to the ETSU dugout he begged to go sit with them. Never mind his FAU hat and uniform, he ran to their side of the stands. The three kids sat and played, oblivious to the conflict between their fathers.
Things looked promising as we manufactured a run in the third, but that was all we'd get. The little side winding right hander threw ground ball after ground ball, always right at a fielder. When we did get anyone on, Glafenhein would induce a double play.
81 pitches later our season was over.
After the game, I gathered our guys together and shared some thoughts.
This team had encountered setbacks and challenges that our program had never come close to facing in the previous 25 years. Regular readers of these pages know of the missing- a two way all- American player who could have saved most of those late inning games, and provided a jolt of offense, a power hitting left handed bat, both players lost for the entire year due to torn hamstrings. A pitcher who would have been a top bullpen guy, a power hitting outfielder who left after missing five weeks with an oblique pull, a senior shortstop dismissed because of missed classes, McKenna out for six weeks with a meniscus tear, and our leading RBI guy ineligible for the last two weeks of the season-one or two of those losses would have stopped most teams.
My words to our kids spoke of my admiration for them as young people. They played hard in the face of all our struggles, and never once backed down from anything asked of them. Players who never expected to play much were starters and key players. As friends disappeared from the roster, veteran players looked to a group of youngsters with little or no experience to salvage a season.
They did that and more.
The lives that these young men will go on to live will be laced with challenges and disappointment. I trust that the 2006 season and all it carried will hold our people in good stead for what life's pitchers throw their way.
This group restored my faith in young people. KC