Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney



June 9, 2005

MAN AT THE TOP...

Here comes a fireman, here comes a cop Here comes a wrench, here comes a car hop Been going on forever, it ain't ever going to stop Everybody wants to be the man at the top.

That's the first verse of Bruce Springsteen's Man At The Top, a song that epitomizes the lives of many people, least of all our players and coaches. Each season brings the same goal of finishing on top, of our conference, our regional, and the rest of the road to a College World Series title.

That road will not be traveled any further by the players and coaches of Florida Atlantic University. The man at the top will not wear a Blue Wave on his uniform this year.

So where does that leave us?

Most of the players that got us this close to the top will be back next year, again working their hardest to push us to a regional and beyond. This group of young men accomplished some great things in this, so called, rebuilding season. A rough start and a strong finish saw us play to the championship day of our conference tournament, and into another NCAA Regional.

Our excitement at being selected to the Coral Gables Regional was tempered by the realization that we would be without our number two pitcher, Brandon Kloess. We had also lost two players to academics at the end of the season, a starter to a back injury, and had limited service of one of our leading hitters because of dehydration.

But we arrived in Miami feeling good about our chances.

We decided to go with lefty Chris Salberg on the mound against Mississippi State, because of the predominant left-handed hitting lineup they would throw out against a righty. This was a matchup we all liked.

But Chris came out of the pen that day with no curveball or changeup. Those pitches were real effective for him in his last few starts, and served to neutralize right-handed hitters. Add to that a howling wind blowing to left, and every ball hit by the Bulldogs proved costly. We were down 6-0 by the third thanks to one player's two home runs. Chris had a short day, but it was really one of the longest in his life.

Meanwhile, our offense mustered little against the Bulldog's pitcher, a crafty veteran who mixed his pitches well and forced us into some bad swings. Jonathan Shapland connected for a home run off the scoreboard, but there wasn't much else from us. We also lost Alex Fonseca for the tournament in the second inning due to cramping. He was not allowed to play at all the rest of the tournament.

That night, after watching VCU against Miami, our coaches met and discussed our pitching options. The obvious choice was to go with Mickey Storey, just named All American third team, by Louisville Slugger. VCU had mostly righties, which would bode well for Mick.

But, we also wanted to give ourselves the best chance to win the regional. That meant that our other starters would need to pitch and win somewhere along the line. We liked Crotta against State, and we felt Will Mann would be the best option against VCU, short of using Storey. The decision was made. Coach Fossas called Will and told him he was starting.

I tossed and turned all night.

Each time I closed my eyes, I saw VCU runners stealing bases against Will. A sinkerball pitcher like him is bound to give up some hits, and VCU had some great stolen base numbers. They were very fast and Will is a little slow in his delivery to the plate.

Mickey is more of a fly ball-strikeout pitcher; the running game is less dangerous against his style.

My job is to give our guys the best chance to win. Despite feeling that saving Mickey gave us that chance, I had concluded that we would have a very difficult time beating VCU with anyone else. I knocked on Fossas' door (he had big leagued me and gotten his own room) and told him Storey would be starting.

I saw Will in the omelet line at breakfast and told him the change in plan. He took it well- last year he was the beneficiary of a change in plans when I gave him the NC State start in the elimination game rather than Randy Beam.

Mickey was nowhere in sight.

Coach Mac called his room. Storey thought he had the day off and planned to sleep through breakfast. As I was finishing my pancakes, Mickey arrived at the next table and wolfed down a bowl of Fruit Loops- a great breakfast to keep us alive.

VCU was as good as they looked the night before.

They got to Mickey in the fifth on a fielder's choice with the infield in. Our throw to the plate was wide and they had a run. We weren't doing much at the plate again, and it looked as though their one run might hold up.

For the aforementioned reasons, our bench was pretty depleted. Any pinch hit moves were countered by the defensive needs that might ensue. But we had Tyler Stevens.

Tyler had a good season when he took over at second, hitting around .400 and making Second-Team All-Conference. But we were playing Hutton for defense and mixing Tyler in at DH with Jordan Hafer or Danny Terpak. In the eighth he was asked to pinch hit and responded with a leadoff single.

Danny Cook bunted him to second and brought Derek Hutton to the plate. This senior captain had struggled this year, and I was hoping for a Hollywood ending. But Hut lined out to right.

Mike McBryde has done about all you could ask of a player this season. He led our team in most hitting categories, stolen bases, and had 10 saves. He was also tied the school record for hits in a season. As he stepped in with four outs left in our season, we needed him one more time.

Mikey sliced a double to right field and the game was tied with the fastest human in Coral Gables, catching his breath at second base.

Alex Silversmith was next. He didn't give Mike much breathing time, drilling a shot past the third baseman and putting us on top for good.

But the drama wasn't over.

The bottom of the eighth saw VCU send runners to second and third. Sizemore and St. Clair, their two best hitters were ready to turn the story their way.

Coach Fossas looked at me and asked, "Do you want McBryde?"

I asked, "Do you still like Mickey's stuff?"

"The young man has pitched his heart out, and it's hot and muggy, but he still has good stuff."

"It's his game." was my response. I had removed Mickey from the Georgia Tech game and would do it a thousand times again, but we lost that heartbreaker. Sure, we had a great closer ready in center, but Mickey Storey had battled all day. I would have to be dragged off the mound now, if it were my game. I knew how Mickey was thinking.

He wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't about to get beaten.

A strikeout and a groundout to third and the threat passed. We tacked on another run thanks to an RBI by Tyler (him again) Stevens, and Storey went out and finished the job.

There were some interesting questions and answers in the media tent later. Mickey was surprised to learn that the two batters in the eighth were VCU's top two hitters, and the press was amused by the training table breakfast provided for the day's hero. We had survived and could play another day.

Mike Crotta got the call against MSU, who had lost the night game to UM. Big Mike had been real good early and then struggled during the middle of the year. We moved him to the pen, where he seemed to have found success. Now he was back out as a starter, and our best hope against the Bulldogs.

McBryde got us on top in the first with a single, stolen base, and a fielder's choice. The Bulldogs answered back with one in the second and it went back and forth, with us tied at four entering the sixth.

Innings sometimes tend to turn on small things, and this one was no exception. Mike barely gave up a hit hard enough to be heard, but was out of the game, down a run. A single, and double later, and we were down by three. State tacked on another in the ninth and it ended 8-4.

This young team that had been so up and down, or rather, down and up, was now packing their equipment as the skies opened up and washed our hopes and dreams down the drains of Mark Light Stadium.

The rain pounded down on the media tent as we faced questions about the game, the season, and the trip to Coral Gables. It wasn't somber. Tyler Stevens smiled sying he was so happy to have played in a regional. Derek Hutton spoke about how quickly his four year career had flown past. It seemed like yesterday, he was sliding home with the winning run as a freshman in the Tuscaloosa Regional.

Reporters seemed to focus in on the five Regionals in Coral Gables that have featured FAU getting eliminated from the road to Omaha. They all ask the same questions.

It seems as if people all assume that because a school such as ours, from a non-big time conference, frequently makes it to regional play, we should be winning these regionals. My question to them is this- how many schools like us have won a regional since 1999? Not many.

Look at the Super Regional field each year. It's mostly the same big conference schools.

Are we to think of ourselves as failures when we don't win at Coral Gables each year? Or, should our players and fans feel proud of the past seven years that have produced six Regionals, one Super Regional, and three conference championships?

I think I'll choose to be proud. KC

 

 

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