Ping!

The culmination of the college baseball season isn’t far off. In a couple of weeks, eight of the top NCAA teams will converge on Omaha for the College World Series. Rightfully, that’s where the focus usuallly lies. But most folks don’t know as much about the other year-end tourneys, less prospect-packed but equally important to the schools that compete for their respective titles.

Last weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin, eight teams came together for the NCAA Division III Championships, a double-elimination tournament to determine the national champion. Despite living vicariously through about 8,000 box scores this year, I had never seen so much as a single college baseball game, so when I realized I’d be in the neighborhood, I decided to take in a few games.

The tournament took place at the Fox Cities Stadium, home of the Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. I was afraid tickets would be hard to come by for a national event in a small venue; I couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time I arrived on Monday, only four contenders remained: Emory University, Kean University, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Cortlandt State. Kean was the only undefeated team up to that point, giving them a decisive advantage: the other three teams would duke it out on Monday for the opportunity to play for the title on Tuesday.

The non-recruits

Division III players are rarely drafted, and with one major exception (more on that in a bit), this group of D3 competitors was no different. It took a few innings of the Monday afternoon Emory-Cortlandt game for me to settle into the lower level of play. The surroundings may have been professional, but it doesn’t take a scout to tell you that these kids are a few rungs down the ladder.

But what they lacked in talent, they made up for in enthusiasm and aggressiveness. This was evident from the first pitch, and the intensity level—which didn’t flag for a minute until the end of the game—shocked me. For those of you who have never seen a competitive college game, here are a few of the key differences between college and the pros:

  • Before the game, and occasionally between innings, the entire team huddles outside of the dugout, like a basketball team before taking the court.

  • Every time a pitcher finished an inning (or is removed from the game), his teammates line up to high-five him. Teams do the same at home plate when they score a run, which means that when a batter hits a homer, the umpire has to keep his teammates from getting too close to the plate.
  • The chatter is incessant. Everyone is on the top step of the dugout from the first pitch to the last, cheering on their teammates.

Combine that with a slightly different style of play in which stolen bases are king and a school can put six or seven runs on the board in a single inning, and you’ve got a recipe for a really exciting baseball game.

The games

Monday afternoon, Emory beat Cortlandt, sending the latter home in fourth place. That put Emory in the second game, taking on Stevens Point, the team that beat them in the first round. Stevens Point, though, isn’t built like most D3 competitors. The Pointers (clever, huh?) feature Jordan Zimmermann, a junior pitcher likely to go among the first 50 picks in this year’s draft. Zimmermann pitched a gem in the opening game on Friday night, allowing only a single hit against 10 strikeouts for a complete game shutout victory.

But, of course, Zimmermann couldn’t pitch every game, putting the Pointers at a distinct disadvantage. They were a solid team beyond their star, especially since Zimmermann has blossomed into a fine hitter as well (he DH’d on Monday and hit two long balls), but their second game against Emory figured to be a tougher battle than the first. For my part, I loved Emory’s grit in the first game I saw, but I was rooting for Stevens Point: If they advanced to the final, Zimmermann would pitch again. That I wanted to see.

Early on, it looked like I’d get my wish. Stevens Point jumped on the Emory starter, scoring three runs (including Zimmermann’s first homer) and chasing him before he recorded a single out. Emory reliever Julian Smith kept the game within reach, but the Pointers were leading 6-0 after four. This is why college ball is so much fun: Emory came right back with this fifth inning:

Emory fifth: Cunningham walked. Custer singled to right field; Cunningham advanced to second. Dugan hit by pitch; Custer advanced to second; Cunningham advanced to third. Short singled through the left side, two RBIs; Dugan advanced to second; Custer scored; Cunningham scored. Short advanced to second; Dugan advanced to third on a passed ball. Zielke to p for Nix. Hissey struck out swinging. Molnar doubled to left field, RBI; Short advanced to third; Dugan scored. Bralver walked. Pfister fouled out to 1b. Roth singled to right center, two RBIs; Bralver advanced to third; Molnar scored; Short scored. Roth stole second; Bralver stole home. Cunningham walked. Custer singled to right center, RBI; Cunningham advanced to third; Roth scored. Dugan struck out swinging. Seven runs, five hits, no errors, two LOB.

The tying run came on a double steal! I had accidentally chosen a seat on the fringes of the (albeit modest) Emory rooting section, and the excitement was infectious. Thanks to that inning, I think I’ll be rooting for the Emory Eagles as long as they care to field a baseball team.

The Eagles weren’t done yet. The Pointers had a hard enough time retiring the side in the fifth, but it took three more pitchers to get out of the sixth, in which Emory scored ten more runs. If the mercy rule had been in effect, the game would’ve been called after six; as it was, the energy was sucked right out of the Stevens Point fans. To their credit, though, the team kept fighting until the final out. If Emory could score 17 runs in the space of six outs, the chance was certainly present for an eleven run comeback. But it didn’t happen, and Zimmermann’s next start will likely come as a professional.

The championship game

Double-elimination tournaments—to the major league baseball fan, anyway—are downright bizarre. If you think the MLB postseason is a crapshoot, a double-elimination format is a slot machine. At least in craps the odds are predictable.

Here’s what the bracket looks like. By the time Emory made it to the championship game against Kean, they had played four consecutive games on the brink of elimination. What’s more, since Kean was undefeated, Emory would have to win twice. If Emory won the first game, both teams would then have one defeat against them, leaving it to a winner-takes-all game two. Baseball may not lend itself to the Hollywood drama that characterizes a movie like Hoosiers, but the format sure sounds like something out of a screenplay.

Sadly for me, now that I’m a hardcore Eagles fan, the storybook ending wasn’t to be. But Tuesday’s championship game was just as exciting as everything that preceded it. The crowd was even sparser than it had been the day before. Each team had a complement of a hundred or so family and friends, with maybe another hundred unaffiliated fans in attendance as well. They may have been small in number, but I’ve never seen a more intense crowd. I mentioned before that the chatter from the dugouts was nonstop. The same can be said of the family and friends sitting behind the dugouts—not only were they enthusiastic, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat among such a high concentration of knowledgable fans.

Emory got a gutty outing from starter Ian Ganzer, who threw nine innings, allowing four runs (three earned) on eight hits while striking out eight. Kean got an almost identical performance from the combination of two pitchers, Joe Bartlinski and Andrew Cupido. Kean’s runs came early—they were up 3-0 after three—while Emory came back one more time. The game was tied at four after five innings, and it remained that way through nine.

Emory reliever Rich Babb came in to pitch the tenth, but fell victim to the Achilles heel of college baseball: sloppy fielding. The defense throughout the game was solid, sometimes even spectacular, but it failed the Eagles when it counted most. The leadoff batter reached on an error to the third baseman, then advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt when Babb tried to get the lead runner but threw the ball away. An intentional walk loaded the bases with none out, and that’s when things got really interesting.

Bases loaded, none out, bottom of the 10th inning: what do you do? Emory went to a five-infielder alignment, bringing in their left fielder. Kean first baseman Aaron Richard lofted a shallow fly to center, just barely not enough to score the run. One out, bases still loaded. Emory went back to the standard defense, playing their infield in at the corners, back for the double play up the middle. That proved to be their undoing, as the next batter grounded deep in the hole at short. The shortstop had to eat it and the game was over.

Go see a college baseball game

I can’t remember the last time I had more fun at a baseball game. (Or three.) While the D3 season is over, there are regionals all over the country this weekend. If you have to wait until next year, it’ll be even easier to find a game. With nearly 300 D1 teams across the country and hundreds more at lower levels, you’re bound to find a game close by. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up like me, a suddenly rabid fan of a college you’ve scarcely heard of.

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