Washington & Jefferson College’s D.J. Michalski, a junior first baseman from Canonsburg, epitomizes the toughness and whatever-it-takes attitude of the Presidents’ baseball team.
A week ago, Michalski’s left wrist was aching so badly that there was legitimate concern among the W&J coaching staff that he might be sidelined for the remainder of the season. A trip to an orthopedist led to Michalski taking a cortisone injection in the wrist Wednesday, one day before W&J began play in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament.
Michalski’s wrist was still too sore to play Thursday, but he was back in the lineup Friday afternoon. In the tournament final Saturday against Thomas More, Michalski was standing in the batter’s box during the sixth inning with W&J holding a shaky two-run lead.
Ahead 0-2 in the count, Thomas More pitcher David Etscheid threw an inside curveball at Michalski, who was trying to get on first base any way he could. Paying no attention to his cranky wrist, Michalski gave the baseball a forearm shiver, knocking the ball up the first-base line. He began to jog to first base, thinking the play would be ruled a hit batsman.
Home-plate umpire Jeremy Stangelo, however, wasn’t fooled. He correctly ruled that Michalski intentionally tried to get hit with the pitch and called the batter back to home plate.
“I told the umpire, ‘Hey, I’ve got to try, right?’” Michalski said with a smile.
If he couldn’t be awarded first base, then Michalski was simply going to take it. On the next pitch, he laced a line-drive single to left field that scored Michael Ruffing. The hit triggered a strong finish by the Presidents, who went on to a 9-3 victory that earned W&J its ninth PAC baseball championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament that begins this week.
“I wanted to play,” Michalski said. “At this time of year, it’s pretty much all hands on deck. It’s all about winning. It’s situational hitting, moving runners over. The whole team has that mindset.”
In some circles, it’s called small-ball. At W&J, it’s called playing to your strengths.
“This team is very selfless. They buy into what they are,” said W&J coach Jeff Mountain, who collected both his fifth PAC title and 300th career victory.
“They understand what their strengths are. We’re not a power-laden team. We can’t be swinging for three-run homers and wasting outs that way. They understand what we are and execute.”
Against Thomas More (29-14), which defeated Saint Vincent, 8-5, earlier in the day to advance to the finals, W&J (30-11) executed its plan to perfection. Winning pitcher Tyler Dean had a quality start, Mike Vizzini earned a save with three shutout innings, five different players drove in runs, and Scott Liller and Michalski – the top two hitters in the Presidents’ lineup – combined to score five runs.
It was the 11th consecutive victory for W&J, which will find out Monday morning where it will be sent for NCAA regional play that begins Wednesday.
Both Michalski and Mountain believe the Presidents still haven’t played their best baseball.
“We’re hitting our stride. Everything seems to be on the rise,” said Michalski, who played first base for Canon-McMillan’s PIAA championship team in 2008. “But I think our best baseball is ahead of us at the regional.”
“We can’t go in there with the mindset that we have to play perfect,” Mountain added. “There are going to be breakdowns. Today, though, was the formula. We pitched it, we played flawless defense and we had two-out hits.”
The Presidents built a 5-0 lead after two innings, with two runs coming on Josh Staniscia’s triple in the second. The speedy Staniscia was thrown out at home plate trying to stretch the hit into an inside-the-park homer.
Thomas More, which had at least one hit in every inning and 13 in the game, pulled to within 5-3 in the fourth. But Dean, aided by two double plays, worked out of several jams and turned the game over to Vizzini in the seventh.
After Michalski’s key hit made the score 6-3, W&J tacked on two more runs in the seventh on consecutive doubles by Ronny Peirish and Kyle McLain, and Scott Brady’s perfectly executed squeeze bunt. The Presidents added an unearned run in the eighth.
“Thomas More was able to chip back in the game and get within 5-3, but we’d been talking about adding on and we did,” Mountain said. “We had trouble doing that early in the year.”