The trick for Washington & Jefferson College’s baseball team, it seems, is to not build a lead on Thomas More.
Twice over the last two days of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament, the Presidents built comfortable leads only to see the Saints roar back to victory. The last one stung the most.
W&J, the top seed, saw a 5-1 early lead dissolve into an 8-7 loss Saturday in a 10-inning game at Ross Memorial Park that was delayed 25 minutes at the start and a little more than two hours near the end by poor weather.
Thomas More (23-17) earned the automatic qualifier from the conference into the NCAA Division III tournament. It was the third conference title for the Saints, who won in 2010 and 2011.
Washington & Jefferson needs an at-large bid today to get in, but with a 29-15 record and being unranked in the Mideast Region, that seems unlikely.
“They answered us every time we scored,” said W&J head coach Jeff Mountain. “It was symbolic of the whole tournament. But that’s how you win tournament championships. A team scores, and you find a way to answer. They believed.”
In Friday’s winners’ bracket game, W&J roared out to a 6-0 lead over the Saints, then watched as Thomas More scored nine unanswered runs for a 9-6 win. That forced W&J to beat Waynesburg in order to make it to the championship round, which the Presidents did with a 16-9 victory.
W&J needed to beat Thomas More twice in the championship round of this double-elimination tournament; Thomas More needed one win. This time, the Presidents couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead after three innings.
Each time the Presidents scored in an inning, the Saints answered with at least one run.
“That was huge,” said Saints head coach Jeff Hetzer. “We just tried to chip away. We didn’t want to get down like we did (Friday), but we did. Offense is our strength, and we leaned on that.”
W&J led 3-0 after one inning, 5-1 after three, and 6-4 after six. The Saints scored three times in the seventh against Eddie Nogay, who relieved starter Jared Baird to start the inning. Nogay, who went eight innings and threw 104 pitches in a 14-4 opening-round win against Waynesburg, gave up a single to center to Casey Metzger then an RBI-double down the left-field line to Jason Handley. Craig Hyson followed with a book-rule double to left that scored Handley and tied the game, 6-6. Cody Makin sacrificed Hyson to third and Donovan Pogue hit a comebacker to the mound that wasn’t going to score Hyson.
But the ball hit Nogay’s glove and popped out, falling at his feet. That gave Hyson enough time to score to make it 7-6. Nogay got Nick Connor to bounce out to second to end the inning.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, a thunderstorm rolled through and delayed the game for more than two hours. Despite the layoff, Hetzer kept reliever Ken Ruberg in the game. Ruberg relieved starter Andy Roenker in the seventh.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” Hetzer said. “We had a freshman (Ruberg) out there, and he doesn’t know any better.”
But Ruberg made a freshman mistake in the ninth inning, trying to hold a 7-6 lead. He gave up a one-out single to right to Michael Ruffing and hit D.J. Michalski with a pitch. Facing W&J’s best hitter in Josh Staniscia, Ruberg balked Ruffing to third and Michalski to second.
“That was on me,” Hetzer said. “I probably should have gone out to talk to him when runners were on first and second.”
Staniscia lofted a fly ball to center that scored Ruffing to tie the game, 7-7, and send it to the 10th. That’s where Thomas More finally won it against reliever Kyle McLain. Travis Miller opened the inning with a single to center. One out later, Marcus Woelfel tried to sacrifice Miller to second. His bunt was fielded by McLain, who fumbled the pickup then fired the ball past first baseman Jake Gordon for two errors. Miller made it to third and came home on a sacrifice fly to right by Brad Popham.
W&J got a two-out single by McLain in the bottom of the 10th, but Anthony Paladino fouled out to Hyson at first to end the game and set off a wild celebration by the Saints on the mound.
“These guys have nothing to hang their heads over,” said Mountain. “They accomplished so much. I told them how much I enjoyed coaching them. Sometimes, life isn’t fair. They worked so hard to prepare for this, and they did everything the right way. But other teams do things right, too.”
Well, most of the time.
Thomas More committed three errors that led to four unearned runs for the Presidents. But the Saints received at least one hit from every player in the starting lineup and finished with 13.
“W&J is a great team,” Hetzer said. “With out lack of pitching because of the injury to (No. 1 starter Tim Baldrick), we probably should have lost. But we fought back.”