By DOUG HENNES
Steve Maher took the mound last Monday in St. Peter, looking to beat Gustavus Adolphus for his 11th win of the season and bring St. Thomas one victory closer to an undefeated MIAC season. But the Gusties didn’t cooperate, pounded Maher and handed him his first loss.
That was Monday. On Saturday night, Maher returned to form –- and then some -– and he made a run at a school record with 16 strikeouts as the Tommies coasted to a 10-2 win over St. Mary’s in the MIAC playoffs in Minnetonka.
The No. 2 Tommies (33-7) will play St. John’s at 11 a.m. Sunday and must defeat the Johnnies to earn a 2:30 p.m. title game rematch. At stake is an automatic berth in next week’s NCAA regionals. Second-seed St. John’s is 2-0 in the double-elimination tournament with wins over third-seed Bethel (7-3) and fourth-seed St. Mary’s (4-2).
Maher threw 136 pitches in the complete-game effort and gave up only five hits and two unearned runs, but said he never got tired. He struck out seven of the last nine Cardinals. That lt him pass Lonnie Robinson’s 15 strikeouts set against Northwestern of Roseville in 2007 for No. 2 on the UST modern records. Steve Samuelson's 19-strikeout day in April 1970 in a seven-inning game vs. Gustavus is believed to be an MIAC record.
“I hit my second wind later in the game,” said the sophomore righthander, who struck out two Cardinals in the first, second, fifth, seventh and ninth innings and the side in the eighth. “I pride myself on staying in good shape, and I had to rely more on breaking stuff in the later innings. I was fortunate in that we got a few runs and I had a cushion.”
Maher (11-1) thought he had “good stuff” against Gustavus, “but it was one of those days when anything I threw over the plate got hit,” he said. “This week, I worked with the coaches on getting my slider over more consistently, and I mixed it up today with the curve and fastball.”
Coach Chris Olean, a former All-American pitcher for the Tommies, said he thought Maher struggled early against St. Mary’s ,“but eventually figured it out. He had more velocity on his fastball at the end and his slider was sharper. It’s the best he’s pitched in a month.”
The game was close until the sixth inning. The Tommies held a 2-1 lead when J.D. Dorgan hit a one-out ground-rule double and Ryan Gerber walked. Jon Kinsel laced a single to center to score Dorgan, but the ball scooted by the charging St. Mary’s centerfielder. Gerber and Kinsel easily scored to bump the lead to 5-1.
The Cardinals responded with a run in their half of the sixth but the Tommies put away the game with three runs in the seventh on four hits, including a double by Charles Bruchu and a triple by Dan Reichert. Their final two runs came in the ninth.
Bruchu had his second straight three-hit game. After a double and two home runs in the earlier 7-0 win over Bethel, the senior third basemen singled, homered and doubled in the nightcap. The third-inning home run gave the Tommies a 2-1 lead that held until their three-run sixth.
“It was just one of those days,” Bruchu said. “As soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand, I was locked in on it and made good contact.”
In the MIAC playoffs, St. Thomas starters have allowed only one earned run in 26 innings for a 0.35 ERA.
If the Tommies defeat St. John’s twice on Sunday, it will be the third time in five years they have come back through the losers' bracket to win the MIAC playoff title. They also accomplished that in 2007, defeating St. Olaf twice, and in 2010, with two wins over Augsburg.
UST-SMU box score:
Two seniors came through with stellar performances on the mound and at the plate and carried St. Thomas to a 7-0 win over Bethel on Saturday noon in a second-round MIAC playoff game in Minnetonka.
Southpaw Bryce Gapinski (8-0) scattered six hits and struck out five Royals en route to the shutout. He extended his career record to 27-5, tied for third most in St. Thomas history behind Matt Schuld (30, 2007-10) and Joe Meyer (27, 1984-87).
Gapinski got all the run support he needed from the bat of Charles Bruchu. The third baseman had a double and two home runs in his first three at bats to stake Gapinski to a 5-0 lead.
As a result, No. 2 St. Thomas (32-7) advances to a second Saturday game, at 6 p.m. against St. Mary’s, which fell 4-2 to St. John's in the afternoon game. If the Tommies win the nightcap, they will need two wins on Sunday over St. John’s to claim the MIAC’s automatic berth in next week’s NCAA regionals tournament in Whitewater, Wis.
Bruchu came into the Bethel game hitting .314 but was only 2 for 10 in his last three games. He hit a first-pitch double in the top of the first inning, and Dylan Thomas came around from first to score after a fielding error. In the fourth and fifth innings, Bruchu hit home runs to left – the first a solo shot and the second a three-run blast well over the fence.
“I was really seeing the ball well today,” said Bruchu, who tallied four RBI and scored three runs. “On the first home run, I stayed with a curve ball, got good bat extension and was able to drive it. On the second one, I was looking for a fastball, and when I hit it, I knew it was out.”
Gapinski appreciated the 5-0 lead, and allowed only one runner to third base in achieving a nearly 3-to-1 strikes (80) to balls (28) ratio.
“I wasn’t in a good rhythm at the start,” he said. “I had to get used to the mound (artificial turf), but then I settled in nicely. The key to success for me is control of two pitches – my fastball and curveball. I mixed them up enough to keep the batters off balance.”
Gapinski also gave credit to his defense, which turned double plays in the sixth and seventh. Earlier, Bruchu threw out at home the one Royal runner who reached third, in the second, and catcher J.D. Dorgan picked off a runner at first in the fifth
“I’m a contact pitcher,” Gapinski said, “and when the guys make great plays behind me, it’s a big difference.”
Coach Chris Olean praised his two seniors. “Chuck was dialed in and carried us early while we were struggling a bit at the plate,” Olean said. “Bryce doesn’t beat himself. He goes out there and fills up the zone, and when he’s down and throwing strikes, he’s very tough.”
The Tommies finished off the scoring with single runs in the seventh on a Thomas double and Dorgan single and in the ninth when Bruchu, on first after a fielder’s choice groundout, scored on a long Tim Kuzniar single.
Thomas suffered an ankle sprain in a relief appearance in Friday night’s 4-2 loss to St. Mary’s, but was back on the field Saturday and running hard as designated hitter. He had two hits and scored three runs.
UST-BU box score: