Gene's Blog: Baseball finds a way despite offensive funk
April 03, 2012
Tim Kuzniar's game-winning RBI on Saturday continued his hot streak. (Thomas Whisenand file photo)
The 2012 MIAC baseball season started with a lively doubleheader Saturday night in the Metrodome. Last season’s conference co-champion, St. Thomas, faced the 2011 playoff champ, Hamline, in the latest installment of what’s becoming one of the conference’s better rivalries.
The Toms came in with the No. 10 national ranking and a 12-4 record against a difficult early schedule.
The Pipers’ 8-10 record was misleading: HU battled the Division I Gophers for 16 innings before losing 4-3, and also had wins over respected Carthage and Eastern Connecticut.
Comeback wins and close margins have characterized the Tommie-Piper series over the last several seasons. Since Chris Olean took over as UST head coach in 2010, eight of the nine UST-Hamline meetings have now been decided by one or two runs.
Mall of America Field seemed to have its own roller-coaster on this night, as momentum swings were common.
In the end, it was the Tommies who enjoyed the ride, and the Pipers who left feeling dizzy.
St. Thomas won game one, 3-1. Sophomore pitcher Steve Maher stranded the tying runs on base in the seventh inning to get the complete-game victory and move his season record to 6-0.
Hamline was in position to claim a split but couldn’t close out the ‘W,’ despite prime chances in both the top and bottom of the seventh innings. The game went to extra innings, where UST rallied for a 5-4 win and completed the sweep.
The doubleheader had a little bit of everything:
--Olean used 20 players in game two, including seven pitchers. In all, 22 Tommies saw action on the night.
--Adding more flavor to a good rivalry, the teams’ rosters included a half dozen players who were juco teammates in Des Moines over the last two seasons, including UST’s Dylan Thomas, and Hamline’s Jordan Buck, Dylan Olson, Ben Richardson, Mark Radmacher and Andy Weiss.
--There were a couple of odd individual line scores, including Charles Bruchu’s in game two, which had two RBI despite no hits.
--Weird plays? At least three you’ll rarely see, all in game two. UST appeared to score a first-inning run when Nick Reichert’s sky-high popup fell to the infield after two Pipers collided. Ben Podobinski sprinted all the way from second base to cross home plate. But the ball was untouched and rolled 20 feet into foul territory. The home-plate umpire alertly called it a foul ball.
Hamline scored two runs with two outs in the third inning to take a 3-1 lead when UST’s Tim Kuzniar lost a line drive in the Dome lights. Later, a Piper grounder that appeared headed for the Tommie second baseman’s glove hit the base umpire and caromed into right field for a single, although the runners were not allowed to advance further.
--Game two also featured four triples, plus Podobinski’s long double that just missed a home run high off the right-field baggy. Podobinski had three hits in game two and already has had eight multi-hit games in his first college season.
--The Tommies had an 11-inning stretch on the night when they scored just one run, but they battled through the offensive funk and managed to get both victories.
--St. Thomas pitchers recorded 16 strikeouts over 15 innings. They now have 127 Ks this season in 136 innings.
--UST had no errors over the two games and has only 12 in 18 games for a sharp .979 fielding clip. The Toms have won 22 of their last 25 games when they don’t commit an error.
--Each team recorded some slick defensive plays. Hamline’s Cam Smith made a diving catch in right field to save a run in game two. UST second baseman Justin Novak of the Tommies dove to his right to grab a hard smash, then threw to first to get an out by an eyelash to help Maher in game one.
--Maher’s 6-0 record ranks him tied for third in Division III for best record. His 1.14 ERA, his 40 strikeouts in 40 innings, and his .176 opponent batting average rank among the nation’s best.
Maher has exceeded expectations. "I thought he could be a nice No. 2 starter for us," Olean said, "but he's probably been the best pitcher in the Midwest (Region) so far this season."
--In game two, St. Thomas hurlers stranded five Piper runners in scoring position, and Hamline also had one runner tagged out at home plate trying to score on a double steal.
--Another key: UST limited dangerous Piper cleanup hitter Andy King to a 1-for-6 night. King came in with 25 hits and 25 RBI in Hamline’s first 18 games. In last year’s five games vs. the Tommies, King had seven hits and eight RBI.
--Trailing 3-2 and down to his last two outs in game two, Olean went to his bench for pinch-hitters. He brought on Thomas, a junior pitcher who had only one at-bat in two seasons at Des Moines Area Community College, and one plate appearance this season with the Tommies. Thomas, who had 16 home runs in his prep career at Lakeville North, uncorked one of his old Panther swings to crush a ball deep into the left-center gap for a one-out triple.
Next came freshman Adam LaMere, in just his 11th college at-bat. LaMere fell behind in the count but stroked a two-strike pitch for an RBI single into center to tie the game.
--The Toms went ahead 5-4 in the extra innings, on Kuzniar’s two-out bases-loaded single. Kuzniar is batting 12-for-19 with seven RBI in the St. Thomas’ current five-game winning streak.
--Sophomore RHP Tommy Danczyk, in just his third 2012 appearance, got his first save. He retired all three Piper batters he faced, two by strikeout.
Busy Stretch Awaits
With two hard-fought wins, St. Thomas had its seventh consecutive MIAC regular-season sweep dating back to April 2011. It also had a measure of revenge for last spring’s 1-4 record vs. the Pipers.
St. Thomas also closed out an 8-2 run in Metrodome games this season, including a 5-1 record against schools that played in last year’s NCAA regional playoffs.
It's a nice change from 2011, when the Tommies went 4-9 during March. This season at 14-4, they’ve recorded the program’s best pre-April record since the 2004 Toms started 14-2.
"The biggest thing I've seen so far is that we're not playing our best baseball, and yet we're sitting in pretty good position in our region and in the conference," Olean said. "If we start hitting the ball like we can, things will get even better."
Don’t be surprised if Hamline and St. Thomas collide again in the postseason playoffs in Minnetonka in May. Until then, a lot of baseball remains in a conference race that appears to have unusual parity this season.
Next up for UST is Wednesday’s road trip to Parade Stadium in Minneapolis and two games against 11-4 Augsburg. The Auggies are playing much better than their eighth-place preseason poll slot would suggest.
PHOTO: Chris Olean
"With the way we're playing right now," Olean explained, "we know we can beat anybody, but we also know that we could lose to anybody."
The coach is looking for continued solid play from his defense, a few more pitchers to step in and perform, and better consistency from his offense. UST is averaging just five runs a game and has a .298 batting average.
Olean prefers early-game success to late-game magic, but won’t turn down the latter, as was the case on Saturday night.
"Ugly wins count as much as pretty ones do," Olean said.