Gene's Blog: Baseball rides "Sweet-Heat" duo to sweep
April 19, 2012
Steve Maher has the second most wins in Division III with a 9-0 record. (Greg Smith photo)
Wednesday at Koch Diamond, fans were treated to this year’s baseball battle for “55105.”
Last year’s MIAC co-champions, the Macalester Scots and the St. Thomas Tommies, squared off in two seven-inning games for Summit Avenue supremacy… and zip-code bragging rights.
The Toms started the day with a 22-4 record, a three-game lead in the conference race, a No. 3 national ranking, a 13-game season win streak and 20 consecutive home victories. St. Thomas had been living right coming into Wednesday with seven comeback wins and a 9-0 record in games decided by one or two runs.
St. Thomas’ success even caught the attention of WCCO-TV, who stopped by for some pre-game interviews and early-game footage: to watch video story, click on this link then on photo/arrow: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/04/18/st-thomas-baseball-team-uses-defense-to-stay-on-a-roll/
Macalester shared the 2011 conference title -– its first baseball championship since 1950. The hard-hitting Scots made the five-minute drive west sitting in second place and looking for revenge for three 2011 losses to UST.
St. Thomas outscored Mac 34-18 in last year’s three meetings, but Wednesday's forecast predicted that instead of sluggers, pitching and putouts would rule the day.
Both teams had their best starters lined up, and there was another obstacle for hitters: You’ve heard meteorologist Dave Dahl talk about Alberta Clippers, and football's Denny Green discuss Calcutta Clippers. On Wednesday, a familiar Koch Clipper rolled in from the Mississippi River. That brought those swirling, western winds that stand up hard fly balls and turn possible extra-base hits into outs.
The games also had a unique backdrop that makes the MIAC fun. Macalester has 10 California natives on a roster that also includes four New Yorkers and two Floridians. Only in this conference can you face pitchers who graduated from a hyphenated Minnesota high school one week, then on this day bat against hurlers from Los Angeles (Nick Meerson); Cooper City, Fla., (Chase Kahn); Cool, Calif., (Nathan Kelleher-Crew); and Evanston, Ill., (Justin Kleschen).
Call to Arms
The Tommies started a pair of right handers, sophomore Steve Maher (8-0) and junior Dylan Thomas (3-2). The two grew up within a 25-mile range of campus but had college and junior-college stops in Illinois and Iowa before they settled in last fall at Summit and Cretin. With their combined 5-0 record, 1.53 ERA, 41 strikeouts and four walks in MIAC play, Maher and Thomas are pitching well enough to command unique nicknames as a tandem.
How about "Sweet (Maher)" and "Heat (Thomas)?"
Staked to an early 3-0 lead, Maher retired the first 18 Macalester batters. Just as people were wondering whether a St. Thomas guy has ever pitched a perfect game, Maher served up a leadoff walk in the last inning. Then a sinking liner rolled for an RBI triple. After an RBI ground out cut the lead to 3-2, a wild-pitch third strike and a single let the Scots put the tying and go-ahead runners at first and second bases with one out.
Maher collected himself and got his 12th ground ball of the game, and his middle infield turned it into a 6-4-3 double play to close out the victory. UST had no errors and used two-out RBI hits by Tim Kuzniar, Nick Reichert and J.D. Dorgan to plate their three runs.
"Sweet" Maher moved to 9-0 with a 1.56 ERA and 59 Ks in 56 innings. That’s the second most victories thus far in Division III, and he’s the first Tommie to start out 9-0 since Jim Cummings did it in 1997 en route to his 10-0 season record. Maher has worked out of sixth- or seventh inning jams in all four of his MIAC victories.
With Thomas (shown at right) on the mound in game two, UST took an early 3-0 lead as it benefitted from the previously mentioned Koch Clipper. The Toms loaded the bases in the second inning and all three scored on Ben Podobinski’s two-out, wind-blown smash into the gap. Call it a Muhammad Ali hit: The Mac leftfielder did a 360 turn trying unsuccessfully to corral the ball, which stood up in the wind then floated like a butterfly... and stung like a bee.
Four Mac pitchers didn't give up an earned run over UST's last nine innings on the day, but the Scots couldn't break through against Thomas. In the second inning, the Toms gunned down a Mac runner at home plate as Podobinski’s throw and Dorgan’s block and tag at home cut down a runner trying to score from second base. Thomas gave up an infield hit and a double to start the fourth inning, but used three strikeouts to strand the runners in scoring position.
Thomas lost his shutout with two outs in the final inning, but got a game-ending ground out with two runners on to cap a 3-1 victory.
In three MIAC games, "Heat" Thomas is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA and 25 strikeouts and just two walks in 20 innings.
UST now has a 15-game win streak — the program's longest since 1999 when Olean was a senior All-America pitcher. Its 12-0 MIAC start is the best by a Tommie baseball team since 1997.
“The pitchers did their job, threw strikes and didn’t walk guys,” said Tommie coach Chris Olean. “Honestly, they weren’t even as sharp as I’ve seen them, but it’s nice to know that even if you don’t have your A-plus stuff you can still beat the No. 2 team in the conference.”
The Tommie defense made it 56 consecutive innings without an error. They lead all 360 Division III teams with a .980 fielding clip. UST infielders have just six errors in 28 games, and the Toms are 20-2 this season when they commit one or no errors.
St. Thomas also leads D-III with its 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and in fewest walks per nine innings.
And if you're keeping score at home, in six games against its closest geographic challengers (Hamline, Augsburg and Mac), the Toms have pulled out all six by a combined eight runs.
PHOTO: Charles Bruchu (right) has no errors at third base in his last 42 chances (Greg Smith photo)
The Tommies have a bye this Saturday. They play a nine-inning game at Bethany Lutheran on Monday, and return home to play Carleton on Tuesday for a conference twinbill. Carleton, coming off a sweep of second-place Augsburg, has won five in a row. Like Macalester, the Knights will visit St. Thomas with a coast-to-coast roster including pitchers from hometowns of Seattle, Trabuco Canyon, Calif., Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and Aspen, Colo.
Olean said his players understand that the Tommies must keep improving, especially in producing runs.
“I’m not worried about overconfidence or losing focus, because we haven’t played well enough in all phases to get too high about anything,” the coach said. “We know that throwing strikes and playing defense is going to win us ballgames. If we start swinging the bats better, that will be a plus.”
Every year seems to bring a new wrinkle in MIAC baseball. Guess who the conference's best hitting team thus far in 2012 is? St. Mary’s, at .321, and a league-high 288 hits.
There's been one constant in the sport for the last 20 years, though — St. Thomas teams playing good defense, throwing strikes, mixing in two-out RBI hits, and pulling out close wins. This year's bonus? A "Sweet/Heat" pitching combo that's elevating the Tommies' national profile, too.
Photos by Greg Smith: gsmithsports.com