By DOUG HENNES
The solid pitching that highlighted St. Thomas’ three MIAC playoff wins failed to make a fourth consecutive appearance Sunday as St. John’s defeated the Tommies 10-5 to capture the tournament title at Veterans Field in Minnetonka.
The win gave St. John’s (29-14) an automatic berth in the NCAA regionals, which start Wednesday in Whitewater, Wis. St. Thomas, by virtue of its No. 2 national ranking, 34-8 record and regular-season conference title, is expected to receive an at-large berth when the field is announced Monday.
“Take away the third inning,” said St. Thomas coach Chris Olean, pointing to the scoreboard and seven St. John’s runs, “and it’s a different game. We got 12 hits and made them use a lot of their pitchers, but our final-game pitching didn’t hold up.”
After losing the Friday opener 4-2 to St. Mary’s, the Tommies worked their way into the title game with 7-0 and 10-2 wins over Bethel and St. Mary’s on Saturday and 6-3 over St. John’s in the early game on Sunday.
But Tommie pitching, which allowed only nine runs in the first four games, struggled in Sunday's rematch. Sophomore Zach Franz, making his first start since April 24, gave up two doubles, a walk and a hit batter in the third and left a 3-1 deficit. Reliever John Licht surrendered a two-run home run, a single and another two-run homer to the first three hitters, and St. John’s led 7-1.
Down 9-2 in the seventh, St. Thomas loaded the bases with nobody out and Tim Kuzniar knocked in two runs with a single. But after a Dylan Thomas single to potentially reload the bases, the Tommies ran themselves out of the inning. Ben Podobinski was thrown out at home trying to score on the Thomas single and the Johnnies notched their third double play of the game when Charles Bruchu flied out to the center fielder, who threw out Thomas trying to advance to third.
St. Thomas loaded the bases again in the eighth with nobody out but could score only once.
Despite the loss, Olean is encouraged about his team’s chances in the NCAA playoffs because of the strength of its starting pitching. Mark Dominik, Bryce Gapinski, Steve Maher and Thomas gave up only two earned runs over 33 innings in the first four games.
“Bryce got the shutout (against Bethel), Steve set the school strikeout record (16 against St. Mary’s) and Dylan got a big win on a sore ankle,” Olean said. “The bats are coming around (four straight games with 11 or more hits). We have to clean up our base running, adjust our defense a bit to avoid errors and get better late-inning pitching from our bullpen.”
One of those hot bats belongs to third baseman Charles Bruchu. He finished the five-game playoffs 12 for 19 (.632), with three three-hit games, three home runs, three doubles and 10 RBI.
Dylan Thomas shook off a sprained right ankle and Charles Bruchu had his third consecutive three-hit game to lead St. Thomas to a 6-3 win over St. John’s.
Thomas sprained his ankle in a ninth-inning relief appearance in Friday night’s loss to St. Mary’s when he landed wrong on his foot. He came out of the game but played both Saturday games as the designated hitter and took the mound on Sunday in the elimination game against St. John’s.
“It’s all about making adjustments,” said Thomas, who started with a turf shoe on his right foot and a one-cleat shoe on his left but switched to cleats on both shoes after the second inning. “I couldn’t use my lower half of my body so I had to rely more on the upper half, but I got the job done. I was still hitting 87 (mph) and higher on my fastball, but it didn’t feel I was throwing that hard.”
The junior righthander from Lakeville North gave up only two hits – both in the third inning – as the Johnnies took a 1-0 lead. He pitched through the seventh inning before turning over the ball to reliever Mark Ulrich.
St. Thomas jumped ahead in the bottom of the third. Justin Novak’s bases-loaded RBI single tied the game and Bruchu singled home two runs for a 3-1 lead. The Tommies tacked on single runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and finished with 12 hits, all singles, and stranded nine runners. St. John’s scored twice in the ninth.
Game 1 box score:
Game 2 box score: