By DOUG HENNES
APPLETON, Wis. –- St. Thomas’ impressive baseball season came to a quiet end Wednesday with a 5-0 loss to Marietta in an elimination game in the NCAA Division III World Series.
The Tommies (41-10) never got on track offensively against Marietta starter Mike Mahaffey, who gave up four singles and a walk before he was pulled in the ninth inning. They stranded five runners in the last two innings and were shut out for the first time in 89 games.
Steve Maher (13-2), pitching for the third time in six days, took the loss. He trailed only 2-0 going into the eighth, but the Pioneers scored three runs on four hits and a balk to put the game away.
St. Thomas, which was 1-5 this year when it scored two or less runs, finishes third in Division III in its fifth trip to the national tournament. The Tommies were champions in 2001 and 2009 and runners-up in 1999 and 2000.
The Pioneers (48-8), the defending champions, avenged a 3-1 loss to the Tommies three days earlier. They carried their momentum into the final game where they defeated Wheaton (Mass.), 7-2, to cap a 4-0 run through the losers' bracket. They became D-III baseball's first repeat NCAA champion since 1978-79.
Against the Tommies, the speedy Tim Saunders went 4-for-4, including three infield hits, and scored the first three MC runs. Three of the Pioneers' five runs came off two-out hits.
“We really came together as a team this year,” Coach Chris Olean said after the game. “It was always about the Ws (wins) more than anything individually, and that meant a great deal to our success.”
Olean credited Mahaffey, who came into the game with a 6-2 record and 4.22 ERA. He had pitched only one inning in the tournament.
“He threw extremely well,” Olean said. “He was down on all three of his pitches. He was tough. There was not much we could do with him today.”
Senior Charles Bruchu, who had a 14-game hit streak halted (0 for 3 with a walk), said Mahaffey effectively mixed his pitches and kept batters off balance. Bruchu thought the Tommies had a chance to rally when their first two batters singled to open the top of the eighth, but a bunt attempt failed and Mahaffey retired the side on a strikeout, fly ball and grounder.
“He still was throwing well and we couldn’t quite get it done in the eighth,” Bruchu said. “That happens. That’s baseball.”
The inability to move up the runners and score in the eighth hurt, Olean said. “It’s about executing,” he said, “and in a playoff game the little stuff counts.”
Maher finished with two school records for a season -– most wins (13) and most strikeouts (105). He set the win record Friday in the tournament opener against Christopher Newport and the strikeout record Wednesday, when he fanned six Pioneers to end with 105 strikeouts and break Dick Washburn’s 1963 record of 102.
“I’ll take any experience I can get at the World Series,” said Maher, a sophomore. “A lot of guys are coming back, and hopefully we will be back here (in Appleton) next year.”
Marietta took a 1-0 lead in the first. Saunders doubled down the line off third baseman Bruchu’s glove and came in on Mitch Geers’ single to left. The speedy Saunders came into the game hitting .432 on the season and .353 in the tournament, finished 4 for 4 on the day and scored Marietta’s first three runs.
The Pioneers added a run in the third. With two out, Saunders reached on an infield single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a double.
The Tommies struggled to figure out Mahaffey, who set down them with 1-2-3 innings in the first, second, fourth, sixth and seventh. He gave up only a single and a walk until the eighth, when Ben Podobinski and Dan Reichert opened the inning with singles. But Mahaffey retired the next three batters, and Marietta’s three-run eighth iced the game.
Jack Hogan singled to lead off the Tommies ninth and Kyle Lindquist came in to relieve Mahaffey. Bruchu and Podobinski walked to fill the bases but a fly out ended the game.
Podobinski, a mid-game sub, had a single and two walks in three plate appearances.
Olean cited several factors as key to the Tommies’ ability to win their 10th consecutive MIAC regular- season title and go 4-0 in the NCAA Midwest Regional.
“Our defense was one of the best in the country,” he said, “and it kept things afloat until our bats came alive. Adding Steve (Maher) and Dylan (Thomas) as pitchers exceeded anything I thought they could do, and the seniors stepped up. They played like seniors should.”
Olean loses seven seniors, including full-time starters Bruchu at third, Reichert at first and Bryce Gapinski on the mound. Others are Justin Novak, who platooned at second, pitcher John Licht, first baseman John Means and outfielder-DH Nick Reichert.
Another loss will be assistant coach John Buteyn, who helped with the pitching. The Bethel graduate is pursuing a master’s degree in teaching at St. Thomas and will become the new baseball coach at Eden Prairie High School, his alma mater.
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Justin Novak (Mike Ekern photo)
Jack Hogan (4) finished his freshman season with a 14-game hitting streak. (Mike Ekern photo)