May 11, 2017
Written by Mike Lopresti
RICHMOND, Ind. – Well, that didn't take long, for drama in the HCAC baseball tournament.
A walk-off 10th inning 4-3 victory by No. 1 seed Earlham over Rose-Hulman. An eighth-inning rally from No. 2 seed Manchester to beat Mount St. Joseph 7-6. A couple of one-run decisions that flipped and flopped to the last pitches – when Earlham freshman Danny Dopp hit a game-winning single, and Manchester senior Cory Ferguson threw a game-closing strike.
Pretty good first day, then. The rain stayed away, and the baseball was compelling.
Start with the opener. What do you call it when the top-seeded team on a seven-game winning streak has to fight for its life against an opponent that had lost six of its last seven? Or when the most dynamic offense in the league is shackled by a pitcher who didn't get out of the first inning in his previous start?
"It's called the game of baseball," Earlham coach Steve Sakosits said. HCAC baseball, to be exact.
There were his Quakers Thursday, sending out a lineup that had produced 313 runs this season, hit .315, and dominated its last seven league games by a combined score of 51-20. There was Rose-Hulman pitcher Cody Sunderhaus, who lasted one out against Mount St. Joseph the previous weekend, allowing nine runs. His ERA was 6.04.
Can someone open the window, to throw all those numbers out? Earlham (27-12) scratched for a run in each of the first three innings aganst Sunderhaus, but that was it. Rose-Hulman (18-23) scored three runs in the second – two of them unearned with the help of a throwing error. So there the 3-3 tie stood, inning after inning, as Sunderhaus and Earlham's Howie Smith held firm.
"He was their closer last year and has had a lot of success in the past," Sakosits said of Sunderhaus. "He kept us off balance, did a great job, and they do such a good job of not allowing us to get free bases."
The other important arm belonged to Rose-Hulman catcher Zach Trusk, who muted Earlham's vaunted running game. The Quakers might lead the nation in stolen bases, but Trusk threw out two runners at second and picked off another at first. He was a one-man police force against thievery.
But still, the Quakers found a way. Walter Talcott – 2016 HCAC freshman of the year, who endured elbow issues this season – came out of the bullpen with Rose-Hulman runners at first and third and one out in the eighth, put down that threat, then breezed through the ninth and 10th.
That left Earlham sniffing for an opening, and it came in the 10th when a throwing error put leadoff batter Brennan Laird, on base. A single, sacrifice bunt, and intentional walk loaded the bases for Dopp, who sent the game-winner up the middle. It was Earlham's first extra-inning contest of the season – and first in the tournament in three years.
"Today, we had to win in a different way but that's great for my team to see it," Sakosits said. "We can win in different ways. We don't have to always steal bases. And we can win a tight game."
Earlham did not steal a base the entire game – only the fourth time this season -- so the Quakers were not exactly off and running. But the HCAC Tournament was.
By the fifth inning of the second game, Manchester led 3-0, and Brandon Eck hadn't allowed a Mount St. Joseph hit. It wouldn't be quite that easy for the Spartans.
Once the Lions started hitting, they also started scoring – with two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth for a 3-3 tie.
The back and forth was entertaining, and so was the outfield defense. Manchester left fielder Eric Knepper gunned a Mount St. Joseph runner down at the plate in the top of the fifth. The Lions' Kyree Hawkins answered by doing the same thing from center in the bottom of the fifth.
The throwing exhibition over, Manchester went to work building another lead with two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Mount St. Joseph responded with three runs in the seventh, going in front 6-5 on Simon Schaefer's two-run double. Schaefer is the late-bloomer who had one RBI the first 29 Mount St. Joseph games – missing several with injury -- but 11 in the last 12 games.
But that wouldn't be enough. Manchester (22-19) kept the heat on with not only its bats, but its legs, stealing six bases, forcing the issue with hit-and-runs. Down 6-5 in the eighth, the Spartans used a throwing error, a walk, a double steal, a hot single off the shortstop's glove and Tailur Szarenski's run-scoring groundout to get the lead back.
"This team's been pretty resilient really the last 20 or so games," Manchester coach Rick Espeset said. "We hadn't run that much. It started not because I was calling them, we had a couple of guys that were going on their own, and it just kind of opened up the opportunity. I said `OK, let's run on these guys a little bit.' Really that was the difference."
Cory Ferguson closed out Mount St. Joseph (22-19) in the ninth, getting a last strikeout with the tying run on base. The Spartans have played 41 games, and Ferguson has pitched in 22 of them.
A strange day it was then, that Earlham – No. 1 in the nation in stolen bases – had none. And Manchester – No. 7 in the conference – had six. The winners were to be back at it Friday at 9:30 a.m.
"We've been in the 9:30 game before. Once you get here it feels like it's noon,"Espeset said. "Hopefully the sun's out. But it is kind of odd to start then."
Breakfast at the HCAC tournament.