Story by Mike Lopresti
RICHMOND, Indiana – And now, fate has to make up its mind in the HCAC baseball tournament. Which Cinderella story does it like best?
It's down to No. 1 seed Earlham Quakers, who have never won this tournament since joining the conference in 2011. For that matter, have never won any conference tournament. Ever.
It's also down to Mount St. Joseph, who hadn't even qualified for this tournament in nine years.
The numbers on paper will scream for Earlham (28-12) when they meet Saturday. The Quakers moved through in the winner's bracket with an 8-2 victory Friday over Manchester. The last 11 teams in a row to carry a 2-0 record into the final day ended up HCAC champions.
They have won nine games in a row, and have allowed three earned runs in 19 innings in this tournament. They own 10 consecutive victories over Mount St. Joseph, including a three-game sweep this season by a combined score of 23-9. They more a more rested pitching staff.
And a Lions team that has an awful time trying to beat them once will have to do it twice.
"It's right there in front of us," coach Steve Sakosits said. "But we just told our team that obviously we wanted to get to championship Saturday in the winner's bracket, but that goal is over and done with now. Now we have to go out there and try to win that first game so we can go celebrate a conference championship.
"Our kids are mentally locked in."
But Mount St. Joseph is a dangerous last obstacle, after a pair of late-inning escapes Friday, first knocking out defending champion Rose-Hulman 3-1, then Manchester 4-2.
The Lions (24-19) have won 10 of their last 13. And 10 of their last 14 victories have come by one or two runs. The word "plucky" comes to mind. Teams like that don't pay much attention to what's on paper.
"I think with these guys you never know," coach Jeff Newman said. "We've got some guys who have some grit and they're going to fight. Winning two against the league champs is going to be tough. When you get to games like this it kind of comes down to guts rather than talent."
Where to begin with Earlham Friday?
Pitching? Freshman Kyle Gorman retired the first 12 Manchester batters he faced, and threw a five-hitter over eight innings, with seven strikeouts. "I had all my pitches from the start, which really helped," Gorman said. Especially his curve, which vexed the Spartans all morning. More about that curve in a minute.
"Our freshman," Sakosits said, "Didn't pitch like a freshman."
Offense? The Quakers banged out 12 hits and made their intentions known quickly in the first inning: A Nate Lynch single to lead off, followed by a sacrifice bunt, then Eric Elkus' RBI double into the right field corner. Four batters in, Earlham had a 1-0 lead it would never lose.
Cody Krumlauf's RBI double highlighted a three-run fourth that made it 4-0. Gorman's only spell of untidiness came in the fifth, when Manchester cut the gap to 4-2 with three hits and two runs to open inning. A hit batter loaded the bases with one out, top of the Manchester batting order coming up; something of a crisis for Gorman.
But not for long. This might have been the exact moment Earlham took the 2017 HCAC Tournament by the throat.
First, Gorman struck out Braxton Riley. "I knew if I could get the second out, that would be big," he said. "It was a changeup and he just swung over top of it."
Then, he retired Tailur Szarenski, who lofted a full-count curve to right. A 3-2 breaking ball with no place to put the hitter? Really? The needle was obviously ticking up on Gorman's confidence-o-meter. "It was one of my best pitches today. They were chasing a lot. I thought, it's been working, might as well keep with it," Gorman said.
"A 3-2 breaking ball with a freshman . . . pretty good" Sakosits said. "I felt like the momentum that was going their way stopped at that point."
When five consecutive Earlham batters reached base to score four runs in the sixth – all after two out – the lead was 8-2 and the game secure. Manchester added to its own troubles with three errors in the sixth, and five for the game.
But where also to begin with Mount St. Joseph, who made it through Find-A-Way Friday? Both games were won with late runs, both had to be saved in the end by closer Matt Hofmann.
"Survive and advance," Newman said. "I think it's the senior leadership. The last part of the season, they really stepped up. They never give up. We won a lot of close games at the end of the season, and they keep fighting."
First, the Lions got by Rose-Hulman (18-24), with five hits scattered over seven innings by Austin Richey, who might have come into the game with only one win all season and a 7.01 earned run average, but didn't pitch that way.
Nathan Hunter's homer – it took 34 innings for anyone in this tournament to hit one -- broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth, and Simon Schaefer's RBI single in the eighth padded the Mount St. Joseph margin. Hofmann got the last five outs.
Then, the Lions finished off Manchester (22-21) with two runs in the top of the ninth. Roman Rothwell's RBI single broke a 2-2 tie, and a second run came home on an error – one of Manchester's six.
The Spartans had 11 errors for the day's two games, or only two fewer than they had hits. Hard to overcome that.
In the first game, Rose-Hulman was 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position -- making the Engineers 2-for-17 for the tournament, which explains the quick exit. In the second game, Manchester stranded 11 runners, including leaving the bases loaded in the seventh, and the tying runs on the ninth when Hofmann got two groundouts.
The Lions spent all day looking over the edge of the abyss, but never fell in. And against Manchester, they got away with stranding 11 runners themselves, including eight the last four innings.
That gave Hofmann nine saves and a 0.42 earned run average. In other words, Earlham does not want to get behind in the late innings Saturday.
"He's nice to have," Newman said. "He basically got us here. You get a lead at the end of a game and it's lights out. He's going to shut the door on some teams."
But Earlham is not just some team. The Quakers sense going where no one from their school has gone before.
"I think avoiding the distractions is the biggest part. Just play like we have been," Gorman said. "Now that we're definitely rolling, we feel like we can't be beat at this point, because we're playing our best ball."
One stubborn opponent is left, with its own fairy tale in mind. High noon Saturday.