CARY, N.C. — A.J. Roleau considers himself to be one of those players who doesn’t go down at the plate easily. A pitcher is going to have to work hard to put him away, and in the sixth inning, with the game still hanging in the balance against top-ranked Grand Valley State in the NCAA Division II finals, Roleau delivered for Southern Connecticut.
He punched a single down the right-field line and two runs came across the plate as the Owls (44-8-1) extended their lead to 7-4 and ended up holding on for an 8-6 victory against the Lakers (52-5) in an elimination game here on a blazing sun-splashed Tuesday afternoon at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
Roleau, who broke 12 school records in baseball at Westborough High School in Massachussets has been making an impact with SCSU since his freshman season when he started 19 games. The fact that he stepped up when his team needed a big hit badly should hardly surprise anyone.
The thing is, Roleau was modest when he talked about his role on the team
“I’m just one guy in the lineup,” Roleau said. “There are a lot of great hitters on our team. I just try to be a tough out and allow us to get to the next batter in our lineup.”
As for the hit that swayed the momentum in favor of the Owls, well, he said the approach was simple.
“It was a big deal to have those guys on base when I came up to bat,” Roleau said. “Coach told me to stay back, and I did. I ended up hitting the ball hard and fortunately we were able to get a couple of runs home.”
SCSU head coach Tim Shea said Roleau, who came in hitting .253 with 43 hits and 29 RBI, has been coming up big all season.
The only thing different about this situation is that the stakes were a little higher. If the Owls lost, they would be packing their bags tonight for the trip home.
Roleau’s single was his only hit of the game and one of 14 the 20th-ranked Owls cranked out in the upset win against the Lakers.
“I knew A.J. had the ability to come up with a big hit,” Shea said. “He has done it a handful of times this season. He is one of the toughest outs on our team.”
So is Kyle Cummings, who helped spark an early rally against GVSU, which charged in front 3-0 in the third inning on an RBI-single by Giancarlo Brugnoni and a double to the corner of the wall in right field that nudged the Lakers in front 3-0.
Enter Cummings, who ripped a single to right and gave the Owls a 4-3 advantage. Cummings had a monster day at the plate. He tallied three hits, drove in three runs and scored a run as SCSU kept its dream alive of becoming the first team from the Northeast Region to win a title.
“We had to answer, and we felt like we got back into the game mentally and physically with the (four) runs in the fourth,” Cummings said. “I just tried to stay relaxed at the plate and come up with big hits. I stroked the ball well today.”
GVSU had no response. The Lakers pulled within 7-6 in the sixth on Brugnoni’s two-run double to center with two outs but Mike Johnston closed the door in 1 1/3 innings of work. He struck out two of the four batters he faced.
Ryan Yerina earned the win. He last 2 1/3 innings and gave up two runs on two hits.
The Lakers managed eight hits and left 11 on base as their remarkable season wrapped up without a national title to punctuate it. GVSU had won 32 games in a row before its 7-6, extra-inning loss to Sonoma State on Sunday.
Brugnoni led GVSU with two hits and three RBI. Bill Maple took the loss. He went 1 1/3 innings and allowed three runs on two hits.
“It sucks,” Brugnoni said. “We felt like we were the best team down here. We should have been the best team here. It’s disappointing that we had, arguably, two of our worst games of the year down here. We know we didn’t play our best.”
For the Owls, life is still good. They will play either West Florida or Sonoma State at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We didn’t play our best baseball the other night, but we came back today against a great team and showed what we are made of. “We haven’t been beaten in back-to-back games all year and I told our guys the team that wanted it the most would win.”