SCSU dusts off first inning falter
Simon, Owls give up three runs early but fight back for victory
CARY, N.C. -- Steve Simon could have been swallowed up by the enormity of the moment. There was a ton of pressure on his shoulders and it would have been easy to fold in an elimination game at the NCAA Division II national tournament Wednesday night.
Giving up three runs in the first inning will put a pitcher in that situation, and yet, the Southern Connecticut senior refused to fall apart against Sonoma State on a humid evening at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
He put the rough inning behind him and pushed forward, shutting down the Seawolves for six consecutive innings, and his phenomenal effort ultimately helped propel the No. 10 Owls to a 6-4 win, keeping their dream of a national championship intact.
“The first inning was rough. I was hot, sticky and sweaty, and the ball wasn’t coming out of my hand right,” Simon said. “I had a chance to cool down in the first inning and came back out and went to work.”
No one should be surprised that Simon shined on the big stage for the Owls (45-8-1). He came into this game with a 6-1 record and a 2.20 ERA. He had allowed only 18 runs and had recorded 74 strikeouts.
But when Simon hit Cameron Cook with a pitch to start the game and walked Steven Filippi, there was concern in the Owls dugout. O’Koyea Dickson rocked a double to centerfield moments later driving in two runs, and head coach Tim Shea wasn’t sure what to expect the rest of the night.
He knew he needed Simon to hang in there as long as possible. He just wasn’t sure how long he could stay on the hill.
“To be honest, that first inning, Simon wasn’t sharp,” Shea said. “We were facing elimination and we are here to win the whole thing. We had to be conservative and keep Steve out there. He settled down and got us out of the inning and played well from there.”
By the end of the night, the final stat line showed that Simon had pitched seven innings, giving up four runs on eight hits and striking out seven.
“I had a nice rhythm going,” Simon said. “My fastball was down and that worked to my advantage. I was able to stay out of trouble.”
It didn’t hurt that the Owls provided Simon with plenty of offensive support. T.J. Shea provided the biggest spark, and in surprising fashion no less. The freshman ripped a three-run shot down the right field line in the second inning and tied the game at 3-3.
The Owls took the lead for good an inning later when Bryan Dorsey laid down a sacrifice bunt to push across a run to give SCSU a 4-3 advantage. The Owls finished with nine hits and did not commit an error.
Shea, Michael Cleary and A.J. Rouleau all tallied two hits for the Owls. The offensive production provided inspiration to Simon.
“These guys have picked me up all year long. They are a gutsy group,” Simon said. “It was my turn to help them out. That is why I stepped up and gave the performance that I did [Wednesday night].”
Sonoma State refused to back down. The Seawolves (37-22) had been down before but have displayed their resilience throughout the tournament.
They went into the ninth inning down by two runs and the Sonoma State players stood on the edge of the dugout as airplanes flew over ahead and the crowd of 314 cheered.
But with Mike Johnston on the mound to close the door, Sonoma State fell short of a win. Johnston earned his 16th save with two innings of shutout ball. He struck out one.
Now, the Owls will continue their tournament journey and Simon can’t wait to get back to work in the hopes of delivering the program’s first national title.
“We have five seniors who have played well all year, and we know this is our last stab at it,” Simon said. “We want to take it as far as we can. We have never been this far in the tournament and we’re proud to still be playing. We are going to give it everything we’ve got from here on out.”