CARY, N.C. — Shane Waller rubbed his jersey over his face several times during the ninth inning against Sonoma State Tuesday night. The West Florida pitcher was wiping away the sweat on his face, perspiration that wasn’t just a product of the humid conditions here in North Carolina.
No, he was sweating bullets because he had the bases loaded and his team was trying to keep its grip on a fragile 5-4 lead against the Seawolves at the NCAA Division II Championship at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
“When I walked their first baseman (O’Koyea Dickson) to load the bases, I was mad at myself, but I knew I couldn’t give up,” Waller said. “I had to win this for our team. I had to get it done for us.”
Oh, Waller got it done alright, striking out the final two batters he faced, including Kyle Jones, who struck out looking to end the game. Waller pumped his fist after the final pitch and celebrated the 5-4 win with his teammates.
“It was the most important game I have pitched in,” Waller said. “I am exhausted. I’ll sleep awesome tonight.”
Waller worked the final 2 1/3 innings of the game. He allowed two hits, struck out six batters and walked only three as he tied a school record for saves in a season with 14. The performance further solidified his reputation as one of the top closers in the nation.
He came into the game with a 0.67 ERA and 45 strikeouts.
“This was a game we needed to put us in a position to win the championship,” West Florida head coach Mike Jeffcoat said. “Shane is our go-to guy and we had to put the ball in his hands.”
And when Waller loaded the bases, giving Sonoma State an opportunity to complete a remarkable rally, the senior closer said there was no way he was coming out of the game.
“I told coach he was crazy if he thought he was going to take me out of the game,” Waller said. “I wanted to finish it. I give my teammates credit for sticking by me and my coach for having the faith in me to get finish it.”
The Argonauts jumped in front early, building a 3-0 lead in the third, with runs being knocked in by Josh Huggins, who tallied a base hit through the right side of the field.
Huggins was one of two players with two hits. Taye Larry also tallied two hits and drove in a run for the Argonauts (50-9), who were coming off a 13-0 win against Southern Connecticut State in its first game of the tourney.
But Sonoma State refused to back down. The Seawolves (37-21) scored four runs in the seventh to cut their deficit to one. Although the momentum began swinging in favor of Sonoma State, Jeffcoat reminded his players that the game was far from over.
“It was a little disheartening that they came back, but I told the guys that we still had the lead,” Jeffcoat said. “We were able to keep the lead despite their surge. That is a credit to our team.”
The Seawolves finished with eight hits. Steven Fillipi and Garrett Gooselaw came through with two hits apiece to lead the way.
Jason Postill earned the win, though, giving up three runs on six hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. He recorded five strikeouts. Kendall Davis suffered the loss, allowing four runs on six hits. He walked six batters and struck out two.
Waller then finished the job after Jordan Rasinski pitched a third of an inning. For the senior closer, the win, and this season as a whole, is special. Back in March, Waller was hit in the face by a line drive and suffered a concussion. He also had a few loose teeth but came back to play less than two weeks later.
‘It means the world to me to have this kind of season. I’, pleased with what I have been able to accomplish, but I know I couldn’t have done any of it without my teammates,“ Waller said. “For myself and the other seniors, this is our last chance to win a title. We want to make the most of it.”