GRAND PRAIRIE, TX. — Lightning crashes.
Twice to be precise. And that was what sent day six of the DII Baseball Championship into not one, but two weather delays before the first pitch of the UC San Diego and St. Thomas Aquinas matinee.
Once the game finally started, UC San Diego’s second baseman JD Hearn brought the thunder. He launched his eighth home run of the season over the left field wall — a two-run shot — giving UCSD the easy lead against Anthony Shkrelja.
It was a game of historic proportions for both teams, as it was the first time either team played baseball in June. UCSD hoped today wouldn’t be the last day they played.
JD Hearn, Alex Eliopulos and Kyle Goodbrand made sure they lived to play another day.
Hearn got the party started in the second inning with a home run. Two innings later, Eliopulos — one of the unsung heroes for the Tritons throughout the tournament — kept it going with a bases loaded single that plated two runs in the third.
“I think the biggest part is that we’ve been playing really loose,” Eliopulos said. “Coach said it best. The best team is going to be the team that plays the most normal. We’ve been the most normal. We’re sticking to our approach, and it’s showing on the field.”
The offense scored runs in six consecutive innings, amassing a 10-0 lead after the seventh. Just four days ago, it took this same UCSD team 12 innings to score five runs. They have now scored 31 in the three elimination games since.
Goodbrand cruised through the St. Thomas Aquinas lineup, needing just 89 pitches to get through seven innings. He was helped out by some sharp defense. Michael Polus made an incredible diving catch in foul territory, and then Hearn added a web gem of his own.
“To be honest, it was kind of hit softly off the bat,” Hearn said. “The sun was right there, so I didn't see it that well. I just jumped and I caught it.”
Colorado Mesa has one of the most prolific offenses in DII. It makes perfect sense that it once again found itself in a pitcher’s duel.
They were on the wrong end of an extra-inning pitcher’s battle against St. Thomas on Tuesday, while Chris Ramirez hurled a complete game for the Mavericks on Wednesday. Thursday saw junior Taylor Prokopis make just his third start of the season against West Chester’s 6-foot-7 righty Eric Close.
They both left to a scoredboard filled with goose eggs. Aside from one slot. As it has for much of the Championship, a walk proved deadly. West Chester right fielder Robert Knox drove in the first run of the game, plating Drew Jarmuz who drew Prokopis lone walk.
West Chester had a chance to break it open in the top of the fifth when Robert Knox launched a fly ball deep to left field. Colorado Mesa’s PJ Gonzalez leapt at the wall and robbed him of at least an extra base, RBI hit, possibly a home run. The crowd erupted.
Close did what Close has done this postseason. The big righty was 1-0 entering the game, allowing no earned runs in both his conference and regional start. He tossed six more scoreless innings in Grand Prairie, depsite facing quite a bit of adversity. Twice in consecutive innings, he faced bases loaded jams. Twice a big strikeout saved the day.
It was the way the senior wanted to go out.
"I kind of went out and threw my game, just tried to throw strikes early and get my fastball command down," Close said. "It definitely crossed my mind through certain pitches especially. Got some big strikeouts when I needed to. That was in my mind the whole game. Being a fifth year senior, that's probably it for me. It's definitely a great way to go out. Come out with a W in a 1-0 game."
The bullpens were equally impressive. Colorado Mesa's Jake Mielock went four innings in relief, striking out five and allowing just one hit. Josh McClain went three shutout innings, picking up the save. In doing so, he became the first Golden Ram with 10 wins and 10 saves in the same season.
Colorado Mesa heads back to Grand Junction, owners of a 50-win season. But this is a team that went through a lot of adversity. They should leave here proud.
"There's a genuine love between young people," Colorado Mesa head coach Chris Hanks said. "They care about people other than themselves. We have 18 guys that went with the handicapped kids to Williamsport and spent a week with those kids and their families. These guys bonded together with the loss of our dear teammate Ryan Teixeira. They persevered through all that in helping Ryan through his sickness. This group is about a 3.2 GPA in the classroom, they're a hard working group. I'd go to battle with every single one of them every day of the week."
Three teams are left in Grand Prairie. Friday will make it two.
What a run it's been.