CARY, N.C. — Colorado Mesa advanced to the finals of the DII baseball championship after playing two games in the grueling heat at USA Baseball National Training Complex on Thursday. The first game was a loss to Central Missouri 7-5, the team's first in Cary. Later, in the rubber match, the Mavericks won 1-0 behind Will Dixon’s complete game shutout.
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It sounds like a pretty impressive feat in itself. Dixon tossed nine innings allowing seven hits and just two walks while striking out four. He needed just 103 pitches, 67 of which were strikes, to finish off the Mules in two hours and thirteen minutes.
Oh yeah. It was also the first start of the senior righty’s career.
“Just please get out, that’s what was going through my head,” Dixon said laughing about the hitters.
It gets better. Dixon didn’t even start pitching until his junior season last year. He was a pitcher in high school and was recruited by the very same team he stared down for nine innings on Thursday. But he wanted to pursue offense and being able to hit, so he chose Colorado Mesa.
His roommate at Colorado Mesa was Ryan Teixeira. Prior to the 2017 season, Teixeira lost his battle to cancer. His number was 17, and '17 Strong' became the rally cry for the Mavericks and especially Dixon. He hit .320 with two home runs on Colorado Mesa’s run to the national semifinals in 2017.
“I don’t know if you know why I wear 17, but I was trying to do it for Ryan,” Dixon said of what was going through his head while on the mound during his complete game. “ When we break down we say ‘17 Strong’. It’s our motto to live by.”
FINAL: Colorado Mesa's Will Dixon pitches a gem and sends the Mavericks to the #D2Baseball Championship series on Saturday against Tampa. Current game time is slated for 3:00 p.m. ET.#MakeItYours pic.twitter.com/2mWC6kGrNg— NCAA Division II (@NCAADII) June 7, 2019
Last year, Dixon saw an opening where he thought he may be of help. “We were having a little trouble out of the pen,” Dixon said. “I just said, ‘hey I can get you some outs.’ It turned into me being the setup guy last year.”
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Dixon returned to the mound for the first time since high school in 2018 and was successful. But that was dwarfed by what he did this season. As the Mavericks closer, Dixon posted a 0.66 ERA and recorded his program record-setting 16th save this past Monday night, going 2.1 innings in a 6-5 victory to keep the Mavericks perfect and in the winners' bracket.
“I go out there and I say, ‘what do I not want to see in this situation as a hitter,’” Dixon said. “That’s how I pitch.”
And that’s how he pitched for nine innings on Thursday night. He kept his fastball up high and his 12-6 curveball low, keeping the Mules’ hitters off balance all night. Most of the outs were fly balls through the air, none hit very hard, keeping his pitch count low and the defense rested for the few big plays they needed to make.
“He was throwing a lot of them, but it has such a hard 12-6 action on it, it’s hard to get on top of,” his catcher Spencer Bramwell said. “It’s pretty tempting as a hitter when you see that loopy curveball to try and get under it and loft it.”
“Honestly I had a smile on my face the entire time,” third baseman Caleb Farmer added. “I was having such a good time out there.”
THE MAVS ARE HEADED TO THE SHIP!! pic.twitter.com/VRcQX17rd9— CMU Mavericks (@CMUMavericks) June 7, 2019
So, why Dixon? What was behind head coach Chris Hanks' decision, arguably the single best decision he’s made the entire 2019 season?
“We kind of scratched where it itched and put him in there,” Hanks said. “We looked at our different options, and part of us felt like we were going to put the ball in the hands of a guy who’s been a great leader for our program since he was a freshman.”
Dixon cruised through nine innings, never having the appearance of a pitcher laboring to get through an inning. He stuck to his bread and butter and landed his two pitches for strikes time and time again. Sitting with an ice pack on his arm, Dixon was still unfazed, cracking the jokes that make him so beloved by his teammates.
“The adrenaline took over,” Dixon said. “Ask me in 12 hours how I feel. The answer will probably be a lot different.”
From a sophomore bat to the senior veteran who has pitched what are probably the biggest 11.1 innings of the Mavericks' season, Dixon is in this for one thing, and one thing only. While the championship would be nice and the single-season saves record is an honor, he and the Mavericks are forever 17 Strong.
“I’ve never been part of great teams like these [2017 and 2019] teams,” Dixon said. “In ‘17, that’s when Ryan passed away and that pulled us together. This year has been different. We still rally around 17 Strong but when it comes down to it we just love each other. Before each game, I say, ‘I love you guys, let’s get it.’”