True, not every baseball conference tournament is like the SEC, with eight of the top 14 teams in this week’s RPI banging batting helmets. Or the ACC with No. 1 ranked Wake Forest. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been compelling stories going on away from the main stage.
The Midwest for example. Hop aboard for a quick tour of conference tournament week.
Wednesday at the Big East
Your money’s no good at the Big East Tournament. Parking is free, admission is free, the hot dogs and pretzels and cheeseburgers and sodas and chocolate/vanilla ice cream swirls are free. Such are the pleasures of the event’s annual home at Prasco Park just north of Cincinnati.
How? More about that in a minute, but first, notice what the fans are watching gratis on the first day of the tournament.
Connecticut is here with a 40-13 record. The Huskies have been one of the rare cold-weather programs to plant their flag in the rankings among the sun-splashed powers from the South and West, clocking in at No. 9 this week in D1Baseball’s top 25. They seek a three-peat title in this tournament but also have bigger hopes.
It’s been 44 years since their last Men's College World Series and they were close enough to Omaha last June to smell the brats in the Charles Schwab Field tailgate lot, advancing to the Super Regional and beating Stanford in the first game before the Cardinal rallied for two wins. In previous years, whenever UConn was eliminated in the NCAA tournament, coach Jim Penders — he’s the guy who used to be a political fundraiser for a U.S. Senator — would remind his players to stay on the top step of the dugout to watch the other team celebrate, as fuel for the future.
“Last year I didn’t have to say a word, There are no steps at Stanford but they were all on that rail watching,” he says after his team slipped past Georgetown 5-4. “There’s a furnace in all of us that’s pretty hot.”
The second game is highlighted by Xavier graduate student Brant Alazaus, who throws more strikes than a pitching machine. In a 6-5 win over Seton Hall, he improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio for the season to 93-8, which is the second-finest in the nation. Counting his early years at DII Walsh, his career ratio is a mind-boggling 241-14.
And now back to the free lunch that is Prasco Park. It’s on the campus of Prasco Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, and the family that owns the company and built the park is the reason you can leave your wallet at home.
“We made a decision that we’ve been blessed tremendously as a Christian faith-based organization. We wanted to give back to the community,” says Philip Arington, part of the family ownership group and the baseball devotee of the clan. “My goal was that people come here, enjoy the great game of baseball and not have to worry about parking costs, ticket costs, food costs, anything.”
But doesn’t he realize how... odd that is?
“I hear that a lot. A lot of first-timers come here and they all say the same thing; how can this be good for your business model? I tell them it’s not about that. It’s a gift.”
They won’t charge anybody to rent the place, not even the Cincinnati Reds, who used Prasco for spring training 2.0 in 2020 when extra preparation was needed for the delayed pandemic season. The Reds kept asking Arington what he wanted for rental. He finally decided, well, maybe he could keep all their used batting practice balls for other Prasco events.
“Every day, the whole field (would be) covered with baseballs. So at night, I’d go out in my golf cart — I’d still be in my suit — and I would pick them up. When they finished I had picked up 6,000 baseballs.”
The park’s capacity is listed at 1,500 but can be expanded. Good thing. More than 2,300 showed up for the Big East title game last May. Arington is here to watch Wednesday night. Among other things, he helps take out some of the trash.
Thursday at the Horizon League
All roads to the Horizon League title go through Wright State, figuratively and literally. Since the No. 1 seed hosts the tournament and the Raiders clinched their fifth consecutive regular season title this season, the event has annually returned to Nischwitz Stadium, just outside Dayton, like the swallows used to return to Capistrano. This year’s freshmen were in seventh grade the last time the Horizon League played the tournament anywhere else.
“We take a lot of pride in that because it makes a difference,” coach Alex Sogard mentions.
When the Raiders beat Milwaukee 6-3 on Thursday, it means they have won seven tournament games in a row going back to 2021 by a combined score of 102-20. In taking the past two tournaments and starting this one, Wright State has trailed at the end of one inning in those seven games.
They’re not invincible — they lost eight Horizon games this regular season — but past domination can help a team’s sense of self.
“I try to preach confidence with our guys,” says Sogard, who is in his fifth season and at 35 is the seventh-youngest head coach in DI. “If they’re not confident in themselves... this game’s dominated by failure. It’s hard enough as it is.”
Sogard has a pitcher who went to high school 20 minutes away, and two years ago was a walk-on redshirt who didn’t see the field. Now Sebastian Gongora is Horizon League Pitcher of the Year and went eight innings on Thursday to run his record to 10-1. His only loss was nearly three months ago.
“When I first got here, I was a little shy, kind of timid. I think one of the biggest things for me was buying into the program and what Sogie and the rest of the coaching staff is doing here,” Gongora says. “They led me to a river to drink and I was the one that had to drink.”
Friday at the Missouri Valley Conference
Strange but true: The winning pitcher for Indiana State this day was supposed to be shipping out to the Marines this weekend.
It’s hard to find a more startling tale in college baseball than Lane Miller. A senior who figured not to be getting many innings this year, Miller enlisted in the Marines and decided to be a student coach for the Sycamores and throw batting practice, working on his fitness before reporting. But then the coaches began noticing how well he was throwing. “Just looking at where we were at and watching our pitching staff, we needed another piece,” coach Mitch Hannahs said. “He was going to get the opportunity with the way he had worked.”
So Miller was sent out to face Purdue in late March. He hadn’t started a game in three years but went eight innings, gave up two runs and beat the Boilermakers. The victory over Evansville this day made him 7-0, not to mention a folk hero to Indiana State’s exploding fan base.
“You get an opportunity you’ve got to take it. You’ve got to run away with it, do everything you can to hold onto that opportunity. That’s basically what I did,” Miller says afterward. “I’m honestly blessed. I was telling the guys before the game, if everything went as planned I was actually going to be shipping out tomorrow.”
He credits a better ability to throw strikes with his sudden success. His command has to be precise because the speed of his fastball — 91 on the best day, high 80s most of the time — will make no radar guns smoke. “Not in my wildest imagination,” Hannahs says of his expectations that Miller could do this. “It’s amazing to watch what has transpired. It’s just been unbelievable what this has moved into.”
On days Miller is not pitching, he’s back to his job as a student coach. “I’m still in the coaches’ office, still right next to the coaches during games. I’m doing everything I was before. Except for I pitch once a week.”
Actually, it all worked out well. Lane had a tattoo put on his wrist over the winter of a sycamore leaf with his jersey number 41, which has to be removed before he shows up with the Marines. This gives him more time. He’ll report in September.
Indiana State has won 40 games the old-fashioned way, with defense and pitching. They start this day No. 2 in the nation in fielding percentage — 33 errors in 54 games — and No. 5 in earned run average. The three main starters — Matt Jachec, Connor Fenlong and Miller — are a combined 23-5. Fenlong has four complete game shutouts in his past six starts. No other pitcher in the country has had four complete-game shutouts the entire season. He hasn’t given up an earned run since April 29.
Oh, and the Sycamores may be among the nation’s leaders in bruises, getting hit by a pitch 103 times. (They would be plunked eight more times in this game).
Could Larry Bird’s old school be seeded highly enough in the NCAA tournament to host a regional for the first time ever? Be at home next week just like the Floridas and Wake Forests of the world? Indiana State starts the day 40-14 and No. 9 in the latest RPI rankings, so why not?
“That’s for others to judge,” Hannahs says. “I just know that we’ve pitched it pretty much at a high level and caught it at a high level all year.”
For a closing argument, they’ll need to finish the job in the conference tournament.
It was a pretty raucous day on tour. Indiana State led Evansville 5-2 in the ninth with the Aces down to their last strike — and then Chase Hug’s grand slam walked it off for Evansville and forced another game.
The Sycamores recovered from this exploding cigar to blank the Aces 6-0 and win the tournament. Now they wait for Sunday to find out if they host a regional.
Wright State, with its Horizon League tournament winning streak broken the day before by Oakland in 10 innings, restored standard operating procedure Sunday by winning the first game in the ninth inning and then burying the Golden Grizzlies 14-0.
But Connecticut is denied its three-peat by Xavier, the Musketeers winning the final game 7-3. More Alazaus, who went five innings. He had five strikeouts and no walks, so make that strikeout-walk ratio for the season 98-8.
Another extraordinary story for Xavier: Shortstop Jack Housinger was named preseason Big East Player of the Year but struggled with his average and was hitting .188 at the end of the regular season. The Musketeers had eight All-Conference selections and he wasn’t one of them. Housinger hit .667 the past week, scored 10 runs, drove in five and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament. Talk about getting a second wind.
The takeaway from the tour? You don’t need the big names of college baseball to be fascinating in late May.