Learning how to deal with adversity is a challenge for any team, but having to swallow an 11-run loss just an hour before an all-or-nothing national championship game is something few teams, if any, have to face.
Such was the case for Marietta (Ohio) College, who overcame their lone bump in a near perfect season to defeat Chapman (Calif.) University 18-5 for the Division III crown on Tuesday afternoon. Heading into the title game, the Pioneers had a 46-3 record and were in the midst of a 22-game winning streak that saw them bully their way through the Mideast Regional, outscoring opponents 38-9 in four games, and the World Series, outscoring opponents 33-7 in four games.
Rightfully so, the Etta Express, as they are known in Division III circles, was brimming with confidence heading into the tournament’s final day.
“We felt pretty good about where we were,” head coach Brian Brewer said. “Our bullpen was well rested and we knew we would have (senior Brian) Gasser in game one and (junior Austin) Blaski in game two if we needed it, so match-up wise we felt pretty good about winning one of two.”
As it turned out, the Pioneers would need two. Despite throwing Gasser—the ABCA/Rawlings co-national player of the year and D3baseball.com’s national pitcher of the year—in game one, Chapman knocked the Express off their tracks with a 15-4 win, taking advantage of a throwing error to score four unearned runs in the top of the third. The Panthers would then manufacture another run in the fourth before scoring three more unearned runs in the fifth to take a commanding 8-0 lead.
Marietta would score four in their half of the fifth, but Chapman tacked on seven more in the final four innings to force a winner-take-all scenario for the D-III crown.
“There was some disappointment after the game, but we still believed,” Brewer said. “We knew that the longer the day went, the bigger advantage we had because of our depth and our pitching. We didn’t push the panic button and focused all our efforts on winning game two.”
The Pioneers came out swinging in game two, but it wasn’t until after a failed safety squeeze with one out in the first that the runs began to pile on. With runners on first and second and two outs, sophomore right fielder Aaron Hopper hit a double over the center fielder’s head to put Marietta on top early.
“Getting on the board early like that was huge,” Brewer said. “That was Hop; that was what he did all year for us in the five spot. Biggest hit of the year.”
Holding on to that lead, Brewer said, was due in large part to senior center fielder and first team ABCA all-American John Snyder.
“(Chapman) had a similar situation in the bottom of the first with a runner on second and they hit a ball just like Hop’s that Johnny played great because he adjusted to the wind and conditions and learned from what had just happened,” he said.
Snyder’s defensive prowess aside, it was his bat in the middle of the lineup, along with Hopper and fellow ABCA first team all-American Tim Saunders, that gave Marietta its fifth overall national championship, tops among D-III schools.
“Those guys are all special,” Brewer said. “Johnny’s our guy. He’s our leader and the best player on the best team in the country. Hop is still young but he’s one of our first pro position player prospects and is just starting to understand how good he can actually be. And Timmy can jump out of a gym. He was our four-hitter but was more of a basestealer, first-to-third type guy. They were all great.”
The three Pioneers went 8-for-19 in game two with nine runs scored and seven RBIs sparking a seven-run third en route to the drubbing.
Although the offense stole the show on title day, it was Marietta’s pitching staff that dominated for much of the season, as shown by their comical 1.74 team ERA. The Express were lead by Gasser (14-1, 1.06, 86 strikeouts in 93 IP), and Blaski (12-2, 1.62, 86 strikeouts in 95 IP), who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after his six innings of two-hit work in the clinching win. All-tournament selection senior Mark Williams (8-1, 1.56, 97 K’s in 79 IP) pitched in relief of game one of each playoff tournament and then started game three of each. Junior closer Kyle Lindquist (12 SV’s, 1.70 ERA) recorded the final out before being mauled on the mound by his teammates.
“This was a special group,” Brewer said. “The preparation that the guys put in and the commitment they made to each other and the program made the season really simple. We never got caught up in the wins or what we did yesterday or what we’ll do tomorrow, and it takes a great group of players, a great coaching staff, and great trainers to stay in the moment like that.”
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