CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Tie game. Ninth inning. NCAA tournament elimination game. Towson coach Mike Gottlieb had to decide which Florida Atlantic hitter he wanted reliever Nik Nowottnik to face.
The Owls had Geoff Jimenez on third with two outs. Brandon Sanger, a lefthanded hitter, was the scheduled hitter, with righthanded-hitting Corey Keller on deck. Sanger had one hit and an RBI in the game, but Keller had two hits, a double and home run.
“If you look at the numbers,” coach Gottlieb said afterward, “Sanger is hitting 110 points higher. I wasn’t worried about the home run. I was worried about a single.”
So he had Nowottnik walk Sanger intentionally to face Keller. The senior right fielder promptly drilled the first pitch off the base of the wall in left field for what proved to be the game-winning run in FAU’s 6-5, season saving win. Towson (30-30) was eliminated, while the Owls play top-seeded North Carolina in tonight’s regional championship.
Keller went 3-for-5 with three RBIs and now has three doubles and three home runs in the regional. Gottlieb’s move went by the book but didn’t pass the eye test considering how hot Keller has been in the regional.
“I was kind of shocked to see them walk Sanger,” Keller said. “(Nowottnik) struck me out in the last at-bat, so maybe that was it. First pitch, I was looking for something up and he threw me a slider belt high. I figured it would be something offspeed.”
It was, a slider that hung up. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Gottlieb said.
FAU also went with a familiar commodity to close it out, and fifth-year senior Hugh Adams came through with his third victory. Adams has 17 saves and is the career saves leader in the Sun Belt Conference, and he pitched two scoreless innings. The Bethesda, Md., native struck out two in the bottom of the ninth, retiring Domonic Fratantuono on a 3-2 check-swing. Fratantuono leaped in disgust, but Gottlieb said he had “no beef” with the call.
He also had no beef with the Tigers’ amazing season. The program was threatened with being cut in October, and the end was announced in March. Then a $300,000 grant from the state of Maryland, spurred by Gov. Martin O’Malley, saved the program for at least the next two years, and the reaction from a galvanized Towson community has given the program new energy and life. The team capitalized by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament for the first time and earning its first NCAA regional bid since 1991.
The season was an impressive ride for the Tigers, who didn’t want it to end quite yet.
“I’m speechless, what with all we’ve been through,” sophomore first baseman Brendan Butler said. “I want to thank Coach Gottlieb and all the parents and supporters who helped us stay positive. All in all, it was a championship year. I think now we realize how good we are.”