Florida Atlantic Eliminates Canisius

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack was expecting to use his ace, sophomore lefthander Austin Gomber, on Saturday. He was hoping before this NCAA regional began that Gomber would be facing top-seeded North Carolina, but the Owls lost their opener Friday to Towson, and McCormack thought about holding Gomber back until his team faced the Tar Heels.

Then he scouted Friday night’s Canisius-North Carolina game. The one where Canisius trailed 4-3 in the eighth inning and had the bases loaded before the Tar Heels worked out of that jam and wound up with a 6-3 victory. When McCormack got back to the hotel from Boshamer Stadium, he called Gomber around 9:30 p.m. and told him he was starting Saturday’s elimination game.

“Last night I came to the game and I was really impressed with Canisius,” McCormack said. “I just didn’t want to be on the plane flying back home without having out ace pitch in this tournament”

So Gomber started, pitched into the eighth inning and got a powerful performance by the FAU offense in a 14-6 victory that eliminated the Griffins (42-17) while pushing FAU to the 40-win mark. The Owls (40-21) now play Sunday against the loser of Saturday night’s North Carolina-Towson matchup.

Gomber went 7.2 innings, giving up seven hits and five runs (three earned) while walking one and striking out two. “He pitched fantastic. It was exactly what we needed,” McCormack said.

Gomber added, “This team is the kind of team that takes a lot, so pound the strike zone,” Gomber said. “When (Nathan) Pittman and the offense do what they do, it makes it easier to do that.”

Senior outfielders Nathan Pittman and Corey Keller spurred the Owls’ offense, which benefited from 10 Canisius walks. Pittman, the center fielder and leadoff man, walked to open the game and scored later on a fielder’s choice, then hit a three-run homer in the second off Devon Stewart (5-6) to give FAU a 4-0 lead. McCormack said the three-run shot changed the dugout dynamic and gave the Owls a huge confidence boost.

Keller, a former walk-on who lost his starting spot at midseason only to hit his way back into the lineup down the stretch, took it from here. Stewart walked the bases loaded in the third before departing, and Alex Godzak unleashed a wild pitch to make it 5-2. Keller then put the game away with a three-run homer deep to left to make it 8-2, and Keller added a solo shot in the ninth. His seven home runs ranks second on the Owls’ roster.

McCormack said he’d start senior righthander Jake Meiers on Sunday, no matter who the Owls play. And if FAU gets to Monday, it sounds like Gomber, who threw 95 pitches in this one, could be used, at least for a short stretch.

Canisius ended its first-ever regional appearance with an ugly loss, and coach Mike McRae had a hard time reflecting so quickly after a poor performance.

“It was a terrific team with an awful lot of talent, and we’re going to lose some of that talent,” McRae said. “There’s no question that having leadership and the quality of leaders that we had in both (seniors) Chris Gruarin . . . and Brooklyn Foster, who was just as good a leader when he was on the bench as when he was in the field. That’s going to be sadly missed . . . That’s an ingredient we’ve lacked. It’s a tough piece to recruit, and it’s something that we need if we want to continue to try and set the bar if not only for this program but for the league in terms of number of wins and championships.”