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Off The Bat: Baylor Wins First Big 12 Tournament, Hartford Dances

Baylor Wins Thrilling Big 12 Tournament Championship Game

The Big 12 Tournament championship game in Oklahoma City provided a dramatic ending to a weekend of conference tournaments across the country. Texas Christian, playing for its postseason life, battled Baylor right to the end Sunday. But the Bears twice erased one-run deficits when they were down to their last out and won the title, 6-5, in 11 innings.

Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said his team never lost belief.

“It’s a great credit to our guys,” he said. “They just never stopped. It was really impressive.”

Baylor jumped out to an early lead with three runs in the first inning. But TCU chipped away at the lead and took a 4-3 lead in the eighth. With closer Durbin Feltman on the mound in the ninth, the Horned Frogs appeared to be on their way to the title. But with two outs, freshman Nick Loftin doubled. Senior Randall Cunningham followed with a fly ball to right field that got lost in the sun and fell in, allowing Loftin to score and send the game to extra innings.

TCU again pushed ahead with a run in the 11th. But the Horned Frogs were unable to close out the game in the bottom half of the inning. Andy Thomas worked a bases-loaded, two-out walk to tie the game and Shea Langeliers followed with a walk-off single to give Baylor (36-19) the title.

Rodriguez said the game will stick with him for a long time.

“You always get the question as a coach, what’s your favorite game or the most memorable game – this is one of those,” he said. “You look back at a game like this and it’s unbelievable. I told our guys to stay positive and we’re going to win this thing.”

The Bears swept through the Big 12 Tournament as the No. 5 seed. Baylor on Wednesday beat Oklahoma, 4-0, to open the tournament. It knocked off Kansas, 10-5, to advance to the semifinals, where it eliminated Oklahoma with a 10-3 victory. In the end, the Bears won the tournament for the first time in program history after coming up short in the championship six previous times.

Rodriguez is in just his third season at Baylor and wasn’t a part of any of those losses. But he was surprised to learn the Bears had never won the tournament.

“I don’t know the deep history of all the tournaments, but the history of Baylor baseball has been pretty impressive,” he said. “That came as a shock to me. It makes it more memorable for all of us.”

Baylor now advances to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. The Bears last year went 0-2 in the Houston Regional, losing a close game to Texas A&M before getting routed by Houston in an elimination game.

Rodriguez said that experience was critical for the Bears and expects the team to this year be more prepared for regionals.

“Everybody has said that, ‘I know it didn’t go how you wanted,’” Rodriguez said. “But if you told me we would get to a regional last year, I absolutely would take it because it has to start somewhere.

“It was great to go through that. We needed to feel those emotions.”

Baylor will carry momentum into the NCAA Tournament. The Bears have won six straight games and 20 of their last 22 since the middle of April. The Bears turnaround has been partly a matter of getting healthy and partly about finding an identity as a team.

They have clearly hit on something that works with a strong bullpen led by closer Troy Montemayor (2-1, 2.49, 11 SV) supporting a solid starting staff and a deep lineup anchored by Cunningham (.344/.401/.552, 9 HR).

The Bears have been growing up all season and Sunday provided another key lesson that they will now look to carry into the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

Hartford Advances To First NCAA Tournament

Hartford in 2017 went 20-30 and finished in last place in the America East Conference. It was a disappointing season after winning a program record 37 games in 2016 and expectations were low going into this spring. The Hawks were unanimously picked to finish last in the conference’s coaches’ poll.

Those low expectations have made this year that much sweeter for the Hawks. They won the America East regular season title and this weekend swept through the conference tournament to win the championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Hartford on Saturday sealed the tournament title with a 9-4 victory against Stony Brook in the championship game and is now headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” coach Justin Blood said. “We’ve been working for seven years to accomplish this. We had a couple seasons I thought we had a chance and we squandered big one in 2016. It was satisfying to come back from what was a tough year to this year and being picked to finish last by everyone.”

Hartford (26-29) played an ambitious schedule and its record early in the season suffered as a result. It began the season at South Alabama and the next weekend traveled to Oregon State for a four-game series. The schedule also included midweek games against the Northeast’s top teams including Bryant, Connecticut, Northeastern and Yale. It wound up as the 39th strongest nonconference schedule in the country.

While the Hawks went just 7-21 in nonconference games, the schedule prepared them for their strong the America East season. Despite getting swept, the trip to Oregon State was especially beneficial. Hartford lost a pair of one-run games and lost the other two games, 5-0. But Blood said the Hawks proved something to themselves that weekend in early March.

“I felt like we didn’t back down,” Blood said. “We talked when we got back that if we can take positives and turn them into something and succeed down the road, it’ll be a successful weekend.”

Hartford did just that and after starting the year 1-10, turned its season around once America East play began. Freshman Nicholas Dombkowski (6-5, 2.73) stepped right into the rotation and was named

pitcher and rookie of the year. Relievers Seth Pinkerton (2-3, 2.23, 11 SV) and Drew Farkas (7-2, 2.77) worked well out of the bullpen.

Offensively, senior Nick Campana (.389/.472/.626, 10 HR, 21 SB) has been the team’s catalyst and was named player of the year.

“He has great power, he steals bags and he doesn’t strike out,” Blood said. “He’s about as complete a player that we saw this year.”

Now, Hartford is ready to play on the big stage of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawks know they’ll be facing a very talent opponent wherever they get sent for regionals, but Blood isn’t worried about how they’ll respond. In contrast to his own fiery mentality during his playing career, he said this year’s team is more even-keeled, a quality he thinks serves them well.

“I could be characterized as very emotional player when I played,” he said. “This team is the opposite. It’s not a loud dugout, not a lot of antics. I’ve come to realize it’s just who they are. It’s better that they remain in that state rather than try to force them to be something they’re not."

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon State, Stanford.

I have stuck with Texas Tech in this space nearly all season. But the Red Raiders have been maddeningly inconsistent. They this week followed up a massive sweep at Oklahoma State with a 1-2 showing in the Big 12 Conference Tournament. Can Texas Tech put together back-to-back weekends strong enough to send it back to Omaha? I’m no longer convinced. So in comes hard-charging Florida State which is again going into the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak. Last year that carried the Seminoles to the College World Series and momentum is once again on their side.

Chase Dollander (Bill Mitchell)

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Weekend Standouts

Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Florida State: The Seminoles on Sunday beat Louisville, 11-8, in 10 innings to win their second straight Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title. Florida State is the first team to win back-to-back titles since Wake Forest did so in 1998-99. Florida State has advanced to the championship game in four straight years and has won three titles in that time.

Long Island-Brooklyn: The Blackbirds beat top-seeded Wagner, 8-5, to win the Northeast Conference Tournament for the first time in program history. Long Island (31-24) under second-year coach Dan Pirillo will return to regionals for the third time in program history and the first time since 1972.

Morehead State: The Eagles fought through the losers’ bracket and beat top-seeded Tennessee Tech twice in the championship round to win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. Niko Hulsizer hit a go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth inning Sunday to send Morehead State to a 4-3 victory. With Sunday’s win, the Eagles claimed the fourth OVC title in program history.

Todd Peterson, RHP, Louisiana State: The legend of Todd Peterson on Thursday was born in Louisiana State’s 6-4 victory in 12 innings against South Carolina. The righthander came out of the Tigers’ bullpen and threw the final five innings. He also made his mark at the plate. Because LSU had given up the DH earlier in the game, Peterson came to the plate to hit in the 12th inning. Coach Paul Mainieri initially planned to instruct him not to swing, but when South Carolina brought in a reliever to face Peterson, Mainieri asked Peterson about his background as a hitter. Peterson assured Mainaieri he “hit nukes” in high school and Mainieri gave him license to swing away. Peterson, in his first college plate appearance, drove a two-run double off the left-field wall to the delight of his teammates. Peterson during the postgame press conference admitted to Mainieri that he had lied and that even his high school coach hadn’t allowed him to hit. “So you lied to me?” Mainieri asked. “Coach, I wanted to swing,” Peterson replied.

Mason Strickland, RHP, Southern Mississippi: The senior on Sunday threw a three-hit shutout against Charlotte to send Southern Miss to the Conference USA Tournament championship game against Florida Atlantic. The Golden Eagles won that game as well and Strickland was named tournament MVP. Southern Miss won both the regular-season and tournament titles, giving it the double for the first time since 2003.

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