By DOUG HENNES
APPLETON, Wis. --- Chris Olean wants –- and doesn’t want –- more birthdays like this one.
The third-year St. Thomas coach, a 1999 alumnus and All-American pitcher who turned 35 on Tuesday, spent his birthday doing what any baseball fanatic would envy – he coached his team in the NCAA Division III World Series.
But it was a nerve-wracking, roller-coaster day for Olean. He saw his Tommies jump ahead of Cortland (N.Y.) State 2-0, fall behind 4-2 and go ahead 7-4, only to have the Red Dragons rally to 7-6 in the ninth before a game-ending strikeout by his top pitcher.
The win keeps the Tommies (41-9) alive in their pursuit of a third national title. They advance to an 11 a.m. Wednesday elimination game against defending national champion Marietta (Ohio), which used a bases-loaded walk in the last of the 10th inning to edge Wheaton (Mass.), 6-5 and stay alive.
The UST-Marietta winner plays in the title game at 2:30 p.m. against Wheaton.
It was the 10th comeback win of the year for St. Thomas, and the 41 wins are the second most in school history -– one off the record set in 1999. This will be the fifth time in five Division III World Series trips that the Tommies will play on the final day; they won titles in 2001 and 2009 and finished second in 1999 and 2000.
“You are one of three teams left in the country with a chance to win the title,” Olean told his team in a post-game huddle. “Can you win two more games?”
He really didn’t need to ask the question. “Yes!” was the resounding answer.
“I guess you can expect every game to be like that,” Olean said in a news conference. “Going into the final day, I feel we are in as good of shape as anybody else.”
Mark Dominik started for the Tommies and picked up his third win of the season in four starts. He gave up four runs – all in the fifth – and pitched through the sixth before turning over a 6-4 lead to reliever Mark Ulrich.
“I got my slider over for a lot of first-pitch strikes,” Dominik said. “When you can go to 0-1, you can use the rest of your stuff. In the fifth inning, I left a couple of balls up and they hit me hard, but we tied it and then went ahead.”
Ulrich coasted through a 1-2-3 seventh and retired the first two batters in the eighth before giving up a single. Olean brought in Steve Maher, normally a starter and the staff ace with a 13-1 record, and Maher gave up a walk before striking out the next batter.
In the eighth, the Tommies picked up what at the time looked like an insurance run but turned out to be the game winner. Jon Kinsel led off with a single and later came in on a Charles Bruchu fielder’s choice grounder to boost the St. Thomas lead to 7-4.
Cortland rallied in the ninth against Maher. The Red Dragons singled and walked to open the inning, and an RBI single cut their deficit to 7-5. With runners at the corners and nobody out, Maher induced a 6-4-3 double play – Kinsel to Justin Novak to Dan Reichert. Another runner scored on the play, but Maher got the game-ending strike out.
“The double play was huge,” said Maher, who likely will get the start in Wednesday morning’s game. “I knew he (Cortland cleanup batter Max Rosing) was a power hitter so I laid off the fastballs, gave him off-speed pitches and he hit one right to Jon. That was a rally killer because nobody was left it on base.”
St. Thomas jumped to an early 2-0 lead, courtesy of two wild pitches. In the first inning, Jack Hogan hit a leadoff double down the left-field line, moved to third on a fly ball and scored on a wild pitch. Dan Reichert singled with two out in the second inning, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on a Sam Miller single.
Dominik held off Cortland until the fifth, when the Red Dragons broke through for four runs on a double, single, walk and back-to-back triples, but the Tommies tied the game at 4-4 in the bottom half. Tim Kuzniar singled and later scored on a Dylan Thomas sacrifice fly, and Nick Reichert doubled in Brucchu, who had singled.
“That was huge,” Dominik said of the two-run rally. “I thanked the guys and I knew I could go back out there and win it.”
St. Thomas went ahead 6-4 with two runs in the sixth. Dan Reichert led off with a single and was forced at second on a grounder by pinch hitter Justin Novak, but the Tommies then executed what Olean called a perfect “steal and hit” play. Novak took off for second, the second baseman moved to cover the bag and Kinsel singled to right. Novak moved to third, scored on Hogan’s sacrifice fly and Kuzniar doubled in Kinsel.
“It wasn’t a hit and run. I can’t take credit for it!” Olean said. “Jon saw Justin take off and tried to hit the ball behind him. It was a big play.”
Nifty fielding also helped Dominik. Bruchu made two sparkling plays in the sixth, throwing out a hitter who dropped a nearly perfect bunt toward third, and stabbing a wicked liner and tagging a runner trying to advance from second. After Monday’s 13-9 loss to Wheaton, when three errors led to three unearned runs, the Tommies had something to prove.
“We knew we had to focus and be stronger behind Mark,” Bruchu said. “Everybody made good plays today . . . and we didn’t have an error.”
Mark Ulrich relieved Dominik to start the seventh and set down five straight hitters before issuing a two-out walk in the eighth. Olean pulled Ulrich and brought in Maher, normally a starter and the staff ace with a 13-1 record, to get the last out. Then it was on to the ninth and a little more drama before Maher sealed the win.
“Always!” Olean replied when asked if the ninth was a little too close for comfort. “Steve got the job done in the end, and that’s what we needed.”
Especially on the coach’s birthday.
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