Photo courtesy of SHU Athletics
The Seton Hall Pirates entered the final regular season weekend against Big East bottom-feeder Georgetown needing help to make it to Bright House Field in Clearwater, FL for the 2011 Big East Baseball Championship. Their plight was a familiar one- the Pirates in recent years had barely missed the tournament a ton of times in this same fashion, faltering down the stretch. But this team was different.
It started with a sweep of the Hoyas, during which everything fell into place. Not only did the Pirates get in, they earned the 5 seed, and a first round date with West Virginia. The team quickly made preparations to travel down to Florida, as did WSOU (on extremely short notice as well). I was there, and let me tell you- the team felt good about its chances thanks to a pitching staff that was tops in the conference led by a strong senior ace in Joe DiRocco, a near-flawless defense, and a smallball, team-oriented offense that was on a roll heading into the tournament. It was good to see that the team was confident in itself. But no one could have predicted what would happen next for the Pirates, their families, and Chris Paizis and I down in Florida.
Follow the jump for a complete wrap-up of the Pirates' historic journey through the Big East Tournament.
It all started on Wednesday evening, as the Pirates faced the Mountaineers in the first round of the tournament. Behind big games from Will Walsh (2-5, 2 R, RBI), Frank Esposito (3-5, 2 R, 2 RBI) and Sean Gusrang (2-5, R, 2 RBI) along with a solid start from DiRocco (7 IP, 3 ER, 9 H, 2 BB, 3 K), the Pirates bludgeoned West Virginia 10-4, with 8 of those runs coming in the first two innings. They jumped all over Mountaineers starter Marshall Thompson and hit reliever Josh Harlow hard as well, breezing into the second round winner's bracket.
Then, the Pirates ran up against the number 1 seed in UConn. With a fearsome lineup and a stellar pitching staff, led by Big East Player of the Year George Springer and Big East Pitcher of the Year Matt Barnes, the Huskies came in as a force to be reckoned with. But after being pushed to the limit by Notre Dame the night before, the Huskies started off well, taking a 1-0 lead on the Pirates after the first inning. But after that, it was terrific sophomore righty Jon Prosinski shutting out the Huskies' lineup over the next 5 innings. In the 7th, UConn scratched across another run to take a 2-0 lead. Prosinski finished the inning to end his night with a great line of 7 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, and 4 Ks. Meanwhile, UConn starter Greg Nappo was dealing through 7 innings. But leading off the 8th, Walsh reached on a throwing error by Nappo and advanced to 2nd on the play. After a 4-pitch walk to Esposito, Nappo exited and UConn closer Kevin Vance, one of the best in the Big East with 13 saves on the year, came on to pitch.
Michael Betz greeted Vance with a first-pitch bunt single that loaded the bases, and after 2 fielders' choice plays by Zack Granite and Mike Genovese (the latter scoring the Pirates' first run on the play), Gusrang ripped the game-tying single into right-center, ensuring a blown save for Vance.
The game went into extras, where Seton Hall closer Ryan "There's That Slider Again" Harvey (his new nickname, given by me on WSOU) put two runners on base in both the 10th and 11th innings. Neither time did UConn score, but in the 12th, a hit by Ryan Fuller and a throwing error on Esposito put a runner on 3rd with 2 out. UConn catcher Doug Elliot plated the go-ahead run with a single one batter later.
Heading into the bottom of the 12th, the Pirates were up against it. Will Jolin came in from the UConn bullpen to relieve Vance, who had thrown 4 innings to that point, and Jolin struggled from the first pitch, giving up a leadoff single to Walsh. After Esposito flied out, Betz walked and Granite worked a 2-0 count. That chased Jolin, as UConn head coach Jim Penders elected to bring Dan Feehan in mid-at-bat. Feehan threw two straight balls to walk Granite and load the bases. Genovese then took one for the team, getting hit on a 3-1 pitch to force in the tying run from 3rd. After a Gusrang fielder's choice, the bases were still loaded when Dale Anderson worked the count full and then walked on a pitch that was behind him to force in the winning run. That advanced the Pirates to the semifinals in dramatic fashion.
That gave Seton Hall the day off on Friday to rest up. This ended up being crucial as the tournament wore on. UConn ended up in a rematch with Seton Hall on Saturday, and this game ended up being a blowout.
In the Pirates' favor, that is.
Seton Hall scored 6 runs in the 7th, sending 11 men to the plate in all, chasing two UConn pitchers from the game, including Jolin, who was disastrous again. That ballooned a 4-2 lead into a 10-2 lead. The Pirates then scored two more runs in the top of the 8th to take a 12-2 lead. UConn was mercy-ruled when they could not muster another run in the bottom half of the inning. In the two games against UConn, the Huskies practically beat themselves with a total of 9 errors in the two games. Meanwhile, after knocking out the number 1 seed, the Pirates moved on to face the number 2 seed in the championship.
St. John's came in as the defending champs, but the Pirates were not fazed, starting Joe DiRocco against the Red Storm ace Kyle Hansen. Thanks to the day of rest on Friday, DiRocco was set to go, and although he struggled with location off the get-go, he settled down over the next few innings.
Meanwhile, Zack Granite was on base 3 times in 3 at-bats against Hansen, and the freshman clearly rattled the ace of St. John's, scoring a run every time while forcing a balk and a wild pitch from Hansen in the process. After 5 innings, Hansen departed and the Pirates had a 4-1 lead. Matt Carasiti held the Pirates in check for the rest of the game, while the Red Storm were able to rally for a run against George Fernandez. In the 9th, St. John's had the tying runs in scoring position before Harvey got Robert Case to ground out to clinch the title for the Pirates.
By the end of the tournament, the Pirates led the field in average, runs scored, and ERA. Statistically, they were the best team. And just by watching them, they were clearly the best team. They played nearly flawless smallball baseball, getting on base with 27 total walks, timely RBI hits, and a myriad of successful sacrifices, many of them by Mike Genovese. The pitching was outstanding, and the defense was near-perfect.
The Pirates came into this tournament on a roll, and that roll continued, as they shook up the conference in winning their 3rd Big East title. Joe DiRocco was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, while Will Walsh and Zack Granite made the all-tournament team in the outfield. It was a true team effort- it showed on the field and off the field, where the team could not have been more loose. They had zero expectations coming in, and now they advance to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 2001 this coming weekend. Picked to finish 11th in the preseason poll, no one saw this one coming, just like a well-timed changeup.
The legion of Pirate fans that follow them will do so knowing that they are represented well.
FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, FOR THE BLUE AND WHITE, AND THE GLORY OF SETON HALL.