CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A run-scoring double by senior leftfielder Cory Keller with two outs in the top of the ninth inning enabled No. 23 Florida Atlantic (41-21) to pull out a 6-5 victory over the Tigers (30-30) in an elimination game at the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional at Boshamer Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
With the win, the Owls avenged a 7-2 loss to Towson in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Florida Atlantic advanced to the championship round of the Chapel Hill Regional where the Owls upset No. 1 North Carolina, 3-2. Florida Atlantic will face the Tar Heels with the regional title on the line on Monday evening.
With the score tied at 5-5 in the top of the ninth inning, junior leftfielder Geoff Jiminez led off by reaching base when he was hit by a pitch from junior righthander Nik Nowottnick, the first base runner allowed by the Tiger relief pitcher in his third inning of work. With senior first baseman Mark Nelson at bat, Jiminez stole second base to give the Owls the go-ahead run in scoring position. When Nelson was retired on a fly ball to centerfield, Jiminez tagged up and advanced to third base. With junior designated hitter Tyler Rocklein coming to the plate, the Tigers elected to play the infield in as they tried to cut off a run at the plate.
The strategy worked well when Rocklein hit a line drive at junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald caught the ball initially but it fell out of his glove. With Jiminez remaining at third base, Fitzgerald retired Rocklein for the second out. With two outs and the go-ahead run at third base, the Tigers elected to issue an intentional walk to freshman second baseman Brendon Sanger, the Owls’ leading hitter. That put runners at the corners for Keller. He drove Nowottnick’s first pitch off the left field fence for a double, scoring Jiminez and putting runners on second and third. With the Owls leading by 6-5, junior catcher Levi Meyer made a strong bid for a home run. But sophomore leftfielder Peter Bowles went back to the fence, jumped up and caught the ball to end the inning.
In the bottom of the ninth, senior righthander Hugh Adams retired Fitzgerald on a fly ball to centerfield. After junior designated hitter Kurt Wertz struck out, he issued a walk to Bowles. That brought junior rightfielder Dominic Fratantuono to the plate. On a 3-2 pitch, it looked like Fratantuono had drawn a walk but third base umpire John Bullock ruled that Fratantuono swung at the pitch, ending the game in controversial fashion.
“I had no problem with that call,” admitted Coach Mike Gottlieb. “He had a good angle and it was a fair call.
“Not to take anything away from Florida Atlantic, but somebody once told me that you don’t win one-run games as often as the other team loses them,” he added. “We made too many mistakes to win a one-run game in an NCAA regional tournament. The mistakes that we made on the base paths really hurt us. They took us out of several innings. Branch Rickey used to call them ‘mistakes of enthusiasm’ and that sounds right to me.”
Explaining his decision to walk Sanger intentionally, Gottlieb said, “We were playing the percentages. Sanger is a left-handed hitter who had a batting average about 100 points higher than Keller. By pitching to Keller, we had a righthanded pitcher facing a righthanded hitter. But, it didn’t work and Keller hit a shot. We took a chance and it didn’t work out.”
The game started out as if it would be an offensive slugfest as the Tigers took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. Third baseman Zach Fisher and Fitzgerald started the inning with back-to-back singles. After Wertz struck out, Bowles singled to left, loading the bases. When senior righthander Jake Meiers of FAU walked Fratantuono with the bases loaded, Fisher scored the first run of the game. The Tigers extended their lead to 3-0 when sophomore first baseman Brendan Butler lined a two-run single to centerfield. However, Meiers escaped the jam when senior catcher Andrew Parker grounded into an inning-ending double play.
In the second inning, Keller gave the Owls an immediate lift when he led off the inning with a solo home run to left field, his third homer of the regional tournament. Sophomore righthander Paul Beers came back to retire the next two hitters before shortstop Mitch Morales singled. After Beers walked centerfielder Nathan Pittman, Jiminez singled to left, driving in a run to pull the Owls to within 3-2. Beers retired Nelson on a fly ball to left field, ending the inning.
The Tigers threatened to extend their lead in the third inning. Fitzgerald led off with a walk. With one out, Bowles reached base when he was hit by a pitch. But, Meiers came back to retire the next two hitters, ending the threat.
Towson wasted a great scoring chance in the fourth inning. With one out, senior centerfielder Brandon Gonnella singled and junior shortstop Hunter Bennett also singled. Fisher hit a line drive to left center field where Jiminez made a nice running catch and fired the ball to second base to double up Gonnella, ending the inning.
With two outs in the fifth, Florida Atlantic rallied to take a 4-3 lead. Sanger singled to rightfield. After he stole second base, Keller doubled down the left field line to drive in Sanger with the tying run. Meyer followed with a ground ball to shortstop where Bennett made a throwing error to allow Keller to score the go-ahead run. Beers ended the inning by getting third baseman Ricky Santiago on a line drive to Gonnella in centerfield.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Tigers staged their own two-out rally. Bowles singled to left centerfield before Fratantuono followed with a single to put runners at the corners. Butler delivered a run-scoring single to centerfield but he tried to reach second base and was thrown out by Nelson, who cut off the throw
With the score tied at 4-4, Rocklein led off the seventh inning with a ground rule double. At that point, Nowottnick relieved Beers. After Rocklein reached third base on a wild pitch, he scored on a sacrifice fly by Sanger as the Owls took a 5-4 lead.
The Tigers came right back to tie the score again. Fitzgerald led off the seventh inning with an infield single. Wertz followed with a single to right centerfield as Fitzgerald reached third base. A sacrifice fly by Bowles enabled Fitzgerald to score the tying run to make it a 5-5 game. Wertz was thrown out trying to steal second base before Fratantuono popped up to end the inning.
Facing Adams, the Owls’ closer, in the eighth inning, the Tigers made a bid to take a lead with two outs. Gonnella singled to start the rally before Bennett reached base when he was hit by a pitch. However, Adams got Fisher to ground out to second base, ending the threat.
Although the Tigers outhit the Owls by a 14-11 margin, all of their hits were singles. Gonnella went three-for-four while Butler had two hits and three runs batted in. Fitzgerald had two hits and scored two runs while Bowles had two hits with two runs scored with one run batted in. Bennett also had a pair of hits for the Tigers, who won five of their last seven games.
Keller led FAU with three hits, including two doubles and his eighth homer of the season. The Owls have now won 13 of their last 14 games.
The Tigers, who won the Colonial Athletic Association championship to earn an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 1991, finished their season with a 30-30 record. Their third place regional finish was their best showing ever at a regional tournament.
TIGER TALES: The Tigers batted .340 as a team in the NCAA Regional ... Bowles batted .400 with three RBI’s while Butler hit .333 with one home run and five RBI’s ... Sophomore Richie Blosser led the Tigers in hitting during the regional with a .714 batting average ... Fitzgerald hit .364 with four runs scored in the tournament.
Senior catcher Andrew Parker finished his career by playing in 197 game and started 179 of them ... He had a .261 career batting average with 49 doubles, 23 home runs and 118 RBI’s.