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Falling Just Short

                When I last blogged I was preparing for my first start as a Concordia Golden Bear, and nobody was wondering if I was recently in Missouri. Sitting in fifth place in the conference standings, we had won seven of our last eight contests. Things were looking good.

                We headed to Winona, Minn. for a mid-week conference double-header with Winona State University. At the time, the Warriors were the top-ranked team in the NSIC.

                We drove down that morning, passing snow on the highway as we drove–just a typical April in Minnesota. I listened to music and tried to relax as I mentally prepared for my start.

                After sitting through batting practice, I stared to get warmed up for the game. Jogs to the outfield, leg-kicks, toe-touches, high-knees, butt-kicks, shuffles, and carioca, and I was loose.

                After long-tossing and throwing in the bullpen I was ready to go. I was sharp in the bullpen throwing everything for strikes, with good movement and velocity.

                Troy DuBay led off the top of the first inning with a single, but was out on a fielder’s choice by the next hitter. Our three and four hitters both flied out to end the inning.

                I took the mound for my first start as a Golden Bear. My first pitch of the game was a fastball to preseason All-American outfielder Tony Mueller for strike one. I followed that with another located fastball to bring the count to 0-2. After two consecutive pitches out of the zone made the count 2-2, the catcher called for an inside fastball. I delivered the pitch perfectly on the hands of the right-handed hitting Mueller, who made contact just above the handle. The ball chopped straight into the ground and took a high bounce to the first base side of the pitcher’s mound. The ball fell out of my reach as the speedy runner made it safely to first for an infield single.

                With no outs and a runner on first, the catcher called for a throw-over to first base. I came set, came up into my leg kick, and fired the ball over the first baseman’s head. The runner advanced to second base and I was charged with a throwing error.

                I walked the next two hitters to load the bases with no outs. I recorded my only out of the game against the clean-up hitter, striking him out looking on a 3-2 fastball. The next hitter singled to centerfield, and the flood gates open.

                I faced nine hitters, giving up eight runs on three hits and five walks. The strike out was the only out I recorded before being pulled in favor of righty Zach Goodwin. Goodwin had his best outing of the season, allowing just one earned run over four solid innings of work.

                Winona scored nine runs in the first inning, and won 12-5.

                Needing a big-time performance, we sent senior stopper Nick Anderson to the mound in game two. Anderson delivered an unbelievable performance to bring life back into the Golden Bears.

                Anderson threw 144 pitches in a complete game effort. He scattered seven hits and allowed only one earned run in a gutsy 3-2 victory. Junior outfielder Kris Long drove in the winning singling to left field in the ninth inning.

                The split kept us in fifth place in the conference standings and helped our regional consideration with a victory over a top-ranked opponent.

                The following day we hosted Wayne State College for a four-game conference weekend series. The games were played on Friday and Saturday because of Easter, meaning we had six games in three days. To make things even more interesting, ace Ben Lemke was scratched from his start against Wayne State because of a pulled oblique.

                Chris Peterson moved up to take the ball in place of Lemke. Petey delivered a solid outing, but we could not get our offense going. We fell to the Wildcats 7 to 3 in game one of the weekend series. Peterson threw all seven innings to give our depleted bullpen a rest.

                In game two, we turned to sophomore reliever Griff Kilber for a spot start. Kilber gave his best performance of the year taking a 4-2 lead into the seventh inning. After loading the bases with no outs, Kilber was taken out of the game. With the bullpen thin, I was given the ball despite the rough outing just 24 hours before.

                Head coach Lunch McKenzie told me to not think about yesterday, throw strikes, and get this first hitter to hit a ground ball to the first baseman for a 3-2-4 double play and hold the lead.

                I was confident in spite of my previous outing. On the third pitch of the at-bat the hitter bounced a ball towards the first baseman, it appeared as if I had done exactly what Lunch asked. But, just as redshirt freshman Elliot Powell was about to scoop up the ball and fire home, the ball took a giant hop off the infield lip and over his head into right field. Instead of collecting two outs on one play, Wayne State scored two runs to tie the game.

                The next batter grounded out to the first baseman, this time the ball didn’t take any crazy bounces, but another run scored on the play to make the score 5-4 Wildcats. After a double, a walk, and an error, I finally got the inning’s tenth hitter to strike out swinging to end the frame.

                The damage was done as the Wildcats held a 6-4 lead. There would only be one more base runner the rest of the game as I retired the Wildcats 1-2-3 in each of the last two innings, but our offense could only muster one hit the rest of the way as Wayne State capped off a comeback victory.

                We came back the next morning ready to fight the Wildcats and get our momentum back. We went with freshman starter Adam Kramer. He took a 5 to 4 lead into the sixth inning of a seven inning contest before Wayne State struck again. After the wildcats rallied to take the lead, we turned to Nick Anderson on short-rest. The Wildcats were able to figure out the tired righty as they scored eight runs in the inning to take a commanding 12 to 5 lead.

                With another game left to play that afternoon and needing to save what was left of our bullpen, Lunch again turned to me in the seventh. After striking out the first batter of the inning, things came apart for the defense. The next hitter reached on an error, followed by an infield single, a home run, another single, and another error. Finally, the last two hitters bounced ground ball outs to end the inning.

                We lost game three of the series 16 to 6, before losing game four 6 to 3 and being swept in a weekend series for the first time all season.

                I threw in all three days of competition that week. On the week, I threw four innings, gave up 11 earned runs on eight hits while striking out five and walking seven. Not very good stats, but I was proud of the way I battled back. After the day one disaster, I was able to put up solid stats against Wayne State; with the WSC totals reading: 3.2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO.

                We put the sweep behind us and headed to Sioux Falls, S. D. for a mid-week double-header with Augusta College, another top-ranked team in the conference.

                The games followed an almost identical path of the week before. This time our starter gave up eight runs in the second inning on five walks, and Auggie cruised to a 9 to 3 victory.

                Once again we turned to Anderson when we needed a big victory. As always, he delivered. This time Anderson threw 160 pitches as he authored a ten-inning complete game victory over Auggie 7 to 6. Anderson battled out of big situations all day, including a lead-off double in the bottom of the tenth inning. Again, he led us to another big mid-week split with a top-ranked team from our conference.

                The schedule seemed to look favorable for us as the tenth ranked team in the conference headed to St. Paul for a conference weekend series. If we could sweep all four games we would balance out the four losses to Wayne State and be back to a secure position in the standings.

                However, Mother Nature struck again. After sweeping Northern State in day one, 5-0 and 9-5 the rain began to fall. The rest of the series was rained out, and we would not have the chance to get anymore wins.

                That meant we were in sixth place going into the final week of the season, with Minnesota-Duluth and Upper Iowa right on our tails. Luckily, we controlled our own destiny as Minnesota-Duluth came to St. Paul for a mid-week double-header.

                We had ace Ben Lemke back on the mound for game one against the visiting Bulldogs. Lemke delivered; tossing a complete-game and allowing just one unearned run on seven hits. We had just enough offense winning 3 to 1.

                The win set up a chance to sweep the double-header and bury the Bulldogs for good. Freshman Adam Kramer gave his best start of the season allowing just one earned run over 6.1 innings, but the Bulldogs pitching staff was a little better. They held the Golden Bear offense to just one run, and flipped the game one score holding on for a 3-1 victory.

                The Golden Bear offense didn’t go down without a fight. We loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning before J.T. Schneider and Troy DuBay both hit line drives into the gloves of outfielders, DuBay’s coming on the 12th pitch of his at-bat.

                The loss opened the door for the Bulldogs to catch us in the standings. They hosted Minnesota-Crookston for a four game weekend series. Crookston holding an 0-35 record heading into the weekend, while we had a home-home weekend series with the region’s top-ranked team and #13 nationally St. Cloud State.

                We had three tightly contested games, but the Huskies broke the score open in crucial moments. We lost all three before Mother Nature cancelled the fourth game of the series, the 19th weather related cancellation of the season.

                Meanwhile, the Bulldogs took care of Crookston four times, to jump us in the standings and steal the sixth spot in the NSIC Tournament. We finished one game out of the tournament for the second time in three years.

                We were in tournament qualifying position every day of the season, only falling out of it on the final Sunday of the regular season.

                We said goodbye to our three seniors following the game: Sam Fagely, a right fielder from Mahtomedi, Minn. (2011 NSIC Gold-Glove Team); Jon Stockton, a left fielder from Oakdale, Minn. (2011 Second-Team NSIC All-Conference); and pitcher Nick Anderson from Plymouth, Minnesota.

                On the last day of the season, Fagely recorded his 101st career hit and Stockton recorded his 101st career walk (Concordia record). Anderson finished sixth on the all-time wins list with 20 and second on the all-time saves list with 11.

                Fortunately for me, I don’t have to say goodbye to Fagely or Stockton as I am playing summer ball with both of them on the North St. Paul Roosters.

                As for my 2011 season, it was an improvement over my 2010 campaign. I had many bright spots. I tied for second on the team in appearances (8), led the team in strikeouts per nine innings (11.85), and had an 18-13 K-to-BB ratio.

                As a team we only played 34 of our 53 scheduled games. Eight of the 19 cancellations came against the ninth, tenth, and eleventh ranked teams in the conference standings. Against the bottom five teams in the conference we finished 10-0 with eight cancellations.

                Now we turn to next year, my senior year, and likely last as a baseball player. We return all four weekend starters, and a staff that accounted for 222.2 innings this season. We lose just two position players—both key starters—but have several young players that played well this season.

                We have to wait patiently during the June MLB draft as third baseman Bryan Lippincott may hear his name called, we all hope that he returns to play his senior season with us. We have a lot of pieces returning, especially Lippincott, that can help us return to the top of the NSIC next year.

                The NSIC should be well represented in next month’s draft as several players were scouted all season. Also of personal interest to me, high school summer teammate Jarod Berggren of the University of Northern Colorado is expected to be an early round pick, as is an outfielder from my high school (Regis Jesuit (CO)) Conor McKay.

                It was a roller coaster ride of a season, but I made memories, friendships, and pitched in big moments. It was a year I will never forget, and I hope to improve as a person and a player all summer before returning to school next fall and trying to win the 2012 NSIC Championship.

                I also would like to thank Nick and the College Baseball Lineup staff for giving me to the chance to blog again this year, and also making sure everyone knew that I was not the Cody Wilcoxson involved with the shooting in Missouri. Good looking out guys!

-Go Golden Bears-