Thursday, June 23, 2005

Resolve

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The 2005 Baseball season for the Baylor Bears is over. The Bears dropped a heart-breaking 4-3 decision to the Texas Longhorns last night in a College World Series 'Bracket Final' game. Along the way however, Baylor had a thrilling run. At one time holding a record of only 8-7, the Bears got their house in order and finished with a great 19-8 Big XII record, good enough to tie Nebraska for the Conference regular-season title. The 39-21 record after the Big XII Conference Tournament was not only good enough to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Regionals, but to host as the #1 seed in the Waco Regional, which the Bears won in three straight games. Against Clemson in the Super-Regionals, the Bears lost the first game in the best-of-three matchup, but came back to not only win the next two games but dominate. That earned Baylor’s ticket to the College World Series, for the first time since 1978.

After a 5-1 loss to arch-nemesis Texas and a come-from-behind 4-3 win in extra innings over Oregon State, the Bears found themselves in an elimination game against top-ranked and top-seeded Tulane, who carried 56 wins on their record into the game. I spent Tuesday evening watching the game and following online messages from Baylor fans as the game progressed. This is also why I did not blog yesterday; I spent the day recovering!

Tulane started the game with a foul-out, a single, a strike-out, a throwing error by Baylor that moved the runner to second, then another strikeout. The Bears, home team for this game, started by reaching on a Tulane error, which looked good but didn’t blossom. A fielder’s choice took out the lead runner, followed by a caught stealing and a pop-up. Everyone settled down for a long game. Then Baylor’s version of ‘Titanic Meets Iceberg’ happened.

In the second inning, Madden singled for Tulane through the right side. Bogusevic moved him over to 2nd with a Sac bunt. Then Dini singled, and Tulane got their first run. 1-0 Tulane, and there was an annoying unhappiness from the Baylor fans, not many but they shouldn’t have been grumbling off just one run.

Things quickly got worse. On a 1-1 pitch, Hamilton homered for Tulane, and just like that it was 3-0 Tulane. When Holland grounded out to the Shortstop, it looked like Baylor would recover with limited damage, but Southard reached on a throwing error, all the way to 2nd, and then he stole 3rd. Emaus walked, putting men on the corners and that brought up Manzella, who singled through the middle to move Emaus to 2nd and score Southard, unearned but still 4-0 Tulane.

The online messages were distinctly bitter at this point, in large part giving up. More than a few of the fans left the board and did not return, clearly giving up on a top 5 team and its season, with more than two-thirds of the game still to go.

Did I mention it got worse? Owings reached on another Baylor error, which allowed Manzella and Emaus to score unearned runs. 6-0 Tulane. Madden struck out to end the Tulane 2nd, but they had batted around and put a half-dozen runs on the board, the most Baylor had given up since the regular season. The ESPN announcers, particularly Harold Reynolds, were saying Baylor could not come back. With 7 innings to go, most of the fans and both ESPN announcers have flat-out given up. “Warm up the bus” quipped Reynolds, enjoying an undeserved slap at the Bears. The Bears got walks on both sides of a one-out double by Russo, but couldn’t bring anyone in to score.

The third and fourth innings passed without notable events. One hit and one walk for Baylor during that span, but no solid results. Tulane settled in to protect a large lead, planning on conservative baseball. In the fifth inning, Madden walked after 2 outs, and a Bogusevic double sent him home to score Tulane’s 7th run. The Bears got the third out when Dini grounded out, but could not manage anything in the bottom of the inning. In the sixth inning, Holland singled but otherwise Tulane was quiet. The Bears went 1-2-3 in the sixth, and the announcers duly noted that in 2005, Tulane had never lost when leading after six innings. Reynolds repeatedly suggested that Baylor start playing its bench so that the young players could say they had played in a CWS game. Online, perhaps five fans remained, stubbornly hoping against the odds that the Bears could make a comeback like they did earlier in the year, like the May 13th game when the Bears trailed Texas A&M 8-0 but came back to win 10-9. Sometimes, wishing for the impossible gets granted.

Tulane went 1-2-3 in the seventh inning. At first, the Bears seemed to have nothing new, as Fortenberry struck out. But Witt made it to 1st on a fielding error, and moved to 3rd when Sevigny doubled to left center. A wild pitch allowed Witt to score and Sevigny to move to 3rd, and Baylor was on the board, trailing Tulane by a 7-1 score with 8 outs left to use. Griffin then doubled down the line and Sevigny scored. 7-2. Then Reynolds singled to center field and griffin scored. 7-3. Tulane changed pitchers and Ford popped up. Brees got a single into right field, but when Dillon popped up the inning was over. But with six outs left, the Bears had done some real damage.

Tulane knew it needed to grab the momentum back, but while Hamilton got a single up the middle, it came after the first two batters struck out and popped up. A fielder’s choice ended the Tulane eighth. After Russo flied out, Fortenberry smacked the first pitch he saw up the middle for a single. Witt singled through the left side, and that moved Fortenberry to 2nd. Sevigny struck out swinging for the second out, but in a double steal, Witt stole 2nd and Fortenberry stole 3rd. When Griffin smacked a single through the left side, Witt and Fortenberry scored. Reynolds on ESPN admitted the double steal was a brilliant move; it made the score possible, especially since Reynolds next grounded out to end the inning. But now it was 7-5 with 3 outs left apiece and everybody realized the game was very much in play.

It can be a very tough order, getting your offense moving on short notice. While Tulane knew after the seventh inning that they needed to get going, making it happen was something else entirely. Now with their splendid 7-run lead cut all the way down to 2, they felt real pressure. Southard grounded out to second, Emaus and Manzella popped up, and Tulane knew it would all come down to their pitching and fielding. The stands were loud and excited, and suddenly while both sides wore green, you couldn’t shake the feeling that the Rosenblatt fans were Bearish.

Ford started the Baylor ninth by singling through the right side. That brought the potential tying run to the plate, something which had seemed impossible just a little while earlier. Tulane changed pitchers, bringing in Morgan. The Bears brought in a pinch runner, sending Mandel in for Ford to get extra speed on the base paths. Brees followed with a single through the left side, moving Mandel to 2nd. That put the potential tying run on base, and the potential winning run came to the plate for Baylor in the person of Dillon. The Bears sent Gerdes in to pinch run for Brees, again playing all-in to score the runs they needed in their last chance. Dillon doubled down the right field line, but Tulane played it well enough that only one run scored, as Mandel touched the plate. Dillon was at 2nd, and Gerdes reached 3rd. It was now 7-6, with Baylor players at 2nd and 3rd and nobody out. Tulane sent Gomes in to pitch, replacing Morgan. Gomes walked Russo on purpose, hoping to set up a double play opportunity. It was pretty smart, with Baylor already having the tying run at 3rd and the potential winning run at 2nd. The guy at 1st was just a detail, it seemed. When Fortenberry popped up to the Shortstop, the move looked even smarter. If Gomes could coax the right ground ball out of Witt, a double play could end the game with a Tulane win, and all the Baylor noise wouldn’t change that. When Witt hit a slow bouncing ground ball to the second baseman, it looked like Tulane had wrapped it up.

But while the second baseman tagged the base for the 2nd out, he suddenly realized that Witt was running faster than he thought. If Witt beat the throw to 1st, then Gerdes’ tying run from 3rd would count and tie the game. So, he threw a little harder to get the ball there. The throw was just a smidge high and the first baseman couldn’t catch it, as the umpire signaled Witt safe at 1st base. Gerdes indeed scored from 3rd, but with the ball bouncing away from the first baseman, Dillon came around at full speed touching 3rd base and rounding the course to get home for the winning score before the first baseman could get hold of the errant baseball. Just like that, 8-7 Baylor wins, final.

If you’re not a baseball fan, what I wrote may not seem all that interesting, but it has parallels in Life as well. The announcers at ESPN, usually professional, turned into jerks when it seemed Baylor was out of it. Many of the fans online gave up when the score looked insurmountable, and many of the paying customers at Rosenblatt became quiet and sullen, unaware of the drama yet to unfold. But the Baylor fans and the announcers should have realized that Baylor had indeed earned its place at the College World Series, as well as their national ranking and NCAA seed. That was not coincidence, but the result of attributes that the team called upon all year, discipline and confidence and yes, resolve.

I noted at the start that Baylor followed that incredible win with a loss to Texas, and they are now packed up and done for the season. So, why brag about one win when they lost the chance for the National title? Because baseball teaches lessons if you pay attention, and part of that is to recognize what you have done along the way. The Conference co-title, the Regional and Super Regional triumphs, and a seriously valid national run all still stand. As for that 4-3 loss to Texas, hey it was 3-2 Baylor late in the game. Hats off to Texas for gutting it out; sometimes a game’s results doesn’t mean anybody lost, but rather that one team found an extra strength and determination and resolve to win. Way to go Texas, but way to go Bears as well.

Whether we’re talking baseball or the life it imitates, we should all be looking for that resolve, and how to use it.

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