BOCA RATON – While FAU’s 9-8, 10-inning defeat of Rice on Saturday (into Sunday) in Conference USA garnered national attention, a game played the prior night actually proved to be the game of the year for the Owls.
Having lost to Rice earlier in the day, No. 3 seeded FAU faced second-seeded Louisiana Tech in an elimination game between NCAA bubble teams.
“I thought that was a win-or-we-would-not-be-sitting-here-today game,” FAU coach John McCormack said shortly after FAU received its NCAA tournament bid on Monday. “Their RPI would have gotten better, ours would have gotten worse. They finished second [in C-USA]. Committee looks at head-to-head – well, La. Tech, I know the metrics might be a little bit better for FAU but La. Tech beat them when it really counted. They hadn’t played [head-to-head during the regular season]. That might have been the springboard for La. Tech and next thing you know their RPI is 37 and we’re 36. And next thing you know they are getting the (NCAA berth). We had to do everything we could possibly do to win that game.”
In a game loaded with plot twists, FAU fell behind early, took the lead with four runs in the fourth, watched La. Tech tie the game an inning later, before finally prevailing 8-6.
Throughout the game McCormack faced several crucial decisions. The wrong choice could potentially end FAU’s season. Throughout the potentially do-or-die game McCormack consistently made the right choice.
On Monday he provided the rationale behind those choices.
Situation: Creating the batting order.
Decision: FAU lost No. 3 hitter David Miranda to a hamstring injury in the opening game of the C-USA tournament. For the second game, a loss to Rice, McCormack elected to move Tyler Frank – then the Owls’ No. 2 hitter – to the lead-off spot, letting Cody Wilson hit third.
Reasoning: “He’s so aggressive and he’s so hit-oriented early that almost when he bats third, sitting around waiting in the dugout, it’s not good,” McCormack said of Frank. “So go up there and hit first. Let’s get it out of the way and we can go from there.”
Result: Frank grounded out in his first at-bat, but homered in the fourth inning and again in the sixth, driving in a total of five runs. Wilson recorded two hits, scored twice and drove in a run.
Situation: La. Tech had already scored three runs and had two more runners in scoring position with two out in the inning.
Decision: Lighting delays earlier in the tournament forced FAU to burn more pitchers than it desired, and pitching is at a premium in tournament play, but McCormack decided he’d seen enough from starter Vince Coletti. He brought Nick Swan out of the bullpen.
Reasoning: “I didn’t like what I was seeing,” McCormack said. “It’s no secret (Coletti) hasn’t been great the last month. Fastball command hasn’t been good, which makes everything else kind of off. La. Tech was playing for their lives and in that situation you’ve got to change it. You just can’t leave him out there. If the guy’s 7-1 you go, Oh, he’ll right the ship. Vince, who works hard and he’s a really good kid, he hasn’t been able to do that lately. He has not been able to right the ship. It has a tendency to snowball on him. Instead of letting it snowball I decided to change the mojo a little bit.”
Result: Swan struck out the first batter he faced to end the threat. He’d allow one run over the next two innings, quieting the Bulldogs’ momentum and giving FAU’s bats a chance to keep up.
Situation: Leading 7-5, FAU needed three outs to get the game to closer Zach Schneider for the final two innings.
Decision: In an unconventional move McCormack turned to lefty Weston Clemente. The senior captain hadn’t pitched well all season, entering the tournament with an 8.10 ERA. On top of that, Clemente had already pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings earlier in the day against Rice.
Reasoning: “I call them senior moments,” McCormack said. “He’s had a rough year. He didn’t get off to the start he wanted. Then his mother passed away. It’s just been a rough year. And then you could kind of see him going back to his old self the Middle Tennessee weekend – just moreso his mannerisms and his demeanor. I wanted to get him in the game in that senior week and he was phenomenal, I just kind of said, Hey, this is a young man that understands what this is all about. Understands FAU. This will be the guy that will step up for us. He pitched great.”
Result: Weston walked the first batter he faced, then found his rhythm, inducing three fly-ball outs in a scoreless inning.
Situation: Still leading 7-5, FAU put runners on first and third with two out when a lightning delay struck.
Decision: When the game resumed McCormack called for one of his favorite trick plays. On the first pitch Eric Rivera was to break for second, then get in a rundown that would hopefully last long enough for Cody Wilson to score from third.
Reasoning: “We needed another run, 100 percent,” McCormack said. “As soon as the lightning meter went off and the rain, I told (third base coach Greg Mamula) we’re going to do first-and-third when we come back. …The thing about it, that first-and-third play, we had the perfect personnel on the bases – Rivera and Cody. Perfect personnel. Some of those things get a little dicey if the base runners aren’t good, but Eric is a good base runner, Cody is an exceptional base runner – plus he can run. It turned out we needed the run.”
Result: Rivera drew the throw to second, allowing Wilson to sprint home uncontested with the Owls’ eighth and final run of the game. Rivera actually stayed in the rundown far longer than necessary, and nearly completed the steal of second. The scoring on the putout: 2-4-3-6-3-1-6.
Situation: FAU leading 8-5.
Decision: The two previous weather delays FAU experienced in the tournament prompted McCormack to change pitchers. This time, however, he stuck with Schneider, sending him out for a second inning of work more than an hour after he completed his previous inning.
Reasoning: “Zach is a little bit more used to it,” McCormack said of the disrupted routine. “Just relievers are in general, plus he throws (sidearm), which is not the same. When (overhand) gets cooled off, it’s really hard to get it going again. When we started getting past the 45 minute mark, because I had told him, I was like… every eight, nine minutes, get up and play some catch. At one time it was 45-50 minutes into (the delay) I said, ‘I don’t know’ and he goes, ‘I’ve got this, don’t worry.’”
Result: The ninth inning didn’t start well for FAU. Schneider walked the lead-off hitter, then hit the next batter, bringing the tying run to the plate.
NINTH INNING, PART II
Situation: With no outs and the tying run at the plate, McCormack emerged from the dugout and briskly walked to the mound.
Decision: Rather than bring in another pitcher, McCormack elected to stick with Schneider.
Reasoning: “I just said, ‘How you doing?’ And he was kind of like, Coach this is a really big situation, what do you mean how am I doing?” McCormack said. He told Schneider, “Just calm down. Take a breath. You’ve been doing this your whole life. You’ll be fine. I think sometimes that’s all it takes to kind of take the pressure off.”
Result: Schneider induced a soft looper to center which fell at the feet of Cody Wilson, who quickly fired a strike to second for a force out. After an RBI single cut the Owls’ lead to two runs, Schneider induced a ground out to third that erased the lead runner; then a ground ball to second to end the game – giving Schneider his C-USA leading 15th save of the season.
The win likely sealed FAU’s at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Louisiana Tech will be watching the tournament on television.
“Those decisions managers get credit for, it only works if the players execute them,” McCormack said. “If everything went the other way, you’d be like, that’s the worst managed game I’ve seen in years.”
No. 3 FAU faces No. 2 Jacksonville on Friday in the Gainesville regional. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.