Photo courtesy of UMHB Athletics
BELTON- For the second straight week, the UMHB baseball team entered a Tuesday night non-conference game against an opponent with national notoriety. And once again, the Cru was victorious.
Both Trinity (TX) and Southwestern were receiving votes in the D3baseball.com Top 25 when they battled the Cru. Trinity was ranked 24th in the nation. Southwestern held an 11-game win streak. In both instances, UMHB found a way to win, bringing a much-needed surge of confidence to a group that has seen the peaks and valleys of a season as of late.
“I always say, the team that has nothing to lose is the scariest team to play,” UMHB head coach Mike Stawski said Tuesday.
The struggles have been real for the Cru, who are now 7-14 overall following Tuesday night’s 3-2 home win over the Pirates of nearby Southwestern University. They are sitting at the bottom of the ASC heading into the weekend series against fifth-place Hardin-Simmons, which begins Thursday in Abilene.
Yet things seemed to have clicked when the lights come on for the weekly Tuesday night non-conference contests. The Cru’s last three “midweek” matchups have ended in victories, the last two by a single run. Stawski says there is a good reason for the trend.
“We go in a little fearless, we have nothing to lose,” Stawski added postgame. “We tell them. ‘Just go play. Play loose.’ You end up seeing a different brand of baseball.”
Fearless they were against Southwestern in Belton, against the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s first-place team. Four different players stole at least one base. Nine hits were recorded. Four pitchers combined to hold a team that had scored 18 runs against Schreiner three days before to just two runs on six hits. JD Gerda, a freshman who surrendered four runs in just one inning a month before at Our Lady of the Lake, shut the Pirates down in the ninth, earning his first win of the year.
“Gerda did a fantastic job today,” Stawski said. “He looks like a completely different person than he did against Our Lady of the Lake, and that was only a few weeks back. We’ve made some adjustments and helped him with his mental game a little bit. 3 or 4 weeks ago, he was unusable. Now, he’s going to pitch this weekend. That’s huge.”
The fearlessness was best displayed in the Crusaders’ ninth-inning heroics on Tuesday night. Trailing Southwestern 2-0 entering the ninth inning–their last chance to avoid being shut out–the Cru put together a memorable show. Carson Hagan struck out swinging in the second at-bat, but the third strike got away from Southwestern catcher James Vaquer, and Hagan, who stole three bases in the win, reached first base ahead of the throw. Then came Elijah Rodriguez’s walk, followed by Tyler Betts’ walk, loading the bases for Kaden deBerardinis with two outs.
And with all eyes on him, deBerardinis swatted a double to right field, driving in all three base runners for a walk-off victory. The entire dugout sprinted onto the field in celebration. Moments before, they were one out away from being shutout at home. Instead, they left Red Murff Field as victors.
“People are going to look at KD’s at-bat, and the big swing to walk it off,” Stawski said. “You can’t take anything away from that. But the thing you have to point to that got us to that at-bat is we had a bunch of arms that kept us in the game.”
The pitching indeed played a crucial role in the outcome. Erick Roberts opened the game with three near-perfect innings, allowing zero hits and just three walks. Cameron Bogan dealt with a tough surge from Southwestern in the fifth, but Russell Valada got the Cru out of a bases-loaded jam with his strikeout to end the inning. Gerda tossed three scoreless innings to end it, capping what was a very convincing effort from the pitching staff.
“Without those guys giving us an effort, that game could’ve gotten away,” Stawski said. “Those guys came out and performed, and they performed against a team that is 20-4 and averaging eight runs a game. That’s what I look at, right there.”
So how does the momentum from Tuesday’s win get carried into the weekend series? For Stawski, it starts with the mentality. Just as the Crusaders were underdogs to Southwestern from a simple win-loss standpoint, they will be in the same position against HSU on the road.
“Right now, we have to have a lot of things fall in place for us to make the conference tournament,” Stawski said. “I’m trying to be positive, from the fact of ‘We’re still in this race to be a top six team.’ But at the same time, we’ve dug ourselves in such a hole. We just need to go play now.
“I think against St. Thomas, Trinity and Southwestern, you’ve seen that type of fearless baseball out of us. Then all of a sudden, we get to the weekend, and they all of a sudden go, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to play well against LeTourneau.
“But it needs to be, just go play hard and we’ll figure out who was the better team after the ninth inning. We haven’t been able to get the mentality there. So that’s going to be our driving force over the next 48 hours, to try to keep this mentality that they played with today and push it into Thursday night.”