Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON-In many ways, it was a microcosm of the season.
With two outs in the top of the ninth, and leading 4-3, the UMHB baseball team appeared to be in position for a series-clinching victory in the ninth inning of Saturday’s game three duel against UT-Dallas. Then came an error on a weak ground ball to the left side of the infield. Things unraveled from there.
“It’s kind of been the story of the season,” UMHB head coach Mike Stawski said postgame. “Once one thing goes wrong, you feel like a second and third thing goes wrong.”
UTD’s Andrew Skivington drew a walk in the following at-bat followed by Jaeger Self’s clutch single through the infield, scoring the game-tying run. Then came an implosion in the 11th inning, when the visiting Comets put five runs on the board, jumping out to a commanding 9-4 lead.
A game that had been knotted at four apiece minutes earlier turned into a nightmare of an inning that was only finally ended when the Crusaders turned an unconventional 5-2-3 double play. Third baseman Rhett Grosz fired the ball to catcher Elijah Rodriguez for a force out at home plate, and Rodriguez then used his cannon-like arm to pop the ball into first baseman Robert McCall’s mitt a half-second before UTD’s Coleman Camp stepped on the first base bag.
It was a highlight reel play that came in an underwhelming inning.
For as disappointing of an end as the series finale was, the Cru proved one thing to themselves and to the league: they can compete with the ASC’s best. That fact came as no great shock, considering the recent non-conference wins over Southwestern and Trinity–both Top 25 opponents–on the road.
The signs of success were there. UMHB dropped Friday’s series opener by a lopsided 8-1 margin, but it was just 1-0 through the first five innings, a testament to the continued rise of freshman starter Bryce Farlander.
The Crusaders won game two, 2-0, shutting out UTD for the first time all season, as Andrew Acierni came through with a complete game, allowing a total of just six base runners.
And even in game three, there were flashes of success, with UMHB twice scoring on passed balls, the second of which gave the Cru a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth.
Now it is just a matter of putting the pieces together, and finding the personnel to fit the culture being built by Stawski and his staff.
“The message is that we need to find the nucleus moving forwards, the right guys who understand what we’re doing here,” Stawski said postgame. “I think that message can get jumbled sometimes.
“There are a lot of guys who are going to wear this loss all weekend. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing. I want those guys in my lineup. The guys that can move on quickly from this, and say ‘It is what is, let’s move on to Tuesday’, I’m not sure I’m ok with that.”
Drake Herrera has proven to be part of the group that has stepped up, despite adversity throughout the year. There came a stretch about three weeks back in which, with his batting average at .139, he ended up on the bench. For a player who had started 39 out of 40 games in 2022, it was not ideal.
But he worked his way back as an everyday player, and Saturday marked his fourth and fifth consecutive starts. He made a number of exceptional catches in right field in game three, even showcasing his aggressiveness in a leap for a ball in foul territory that sent him falling through the gate in the corner of the outfield.
“He’s been one of our more solid outfielders since he walked in the door here,” Stawski said of Herrera. “He started early in the season, scuffled a little bit, and we had to make some changes.
“But he was one of the guys who stayed positive even when he had to go to the bench for a little bit. He understood why but stuck to his guns, and stayed positive, because he knew he had another chance to go. He’s been out there for the last four or five games and done really well.”
Acierni’s name also came up in Stawski’s postgame conversation with True To The Cru. A right-hander who established himself as UMHB’s ace in 2021, Acierni barely saw the field a season ago. He never had time to get into rhythm, due to an injury that kept him out until April. Yet, even as he has worked himself back as a key member of the starting rotation now in 2023, his commitment and work ethic seen two seasons ago remains the same.
“It doesn’t matter what position you are, people need to learn how Andrew operates,” Stawski added. “They need to learn how he prepares, and how he reacts. What does he do when things are going well? What does he do when things aren’t?
“He’s good in clutch moments. There were runners on first and second at one point, and he gets right back on the mound and operates. That’s not just for young pitchers to look at. That’s for everyone to look at.”
While the atmosphere inside the UMHB dugout following the game three loss was somber, to say the least, Stawski, though frustrated, did not look past the opportunity it presented for his team. Here they were, on the verge of a series win over the No. 2 team in the ASC. They did not get the job done. And that is a lesson that he believes can and will help them down the road.
“There’s always things you can take away,” Stawski commented.”Sometimes it’s really good lessons right in your face. Then there’s times like this today, where we had the game in hand, were one out away, and everything kind of fell apart. Unfortunately, that lesson isn’t a great one. But if you’re going to be a good team, you have to learn those lessons too.”