Top-ranked Faulkner broke open a close game with a six-run sixth inning and then coasted to a 14-2 victory here Monday over Texas Wesleyan, handing the Eagles the championship of the Montgomery Bracket of the NAIA Baseball National Championships Opening Round and a berth in the Avista-World Series played later this month in Lewiston, Idaho.
Faulkner (51-11) had to battle through the loser's bracket after falling to Texas Wesleyan Friday afternoon, and did so in dominating fashion, outscoring the three opponents in the games that followed 38-5. The Eagles beat Indiana Tech 15-2 Saturday afternoon to stay alive in the tournament, then beat the Rams 9-1 Saturday night to set up Monday's winner-take-all championship game.
Head coach Patrick McCarthy's Eagles are the top seed in the World Series, and will play the winner of the game between eighth-seed Sterling (Kan.) and ninth-seed Missouri Baptist at 5 p.m. central time Saturday, May 25, at Harris Field. The trip to the NAIA's showcase baseball event will be the second in three years for Faulkner, which lost its first two games of the double-elimination tournament in 2011.
Leading 3-2 in the top of the sixth, Faulkner was the beneficiary of five walks in the big inning which forced in two runs, then back-to-back-to-back singles from Luis Sanchez, Michael Cruz and Sergio Sanchez accounted for four more runs that effectively put the game away. The Eagles scored a single run in the seventh and then got five straight hits from Sergio Sanchez, Dauris Holguin, Esteban Paula, Cayleb Coker and David Bishop to tally four more times in the eighth to close out the scoring.
Faulkner starter Johnny Shuttlesworth (14-1), pitching on only three days rest, earned the victory, allowing just one earned run in five and a third innings. Without his best stuff - he struck out five and walked the same number - the senior from Tuscaloosa threw 104 pitches and left with a seven-run lead.
"You're not measured as a pitcher by how you do when everything is going well, you're measured by how you do when you have to battle and fight through when you're not at your best," said Shuttlesworth, who also earned a victory over Indiana Tech in Faulkner's tournament opener Thursday night. "I knew early on that I didn't have the velocity or location with my fast ball, and that I'd need to lean on my breaking ball. I gave it everything I had."
Shuttlesworth's teammates, especially infielders Sergio Sanchez, Luis Sanchez, Holguin and Coker, and catcher Zak Colby, knew the Eagles' ace had done just that, and each gave him a bear hug before he left the mound to head to the dugout after McCarthy made the change.
"It's hard for me to even talk about it, to be honest, because how they reacted meant so much to me," said Shuttlesworth, the Southern States Athletic Conference pitcher of the year. "I've never seen anything like it. I play with the greatest teammates a guy could ever ask for. We're a family, and we battle through things together."
Said Colby, another senior who will end his collegiate career in the World Series, "Johnny is the first guy at practice every day, and if he could he would pitch every inning. We have great pitchers, but when he's on the bump our confidence level just skyrockets. When coach Mac came to get him, each of us wanted to show our appreciation and gratitude for the incredible effort he gave us today. It was just incredible."
Junior left hander Labradford Griffis, Faulkner's top reliever, tossed two and two-thirds of scoreless relief, then he gave way to senior Lyndon Eusea, who pitched a perfect ninth that resulted in a massive dog pile of Faulkner players at the pitcher's mound in celebration. For McCarthy, seeing his team celebrate another trip to the World Series on its own field was hard to describe.
"When a coach lays his head down at night, he dreams of that moment for his players," said McCarthy, the two-time SSAC coach of the year. "I'm so happy for our guys. We knew after Friday's loss that we'd find out how we dealt with adversity, and now we know. We never lost sight of the goal, and now we're a step closer to the ultimate goal. I want to tip my hat to coach (Mike) Jeffcoat and the Texas Wesleyan team. They gave us everything we wanted, and they play the game right. He's a great coach, and we wish them all the best in the future."
Senior center fielder Antonio Kendrick, the only Faulkner player who was on the 2011 World Series team, played a key role in Monday's victory. In the lineup most of the tournament in place of the injured Brook Boudreaux, Kendrick came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth with the Eagles clinging to the one-run lead. After falling behind 0-2 in the count, the Forrest Park, Ga., native fouled off four pitches before working a run-scoring walk to push the margin to 4-2. Four batters later, the advantage had grown to seven, and any doubts about which team would win had mostly vanished.
"It was without question," McCarthy would say later, "the biggest at-bat of the game."
For Kendrick, the crucial run driven in helped him erase the memory of what happened three innings earlier, when his errant throw allowed an unearned Ram run that trimmed what was a 3-0 Faulkner lead to 3-2.
"When I came off the field after the error, everybody was telling me not to get down and that they had my back," he said. "When I got up in the sixth inning, I just kept taking deep breaths to try and relax. The more pitches I saw in that at-bat, the more confident I became. I kept telling myself to hit something to the outfield, but when the count went full, I knew drawing a walk would be just as big. It was the most important at-bat I've ever had, and I'm thrilled it worked out the way it did."
Kendrick would later add a single, and ended the game with two runs scored and an RBI. The biggest day at the plate came from Luis Sanchez, who had five hits in six tries, scored three times and knocked in three runs. He singled and scored on Sergio Sanchez's base hit in the first inning, and pushed the Eagles' lead to 3-0 with a solo homer in the third. Sergio Sanchez had three hits and two RBIs for Faulkner, while Coker had two hits, and an RBI. Paula also scored three times for the Eagles.
"When we lost Friday, we were a little down, but we knew we weren't out," Luis Sanchez said. "We took one game at a time, and never panicked. Today was a fun day for all of us. Now we get to keep playing to try and win a national championship."