Saturday, October 1, 2022

Baseball breaks playoff drought

By Colin Bolebruch

For the first time in a decade, the Plattsburgh Cardinals men’s baseball team is playoff-bound.

This past weekend the Cardinals eked out a SUNYAC tournament bid. On Friday, May 6, the Cardinals lost to the Brockport Eagles (30-6) at home by a score of 0-10. The next day, Saturday, May 7, Plattsburgh lost 0-1 in the first game of the home doubleheader. The Cardinals won the second game of that day by a score of 14-9.

Simultaneously, the New Paltz Hawks were at home and in Oneonta taking on the Cortland Red Dragons (28-10) for three games in their battle for a spot in the tournament. Going into the weekend, New Paltz and Plattsburgh were neck-and-neck for the fourth seed, with a 6-9 SUNYAC record each. New Paltz lost all three games by a combined score of 13-38.

Prospects were not high for Plattsburgh after a difficult first loss on Friday to Brockport. The Cardinals failed to bring in a single run and accumulated only four total hits. The game was a manageable 0-1 through the bottom of the third, but a three-run fourth inning put Plattsburgh in a hole. After it received no response, Brockport brought in six more runs, bringing the score to 10-0 at the bottom of the fifth. Through the last four more innings, there were a combined two hits — both from Plattsburgh.

Shortstop Christian Lent led Plattsburgh with two hits. First baseman Steve Messerschmitt recorded nine putouts and catcher Jacob Hutton tallied eight. Lent and Messerschmitt tied with two assists apiece. Both Peter Gregory and Logan Alvin pitched three strikeouts. Gregory took the loss.

For Brockport, left fielder Ryan Mansell led with three hits and center fielder Nicholas Pastore had a triple. Pastore also batted in three runs. Catcher Jake Sisto had nine put outs and shortstop Justin Pangburn had three assists. Pitcher Andrew Huffman recorded a win with seven strikeouts.

Going into Saturday, the Cardinals knew that it needed to step up. Designated hitter Christian Ott said that Head Coach Sam Quinn-Loeb made sure everyone knew that this was a must-win with the season on the line.

Plattsburgh continued the defensive effort in Saturday’s first game, letting up only a single run— the least amount by any Cardinal opponent all season. The lone score came at the top of the second inning when a single brought a Brockport runner in. Plattsburgh let up only six runs all game. 

“We all played hard, defensively… we made the plays that needed to be made. Some balls ate us up, some bad throws, but you can’t let them capitalize on it,” third baseman Conner Gonzalski said. “Unfortunately, they had one of the best pitching staffs in the country. We did put balls in plays, we just couldn’t scrape any across…”

While the defense was on point, there was no action on offense, being shut out for a second straight game. The Cardinals recorded only three hits, all from Ott. He had a single in the second inning, followed by a double in each the fifth and seventh. Messerschmitt and Hutton both recorded five putouts, and Lent and Veit had two assists each. Veit pitched for the whole game, totaling four strikeouts and a loss.

Brockport second baseman James Houlahan and third baseman Brian Tietjen had two hits each, and one of Tietjen’s was a double. Mansell had nine putouts and Houlahan had two assists. Pitcher Tom Kretzler was on the mound for all seven innings, throwing nine strikeouts and earning the win.

After two scoreless games, changes needed to be made. As the last day of the season, the senior day ceremony took place before the season’s last game. Whether it was the formalities or something that Quinn-Loeb said, something clicked.

“I thought we got pretty comfortable in game three with facing a good pitcher in game one and a good pitcher in game two. We were used to the tempo and the pace that their pitchers were throwing at. The guys just kept their composure,” Quinn-Loeb said.

In the final game, Brockport struck first, bringing in a single run at the top of the second inning. When the teams switched sides, the Cardinals did something that they hadn’t done all weekend: score. Outfielder Mike Rasquin doubled to center field, bringing in two runners and the environment exploded.

“[The energy] definitely shifted a little bit. We came out flat game one, didn’t really have a lot of hits and we were just able to piece it together today,” Rasquin said. Gonzalski agreed, “It erupted. It went from everyone playing tight to everyone playing really loose and having fun.”

The Cardinals were on the board when it needed it the most. Two at-bats later, it happened again; shortstop Alex Kornblau singled bringing in another two runners. The inning was soon over but the Cardinals had the spark that it needed.

“I think [the play] was huge because we knew that we were going to need more than two runs to win the game and we just had to keep adding on,” Kornblau said. At the top of the third, Brockport responded with singles that brought in two runs, making the score 4-3 Plattsburgh. The Cardinals didn’t sit there and take it. With their next opportunity at hand and with the bases loaded, Rasquin bunted, and Messerschmitt scored. Hutton made it to first at his next at-bat and another runner scored, and the Cardinals now led 6-3. Plattsburgh flipped its playoff odds on its head.

In the fourth, Plattsburgh quickly put out three Brockport batters without a hit. 

“We were much better defensively today. That’s what we have to do. When we lose games it’s because we beat ourselves, we make mistakes and other teams capitalize. We were able to limit the defensive errors today and the free runs that they got,” Quinn-Loeb said.

A single from Nolan De Melfi brought in another runner. A wild pitch on the next at-bat had everyone rotating again, bringing in another. At the next at-bat, third baseman Nick Cergol singled, bringing in the last two. The score now stood 10-3 Cardinals, but it wasn’t done yet. Before the inning was over, singles from Hutton and Kornblau finished out the inning with a score of 12-3 Plattsburgh.

Scores at the bottom of the fifth brought the score up to 14-3 Plattsburgh. Brockport mounted a comeback at the top of the sixth, with five runs in the inning. The Cardinals didn’t panic— this was its game. Another Brockport score at the top of the eighth brought it to the final 14-9.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. I think in the ninth inning when we had [Chris] Santic on the mound, he’s been a beast all year, we knew he was going to be able to close it out for us. That’s when we were ready to just start jumping around everywhere and celebrate,” Kornblau said.

Concurrently, New Paltz was down 3-12 against Cortland. While the game wasn’t over just yet, anyone could guess how it ended. Brockport’s Pangburn struck out swinging for the final out of the game and celebration took over the field. There was embracing, running and yelling. The Cardinals eventually settled down enough to take a team photo and just a New Paltz inning and a half later, it was playoff-bound.

“We were all just ecstatic. I think it meant the most to the seniors on this team who have been on the team for a while and never made it to a playoffs… it was great for them,” Kornblau said.

Plattsburgh’s Rasquin and Melfi each had three hits with two of Rasquin’s being doubles. Hutton led in runs batted in with four, just ahead of Rasquin and Melfi’s three. Rasquin continued his great game, putting out seven. Kornblau had four assists. Pitcher Sean Malamud recorded the win, striking out two.

Brockport’s Mansell, Kretzler and Pastore had three hits each with a triple from Kretzler. Pastore and Kretzler each batted in two. Catcher David Belsito and Kretzler each put out seven and Pangburn added three assists. Brockport split up the pitching duties and pitcher Matt McGowan secured the win with two strikeouts and fellow pitcher Matthew Colucci added four strikeouts.

Rasquin attributed the accomplishment to the team’s resilience. They could’ve just “rolled over”, but they worked out, ground out the fall ball and just got better. Quinn-Loeb said that the clinching win felt “really good”. He said that they knew they had a good chance of earning a tournament spot this year, but it felt “really good.”

In just Quinn-Loeb’s first year at the position, the Cardinals were able to end the 10-year-long drought. In each of the last two full-length seasons, the Cardinals missed the playoffs by a hair, coming down to the wire each time. This wasn’t something that it wanted, it was something that it needed.

“[Coach] just talked about how hard work can really get you anywhere and like, we had guys on the team who weren’t playing at all in the beginning of the season and they stepped up when we needed them to and help us make a playoff push,” Kornblau said.

Now through the ups and downs of the season and the dramatics of the last weekend, Plattsburgh is ready for the challenges that the tournament will bring. As a team with no playoff experience, there is no precedent for what it will bring.

Ott said that the job is not done. The team is excited, but if they all play like they always do, the pieces will fall into place. Rasquin agreed, saying that the playoffs felt like a fresh start, but if they just play nine perfect innings as they did against Brockport, they’ll succeed.

The Cardinals travel to Oswego to take on the Lakers (28-8), who are ranked 11th in Division 3, in its first playoff game. Oswego swept the Cardinals earlier in the season, but it can’t stand down now.

“We know who in their lineup can really hit the ball, we know their pitchers and what pitches they throw. Going in there and playing our game, just playing fundamental defense,” Gonzalski said. “[We’re feeling] excitement… the energy is really up.”

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