College baseball: Catawba wins regional

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 21, 2012

By Mike London
MOUNT OLIVE — Catawba entered the Southeast Regional minus one of its aces and dropped a devastating game that lasted two days to begin the double-elimination tournament.
Against all odds, the fifth-seeded and 21st-ranked Indians bounced back to win four straight games — all against 40-win teams ranked in the top seven nationally in Division II — to emerge as regional champions.
Catawba beat Tusculum 6-1 and topped Francis Marion 8-4 on Sunday at Mount Olive’s Scarborough Field to earn its first ever trip to the D-II World Series.
Catawba will take on Indianapolis in the opening round next Sunday at 1 p.m. at Cary’s USA Baseball Training Complex.
“What we just did is insane,” said jubilant second baseman Julio Zubillaga, the former Carson star who was named tournament MVP. “Knowing all those great Catawba teams that came before us that didn’t win the regional, it’s amazing that we’re the first to go to the World Series. It’s an indescribable feeling.”
Even normally stoic coach Jim Gantt also reeled off adjectives such as “unbelievable, fantastic, amazing and incredible” after the Indians finished off a Sunday sweep of the nation’s No. 2 (Tusculum) and No. 6 (FMU) squads.
“It still really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gantt said. “Just unbelievable.”
In their opener on Thursday, the Indians led Tusculum when play was suspended by weather issues but let the game slip away once play resumed on Friday morning.
At that point, things couldn’t have looked a whole lot bleaker.
“That first loss was crushing,” Zubillaga said. “We went out to get some food after that game and everyone was too sick to their stomachs to eat.”
It was Nate King, who turned things around. The southpaw went out on Friday evening and pitched a complete game to eliminate Mount Olive, the top-seeded tournament host and the nation’s third-ranked team.
“Beating Mount Olive gave us some confidence,” Gantt said. “And you could tell that our bats were starting to come around a little bit.”
Catawba (43-15) crushed Armstrong Atlantic 11-0 on Saturday be- hind a career effort by hurler Ross Whitley, who fanned 14 batters.
That made it two straight complete games by the hurlers, and Gantt believes Catawba got the break it needed when Francis Marion beat Tusculum late Saturday night to give the final three survivors one loss apiece.
Catawba still needed two wins on Sunday, but the task was now to beat Tusculum and then Francis Marion, instead of having to beat SAC rival Tusculum twice in one day.
“Francis Marion is a great team, but it’s always harder to beat the same team twice,” Gantt said.
John J. Tuttle, an A.L. Brown product who had struggled in relief in the game Catawba lost in the tournament, redeemed himself by hurling the game of his life against Tusculum.
“You have to tip your hat to Catawba and their performance,” Tusculum coach Doug Jones said. “John Tuttle pitched an outstanding game and we never got comfortable at the plate.”
Tuttle (5-4) held a powerful, 48-win team to two hits. He fired a no-hitter until the sixth.
“Tusculum can hit, but Tuttle’s stuff was so good you could look at their hitter’s face and tell they didn’t think they could hit him today,” Gantt said.
Catawba (43-15) got Tuttle four quick runs on an RBI single and a three-run double by catcher Greg Lawson.
“It was going to be tough to follow what Whitley did, but my stuff just showed up,” Tuttle said. “Then we got those early runs and I relaxed. Our defense was making the plays, and I got a lot of outs early in the count.”
Catawba was out of starters, but Nick Lomascolo, who had pitched Thursday, came back on short rest and got the Indians into the fifth inning against Francis Marion. It was 4-4 after five frames.
“Lomascolo gave us what he had and gave us what we needed,” Gantt said.
Freshman Craig Brooks (2-0) took the ball in the fifth and was dynamic the rest of the way. He allowed three hits and no runs in 42/3 innings.
‘We played five games and only used five pitchers,” Zubillaga said. “But every pitcher we used was on.”
Zubillaga had three hits in the win against Francis Marion and also threw out a runner at the plate.
Keaton Hawks and Chris Dula knocked in runs in the seventh to give Catawba a 6-4 lead. Then Dula’s two-out, two-run double in the ninth allowed everyone to take a deep breath.
“Until then, everyone was still really nervous,” Tuttle said.
Some powerful Catawba offensive clubs that included numerous draft picks and big leaguer Jerry Sands were denied in regionals, but the formula that often leads to success is great pitching, great defense and timely hitting.
Catawba had those three things.
“I was named MVP, but I can tell you who the real tournament MVPs were,” Zubillaga said. “It was Lomo and King and Whitley and Tuttle and Brooks. It was our pitching staff that did it.”