College Baseball: Catawba begins World Series today

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2012

By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba coach Jim Gantt describes senior catcher Greg Lawson as a “California surfer.”
“Lawson is a laid-back, no-worries, the-sun’s-coming-up-tomorrow type of guy,” Gantt said with a chuckle.
So imagine pitcher John J. Tuttle’s surprise when Lawson sort of got in his face prior to Tuttle’s crucial start against Tusculum in the Southeast Regional. Catawba had one loss on its ledger, and the season — not to mention Lawson’s career — would be over if the Indians dropped another one.
“Tuttle had given up a few runs in relief his first game in the tournament,” Lawson explained. “So I looked him in the eye, and said, ‘John, I really don’t think you can go more than four innings today.’ Yeah, I challenged him.”
Two hours, 20 minutes after the challenge, Catawba owned a 6-1 victory and Tuttle owned a two-hitter. The soph had gotten 27 outs with 98 pitches. An A.L. Brown grad, Tuttle had done to the nation’s second-ranked team what he used to do to Concord’s Spiders.
“John proved me wrong,” Lawson said cheerfully.
When Tusculum scratched in the eighth, it ended a stretch of 20 straight scoreless innings by Catawba hurlers— all vs. nationally ranked teams.
Lefty Nate King, a senior transfer from N.C. State, blanked host Mount Olive for the final four innings of a tense 3-2 victory. Next, Ross Whitley pitched a complete-game shutout against Armstrong Atlantic. Finally, Tuttle tacked on seven more zeroes against Tusculum.
“Our pitchers were great, but we also got big hits and played great defense,” Lawson said. “It took all those things to win the regional. Just an awesome weekend.”
Potentially, an even more awesome weekend is ahead.
Now ranked fourth nationally, the Indians (43-15) open in the D-II World Series today in Cary at 1 p.m. against 11th-ranked Indianapolis (46-14).
Gantt (563-293 in 16 seasons at Catawba) has piloted seven regional qualifiers in the past nine years. His 2006 and 2008 clubs, both of which included awesome slugger Jerry Sands, fell in regional finals.
Gantt’s 2006 squad bashed a school-record 93 homers, won a school-record 47 games and hit .347 as a team, but it’s the 2012 version of the Indians (just 47 homers) that finally got over the regional hump.
“The team chemistry is the best we’ve had, and that’s important,” Lawson said. “A lot of teams can pitch and hit, but the really good teams have a bond. This is a tight group.”
When Lawson arrived at Catawba from Charlotte Providence, the Indians had veteran catchers in front of him.
As the No. 1 catcher for the first time this year, he’s come through in a big way, driving in 32 runs and making the SAC’s Gold Glove team.
“Lawson’s always had the talent,” Gantt said. “He’s very intelligent — a real computer whiz — and he’s meant a lot to us offensively and defensively. One thing that doesn’t show up in a boxscore is how many strikes he gets for our pitchers, especially low strikes.”
Last Sunday, with Catawba needing to beat Tusculum and Francis Marion back-to-back to win the regional, Lawson caught both games of the doubleheader. He went 5-for-8. His three-run double in the first inning against Tusculum, with two strikes, was the hit that allowed Tuttle to relax.
Still, a catcher’s main job is handling pitchers. Lawson said this staff, led by junior Nick Lomascolo, is a focused bunch.
“They have hitting-spots competitions throwing bullpens, with the losers running poles,” Lawson said. “When they throw a bullpen, they’re not trying to be good or even excellent. They’re striving for perfection. That’s when you succeed.”
After succeeding in his quest to get to a World Series, Gantt said reality has slowly replaced euphoria.
“It was a whirlwind for a while, but once we had our first coach’s meeting up here, it all sunk in,” he said.
Lomascolo, because of his experience, will start against Indianapolis today, with Tuttle and King ready to go in relief.
The eight-team World Series is much more spread out than the six-team regionals. The Series lasts a full week — from Saturday to Saturday.
Catawba won’t play Monday. It will return to action at 3 or 7 on Tuesday.
Catawba is healthy, including Brett Underwood. The 150-pound shortstop was at the bottom of the regional-championship dogpile and was so sore he missed BP a few days.
“I asked Brett how he was and he gave me a thumbs-up,” Lawson said. “The most important gesture of the day.”
The finality of their baseball careers has weighed on Catawba’s seniors the past few weeks, but there’s a chance for one more shining moment.
“When we practiced before leaving for the regional, (catcher) Jon Wallace told me it was my last practice at Newman Park,” Lawson said with a laugh. “Then we won the regional — but this week it really was the last one.”
Catawba made the trip to Cary on Thursday and has spent a lot of time watching Durham Bulls minor league games. Now it’s the Indians’ turn to take the field.
“The task in front of us is tough,” Gantt said. “But it’s gonna be a lot of fun to try.”
NOTES: WSAT-1280 will broadcast the games. … Catawba is only the second SAC team to make the World Series. Gardner-Webb, now Division I, made it in 2000. … Catawba’s .971 fielding percentage is the best in school history. … Tickets are $10, $5 if you’re over 55 or under 12. … The ballpark’s address is 200 Brooks Park Lane, Cary, N.C., 27519.