By Alex Brown, Editor-in-Chief
With the tying run 90 feet from home, the go-ahead run at first and no outs, Cody Dew, senior history major, stared down Blue Mountain College slugger Gardner Richey. The Bulldogs needed a win Thursday to claim their second consecutive TranSouth Conference Tournament title, but Dew’s chances of completing save No. 10 looked slim.
“I thought for sure they were going to score a run,” said shortstop Danny Grimm, senior political science major.
But Dew froze Richey — who had put the Toppers on the board with a fourth-inning solo shot — with a called third strike, and cleanup hitter Nate Bell stepped in. Bell scorched a rocket down the first-base line, but freshman mathematics major Jim Martin — who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement — snared the liner and dived back to the bag, doubling off the runner and preserving the 2–1 win.
The team raced out of the dugout to mob Dew on the infield, celebrating the improbably preserved win and a fourth consecutive national tournament appearance.
Benjie Fesmire, junior business administration major, pitched 6 2/3 innings to earn the win, allowing just a pair of hits and a single earned run.
Dew pitched the remaining 2 1/3 innings, adding to his Bulldog record with his 34th appearance of the season and recording the save despite the final-frame drama. After a tournament full of high-scoring affairs, Fesmire said he didn’t anticipate a pitcher’s duel in the final game.
“(I thought), ‘If I can keep them at five runs or fewer, I think we have this game won,’” Fesmire said. “It turns out one was barely enough.”
Grimm brought in the go-ahead run with a bases-loaded walk in the sixth, and Will Irvin, senior physical education and health major, accounted for the other Union tally with a fourth-inning sacrifice fly.
Grimm finished with a tournament-high .820 batting average, scoring seven runs, driving in a pair and drawing four walks.
The Bulldogs opened the tournament with a 4–2 win over Cumberland University and ace pitcher Mike Mandarino, riding the complete-game pitching effort of Irvin. An 11–5 victory over Martin Methodist College capped a 2–0 start to the tournament.
The offense erupted for 13 hits, and Jared Davis, junior biology major, gritted out 6 1/3 innings on the mound, allowing only two earned runs to preserve the Union lead.
The team faced Blue Mountain on Day 3, defeating the Toppers 11-10 behind a five-RBI performance from Doug Joyce, senior sport management major.
The Toppers knocked off Cumberland later in the day to set up the final-day matchup. The Bulldogs went undefeated in the tournament, avoiding the “if necessary” game that would have taken place had Blue Mountain pulled out a win.
The Toppers were a familiar foe, as the team closed the regular season with a three-game series sweep of Blue Mountain, including a near-perfect game by Fesmire in the finale.
Fesmire retired the first 17 batters he faced, keeping the Toppers’ hitters off-balance with well-located pitches.
A trio of sparkling outfield plays kept the perfect game alive. Brett Pawlan, senior exercise science major, made a pair of diving catches in right field, and center fielder Clint Barnes, senior physical education and health major, made a sliding grab of his own.
“I thought all three of them were hits,” Fesmire said.
Head Coach Brent Fronabarger said the plays were key to maintaining an edge during a close game.
“Our outfield defense has been really good for the last month or so — we’ve got guys who can run and get good jumps on balls,” Fronabarger said. “They were positioned well. Those are always big plays, especially in a tight game. If you can take away a hit, it’s demoralizing to the other team. It picks your team up.”
With two outs in the sixth inning, Grimm committed an error, giving the Toppers their first baserunner and spoiling the perfect game. Fesmire said he wasn’t bothered by the error, and he entered the seventh inning with the no-hit bid intact.
Pinch-hitter Nate Bell greeted Fesmire with a single, and another hit brought him around to score. Dew came in to close the game, recording the last three outs for the save in a 4–1 win.
Fronabarger said the sweep and Fesmire’s performance — as well as an 11–2 record in the team’s last 13 regular-season games —provided a springboard heading into tournament play.
“You want to go in playing well, and I think we’re playing well,” Fronabarger said. “You want to have a lot of confidence going in.”
While the team closed the season strong, no hitter was hotter than Pawlan, who had his 16-game hitting streak snapped in the tournament final. He admitted the streak was in the back of his mind and said he wants his role to contribute to the team’s overall success.
Pawlan said the Bulldogs’ recent performance is evidence of their resilience, as they emerged from a midseason slump to claim the No. 2 spot in the TranSouth.
“We all knew we were good; we were just pressing too much,” Pawlan said. “I’m really proud of our team, especially the seniors. We fought to get back to where we should be.”
Prior to the tournament, the team said it was embracing the challenge of knowing its performance would determine its postseason eligibility.
“It adds a little bit of pressure,” Fesmire said. “The question is: Are we going to step up?”
Fesmire and the Bulldogs answered that question decisively, and they will head to their national tournament regional matchup May 10 with a chance to go out on top in their final season of NAIA play.
“The second season has just started for us,” Grimm said. “The goal is to make it to the (NAIA) World Series and win it. We don’t need to rest on our laurels.”