It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
The Saint Mary’s University (SMU) baseball team had its sights set on its first-ever Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Playoff title — and the Cardinals’ first NCAA Division III National Tournament appearance since 1993.
If you asked coach Nick Winecke what his favorite number was, he might have answered number one — the number he wore during his playing days at Saint Mary’s University.
Following Saturday’s Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Playoff winner-take-all game against the University of St. Thomas (UST), however, Winecke would probably have a different favorite number — 29.
After all, Saint Mary’s 6-3 win over St. Thomas — its program-record 29th win of the season — earned the Cardinals their first-ever MIAC Playoff title, and the coveted automatic bid into next weekend’s NCAA Division III National Tournament.
“I’m just extremely proud of this group,” said Saint Mary’s Coach Nick Winecke, whose squad was awaiting NCAA announcements on who and where they will play next week. “The toughness they showed today — to bounce back the way they did (after dropping a 6-5 decision to the Tommies in their first game of the day), that speaks volumes about this team.”
“I’ve said all along that there are four things that make our players successful — they’re good kids, great teammates, they work their butts off, and they truly care about each other,” Winecke added. “You have those four things, and good things are going to happen … And today, good things really did happen.”
If there were any ill effects from their heart-breaking 6-5 loss to the Tommies in the first game of the day, the Cardinals certainly didn’t show it in game two.
Taylor Anderson delivered a one-out double in the Cardinals’ first at-bat, and after a groundout to short, Will Matthews belted a run-scoring single to plate Saint Mary’s first run. Andy Tepp knocked a two-out double of his own to deep center to plate Matthews and give SMU an early, 2-0 advantage.
An advantage that was whittled in half in the Tommies’ next at-bat, however.
Max Moris clubbed a one-out double in the gap in the Tommie second and Kyle Halverson added an infield single to put runners on first and third. Owen Best lifted a fly ball to Andy Tepp to score Moris from third to make it 2-1.
The Tommies put a runner on base for the third straight inning against Saint Mary’s starter Jordan Zabel in the third, as Avery Lehman reached on a fielding error, only to be thrown out by SMU catcher Justin Weinberg trying to steal.
Saint Mary’s had a chance for a big, big inning in the third, loading the bases with no one out. But UST reliever Matt Moore worked out of the jam allowing just one run. Tyler O’Brien — who launched a three-run home run as part of SMU’s four-run seventh inning in SMU’s 6-5 game one loss to UST — opened the third inning with a walk, and Anderson converted a hit-and-run to perfection, lacing a single through the right side to move O’Brien to third. Weinberg walked to load the bases, but, after a Matthews strikeout and a Tepp fly out, it appeared as if Moore would exit the inning unscathed. A wild pitch, however, allowed O’Brien to score to give Saint Mary’s a 3-1 cushion.
The Tommies continued to put lead-off runners on base, getting a single by Thorp to open the fourth. Owen Best drew a two-out walk, and SMU coach Nick Winecke went to his bullpen, bringing in Addison Hochevar, who induced Matthew Enck into a ground out to third to end the inning.
Saint Mary’s took a page out of the Tommie playbook in its half of the fourth, as Cameron Weber led off the frame with a single. Two strikeouts sandwiched around Weber being thrown out trying to steal, however, ended the inning.
St. Thomas took advantage of a one-out Cardinal throwing error — and an RBI single by Charlie Bartholomew — to claw within one, 3-2, in the fifth.
But with one mighty swing of Matthews’ bat, the Cardinals’ one-run lead quickly ballooned to a four.
O’Brien was hit by a pitch — for the fifth time in the last three games — to kick off the Cardinals’ fifth. Weinberg added a one-out single and Matthews delivered Saint Mary’s second three-run home run of the day, this one pushing Saint Mary’s lead to 6-2 with four innings to play.
Lehman singled to open the seventh off Ryan Wolfe, who was in his second inning of relief and Jake Porter followed with a four-pitch walk. Wolfe struck out Bartholomew for the first out of the inning and coaxed Josh Thorp to fly out to center. Max Moris laced a single up the middle to score Lehman — and get the Tommies within three, 6-3 — but Porter was thrown out trying to go from first to third for the final out of the inning.
And that would be as close as the Tommies would get, as Wolfe worked around a lead-off single in the eighth and set St. Thomas down in order in the ninth — including a comeback-er to the mound for the game’s final out.
Matthews was the offensive hero for the Cardinals, going 2-for-4 with two runs scored, four RBIs, and that huge, three-run home run. Weinberg and Anderson also delivered two hits in the Cardinals’ nine-hit attack. Hochevar picked up the pitching win with his 1.1 innings of one-run, one-hit relief, while Wolfe collected the save, surrendering just one run on four hits in four innings.