Navy baseball completes turnaround from worst to first and NCAA tournament berth

June 2, 2011

When Navy catcher Jeff Bland squeezed strike three for the final out in the Patriot League baseball championship game last week, the celebration at Max Bishop Stadium in Annapolis included extra zeal. Not only had the Midshipmen vanquished Army to claim their first league title since 2002, but the 5-3 win capped an improbable march to this weekend’s NCAA tournament after a last-place finish a season ago.

Navy opens NCAA tournament play on Friday afternoon against Virginia, the event’s No. 1 overall seed, in Charlottesville.

Players and Coach Paul Kostacopoulos recalled the low point from the previous season with particular clarity because it was then the Midshipmen began to engineer one of the more remarkable turnarounds in program history. The date was May 13, 2010, to be precise, a day after Navy’s season ended in the Patriot League cellar, and the six seniors-to-be gathered for a thorough accounting with their skipper.

The meeting featured healthy input from Bland, among others, and Kostacopoulos absorbed the feedback much more than he dictated terms. Not that Kostacopoulos incorporated all the proposals, but the exchange proved therapeutic for both sides and allowed for a fresh start.

“We told him our different things, and everyone had their different opinions, and he really took it to heart,” said Bland, this year’s team captain. “We made the decision to change the program, and everybody including the juniors this year, they took it, and we ran with it. We said we’re going to start all over again and see what we can do, and it really fell into place for us.”

The start of the season hardly had that feel, though, with the Midshipmen (33-23-1) losing five in a row. First they yielded 34 runs in a three-game sweep at the hands of Presbyterian, then lost to Maryland by five and to Air Force by six. But in the second game of the series against its service academy rival, Navy blunted a ninth-inning comeback bid for a 6-4 triumph.

The Midshipmen collected 13 hits in that game, and in the rubber match of the series, Navy logged 20 hits, its most this year, in a 13-3 victory that triggered four more wins over the next six games. During that stretch, the Midshipmen leaned heavily on pitching, which evolved into their most reliable component heading into the Patriot League schedule.

“At 0-5, I remember that night we kind of all sat together and said, ‘This is not going to be a continuing trend for the rest of the season,’ ” said senior starting pitcher Sam Long, who surrendered two runs in five innings with seven strikeouts in Navy’s first win of the season. “We’re not just going to fall over on teams we know we can play with, we know we can beat.”

After the rocky beginning, Navy did not lose a series the rest of the season and lost three in a row just once. That’s not to say there weren’t some anxious moments, such as a 17-2 loss to Georgetown in late April and a 14-1 loss to Delaware State to close the regular season.

Still, the Midshipmen were able to regroup once more, in this case just in time for the Patriot League tournament. Navy’s opponent in the first round was Bucknell, against whom the Midshipmen had split the regular season series but gave up 24 runs in those four games.

After losing the opener, 1-0, in 16 innings, the Midshipmen swept the final two by a total of 12-1, including a 6-0 win in the deciding game. Senior starter Wes Olson tossed six innings in the clincher, allowing five hits and one walk with five strikeouts to improve to 7-1, the best record on the team. Reliever Preston Gainey, a freshman, pitched the final three innings for his third save and would have been perfect except for a lone walk.

The Army series was much higher-scoring, with Navy hanging on in the opener, 4-3, before losing in the second game, 6-3. That set up one game for the title, and one more time, the Midshipmen had to buckle down after falling behind 3-1 heading into the home half of the sixth.

Navy loaded the bases with one out, and Nick Driscoll hit a ball toward the shortstop, whose flip to second fell just short, allowing a run to score and keeping the bases full. Andrew Hahn then hit a shot toward the second baseman, and his throw got the force out at second.

The throw to first for the double play, however, sailed high, and Navy scored twice to take the lead for good.

“All this has happened in the last couple weeks for them, and I think it’s so exciting for them,” Kostacopoulos said. “Sometimes we go as hard as we can, and we don’t reach our goals, and they’ve been able to go pretty hard and get some significant goals accomplished in these last couple weeks.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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