By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009
In his 32 years at George Mason, baseball coach Bill Brown has been a part of some very good teams. There were the 39-win teams, the Colonial Athletic Association and Eastern College Athletic Conference title teams, and the NCAA tournament teams. And though he would never put one team ahead of all the others, Brown acknowledges that this Patriots team is unlike any that have come before it.
"This group can be incredibly special," Brown said. "The sky's the limit. It's an absolutely special group. It has the chemistry. It has the intangibles, and it certainly has the ability."
Last month, after sweeping UNC Wilmington for the first time in 10 years, George Mason (38-9, 17-4 CAA) earned the program's first national ranking. Now ranked No. 27 by the National College Baseball Writers Association, the Patriots clinched the fourth CAA regular season title in program history last weekend after their three-game sweep of Northeastern. They are tied for the Division I lead in wins and reached 30 victories faster than any George Mason team. Their 25-2 home record is the best in school history.
George Mason's success, though not unexpected, has been greater than anticipated. Few college teams can keep top prospects for long; most leave early to play professionally. But the Patriots, who have had at least one player drafted in nine of the last 14 years, have held on to their best players. The two who were drafted last year -- pitchers Jordan Flasher and Mike Modica -- returned to college rather than sign professional contracts.
"Well, I figured that because I only threw in one game [last season because of an elbow injury] that if I came back and had a good year like my sophomore year I'd get drafted higher," said Flasher, a junior who was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 39th round even though he was given a medical redshirt in 2008. "But after this season, I wouldn't have wanted to miss this for the world. That's pretty awesome that we're doing this this year."
As a result, George Mason fields a veteran lineup. Third baseman Dan Palumbo (Spalding), a third-year sophomore who also redshirted last season, is the least experienced starter. The rest of the starting lineup is a mix of seniors and juniors.
Over the years, George Mason has been known for its potent offense. This season, however, the Patriots have succeeded because of pitching. Starters Modica and Kevin Crum (O'Connell) both have earned CAA pitcher of the week honors this season. Modica (9-1, 4.06 ERA), a senior left-hander, leads the league in wins and the team in strikeouts (58). Crum (7-3, 3.93 ERA), a fourth-year junior right-hander, is second in strikeouts (45).
But it's been the bullpen that's really come through for the Patriots. The relievers are 13-3 on the year with 15 saves and a 3.21 ERA. Opponents are batting .263 against them.
"The bullpen on the whole has been fantastic," Brown said. "They've gotten us to where we are right now."
Flasher (Osbourn Park), who tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in his first appearance of the 2008 season and underwent ligament replacement surgery, is the team's closer. Despite the injury, the right-hander has six saves this season, making him the school's all-time leader and ranking him in the top five in CAA history.
Right-hander Ben Reade (Robinson) was a serendipitous addition to the bullpen. The senior walk-on began his college career at Air Force, transferred to Virginia Tech and coached high school baseball for a time before joining George Mason this season. He is 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
"I feel lucky to be a part of this," said Reade, who turns 24 next week. "Everybody on this team is so motivated to win."
After a slow start, George Mason's bats have come on strong the last two months. The Patriots hit .308 and averaged 7.1 runs in their first 28 games, but over the past 19 they are batting .348 and scoring more than nine runs per contest.
"Our lineup has to be feared," outfielder Scott Krieger said. "You just don't know which of us is going to spark us. It can start anywhere in the lineup."
Krieger, a preseason first-team Louisville Slugger all-American and the CAA preseason player of the year, is one of the biggest hitters on the team. The senior, who is one of four Patriots selected CAA player of the week this season, is the program's career home runs leader (67). He also leads active Division I players in career home runs, RBI (232), runs (219) and total bases (572).
Mason's No. 2, 4 and 5 hitters -- junior catcher Chris Henderson, junior first baseman Justin Bour (Westfield) and junior second baseman Ryan Soares -- also have earned CAA player of the week honors this season, with Henderson and Bour picking up the award twice.
Henderson, who opened the season with an 11-game hitting streak, is tied for second in Division I in hits (85) and leads the team with a .429 batting average. He recently was added to the watch list for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation's top catcher. Bour (.346 batting average), whose brother Jason played for the Patriots and now is in the Cincinnati Reds minor league system, was selected the NCBWA national hitter of the week after hitting 3 home runs, scoring 9 runs and driving in 14 runs in five games last week. Soares (.322 batting average) had a 14-game hitting streak last month, the longest hitting streak by a George Mason player this year.
Bour is one of three Patriots with strong baseball bloodlines. Designated hitter-infielder Mark Hill is a cousin of Bob Horner, the 1978 National League rookie of the year, and shortstop Brent Weiss's uncle is Walt Weiss, the 1988 American League rookie of the year.
As the accolades continue to pile up for George Mason, much is expected from the Patriots. Brown, however, isn't worried about his players buckling under the pressure. He's confident they'll maintain their focus. But should they fall short of their goals, Brown said their accomplishments will not be diminished.
"Not one bit, because the journey has been so great for these kids," Brown said. "The legacy of this group will be forever."