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It was a cruel irony that St. Scholastica worked so hard to earn the right to be host of the NCAA Division III regional baseball tournament, and then failed to win the UMAC playoff for the first time in 20 years. While the Saints missing their own party was a fiscal downer, it certainly was not a physical downer of any kind.
It’s just that the dramatic results that emerged from virtually every game were done by guys we didn’t know and by teams we had never seen.
Bethany Lutheran, “our team” from the UMAC after the dramatic finish to win twice on the final day over St. Scholastica, and Bethel from the MIAC were the homestate entries among the six teams at Wade Stadium. Bethel’s Royals had a solid team that jumped ahead of Concordia in the tournament’s opening game. This wasn’t Concordia of Moorhead, however, or of St. Paul, but Concordia of Chicago, and the Cougars, as they were called, rallied for the tournament’s first dramatic finish, a walk-off 13-12 victory with strong-armed reliever Mike Formella extending his school record year and career saves.
Top-seed and defending NCAA champ Wisconsin-Oshkosh then beat Bethel 4-3 in 12 innings, and hammered North Central 11-1 on Day 2 in the only real rout of the tournament.
The great thing about double-elimination tournaments is the pitching strategy. Teams tend to use up their starting pitchers and wind up using sore-armed hurlers to try to survive. Concordia had to face Bethel in the second game for both teams, on Day 2, and fell behind 4-1 in the first three innings. Concordia rallied for a 6-4 lead, but Bethel scored three in the last of the seventh to regain the lead at 7-6, with a rally that was halted only by the appearance of Mike Formella — who holds Concordia’s records for saves with 14 this season.
Concordia shortstop Jose Mercado, a sparkplug from Colombia who got the chance to attend Concordia by a donor who took a liking to him in community college, brought in the 7-7 tying run with a squeeze bunt in the top of the eighth. In the top of the ninth, an error put one runner on, and Concordia catcher Brady Roberts fouled off two sacrifice attempts. Maybe he was discouraged, or maybe just mad at himself for botching the bunts, but Roberts then socked one over the right-fielder’s head to break the tie. With two out and two on, Mercado, the little shortstop, spanked a double to right-center for two runs and a 10-7 lead that stood up, with Formella’s strong relief stint. Unfortunately, that also eliminated Bethel.
A group of guys watching the game from down the right field line turned out to be dads and fans of Concordia, and it was fun joking around with them. They said they were staying at a hotel up by the mall, so I suggested that Friday night, they should go over to Bridgeman’s for their weekly all-you-can-eat walleye feast. When I went out to Wade Saturday, the guy ran up to me and shook my hand and thanked me for the tip, and said they rounded up 35 parents and all of them hit the walleye feed.
The Concordia team seemed to have a little magic going for them, but it ran out against Oshkosh Saturday in a 9-7 loss. That, however, was Concordia-Chicago’s first loss, so they went into the loser’s bracket and eliminated Dubuque 6-3 in the Saturday night game.
Sunday dawned as the nicest day of the week, a Chamber of Commerce day in the sun that allowed the out of town folks to leave their hooded sweatshirts and fleece jackets in their cars. The showdown at High Noon was between unbeaten Oshkosh and once-beaten Concordia, which went with Brian Musielak, a senior who had only thrown a complete game once, and that was a seven-inning affair, not the nine innings of the regional.
Concordia got one in the first, one in the third, one in the fifth and one in the sixth, while Musielak shut down Oshkosh through the first seven innings. The Cougars got three more in the top of the seventh to make it 7-0, and while Oshkosh got a run in the last of the eighth, Musielak — who threw 4 innings on Thursday, “and not very good,” he said, completed a 7-1 victory behind a 16-hit attack., while he scattered eight hits.
He finished with a flourish. I wanted that one, and had a little extra adrenaline going that last inning,” Musielak said.
Once behind 4-0, Oshkosh of course wasn’t about to waste a pitching change, knowing it would need to save arms for the final final game.
Oshkosh sent senior Lucas Gregory, a big left-hander, to the mound, and Concordia coach Mike Stawski went with Mike Formello, the right-handed senior who had worked five innings over the first two tournament games for saves, but had a curve ball that broke so deceptively he needed only to spot his fastball.
The deciding game was a classic, Connor Brandon singling home a run for Concordia in the second, and Oshkosh tied it 1-1 when Mercado booted a double-play grounder, then threw it away. In the top of the seventh, Mitch Wilson whacked a line drive over the right-field fence to break the 1-1 tie, and when another hit prompted Oshkosh to change pitchers, Jacob Frank connected for a double into the left-field corner and it was 3-1.
Oshkosh cut it to 3-2, scoring on an infield grounder in the last of the eighth, and setting up a tense finish. Formello was amazing, finishing with a line out, a strike out and a ground out to pitch a 3-hitter and give Concordia its third straight complete game victory and the Duluth Region title. Formello had thrown 49 pitches over 2 and 1/3 innings against Bethany Lutheran, then came back and threw 42 more in 2 and 2/3 innings against Bethel on Friday, but he still had enough left to throw 108 pitches in his first start of the season, giving him three appearances and three victories in the tournament.
As the team went predictably haywire celebrating on the field, I spotted the guy I had advised about going to Bridgeman’s.
“Which one is your kid?” I asked him.
“No. 22,” he said.
“The pitcher? He was amazing.” Take that kid out for some walleye.
Concordia of Chicago now goes to the national tournament with a shot at making a run at it.