KENT, Ohio – The journey to potentially win four consecutive games, and, therefore, the NCAA Division II Midwest Region 1 championship, begins with a single step.
On Friday (May 17) at Schoonover Stadium at Kent State University, Ashland University's baseball team took two impressive come-from-behind steps, working its way back from a 5-1 deficit to top Northwood, 6-5, then rallying from 7-0 down after 1½ innings to topple Bellarmine in walk-off fashion, 8-7.
The top-seeded Eagles (43-12) will once again face Tiffin (26-29) on Saturday (May 18) at noon in the split region's championship game. Should AU win, a second title game will immediately follow.
"Our guys never quit. We've been doing it all year," said Ashland head coach John Schaly. "We dug ourselves a hole both games, but we kept battling, and got the big hits when we needed to."
Each of Ashland's last seven victories have come when the Eagles were trailing at some point during the contest.
Against the Timberwolves, sophomore shortstop Austin Eifrid took the first pitch of the contest over the 320 sign down the left-field line for a quick 1-0 Ashland lead. Northwood, however, countered with a leadoff homer of its own from David Vinsky, then went ahead 2-1 later in the bottom of the first on a two-out Eagle error.
That 2-1 score held until the bottom of the fourth, when the T'Wolves plated three on Michael Karam's bases-clearing double. Ashland started to cut into its deficit with a single run in the top of the fifth on an RBI groundout from junior third baseman Garett Robberts.
As was the case on Thursday (May 16) vs. the Dragons in the split regional opener, the Eagles erased their deficit and made it a 5-all game when Robberts launched a three-run homer to left field.
Then, in the top of the eighth, following the first sacrifice bunt of the season by sophomore first baseman Micah Allen to move two runners into scoring position, senior second baseman Matt Littrell scored on a two-out wild pitch for a 6-5 Eagle lead – their first of the split regional.
Junior right-hander Chance Hitchcock improved to 8-2 by keeping Northwood to five hits, five runs (four earned) and five walks and striking out four in seven innings. Senior righty Chris Slavik earned his seventh save with two perfect innings and five strikeouts, and is the only NCAA pitcher at any level to have 10 or more wins and seven or more saves in 2019.
Versus the Knights, four two-out runs in the top of the first gave Bellarmine an early advantage. A three-spot in the top of the second put Ashland in a 7-0 hole.
The Eagles began the comeback trail in the bottom of the second, as a two-out, two-run single from sophomore left fielder Logan Moss put AU on the board. Then, in the bottom of the fourth, Robberts collected a run-scoring single to cut into the Knights' lead at 7-3.
Ashland kept chipping away at its deficit, but in the bottom of the fifth, that chipping turned into a jackhammer. A bloop RBI single by sophomore catcher Logan Stoldt made it a 7-4 contest, then sophomore right fielder Dillan Smith launched a two-run triple for a 7-6 contest.
Robberts brought the Eagles all the way back with a two-run RBI single later in the fifth for a 7-all score.
Smith made a pair of diving catches to keep the score tied in the top of the sixth, then Smith and junior center fielder Michael Rogers each made circus-type grabs in the top of the eighth to keep the Knights off the bases.
"The night started off, it went from the late afternoon into the darkness, and you had to work with the lights," Smith said. "The main thing is, none of us want to quit."
All of that led to the bottom of the ninth, when Robberts, after an Allen leadoff double, a Stoldt sacrifice bunt and two straight intentional walks, hit the game-winning RBI single to left field.
Robberts was 4-for-5 with three RBIs, and in the split regional, is 9-for-12 with three runs scored, a home run and eight RBIs.
"Right now, I'm seeing it pretty well," Robberts said. "It's incredible. I've never been on a team where we've had this kind of resiliency. We're never out of a game, and we know how to bounce back after a loss."
"He's swinging the bat well here this weekend," Schaly said.
Allen and Moss each had three of AU's 16 hits, and Slavik moved to 11-1 after striking out the last two Knight batters of the game. That came after junior lefty Josh Smith pitched a career-high 6 2/3 scoreless innings of relief, allowing just four hits and three walks and whiffing four.
"I just went out there and threw strikes and let my teammates work the defense," Smith said. "We just have each others' backs, and we never let anyone down."
"That's by far the most pitches he's thrown all year, and he did a heck of a job," Schaly said. "Josh had a great, great game."
Ashland's 43 wins in 2019 is bested in program history by just four teams – 2002 (48), 2004 (47), 2006 (47) and 1999 (45).