FAU baseball is leaving the Sun Belt Conference on top.
The Owls made an emphatic exit from the league Sunday, winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament for the first time by defeating the hometown Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns 16-8.
With the win, FAU (39-20) claimed the Sun Belt's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It's the first NCAA bid for the Owls since 2010.
"It's nice to be off the bubble," FAU coach John McCormack, whose 2012 Owls won the regular-season title, but lost the Sun Belt Tournament, henceforth missing out on a bid to the NCAA Tournament, said. "These things are kind of a crap shoot."
FAU scored 14 in the first four innings to open what would prove to be an insurmountable lead in the contest. The offensive explosion was highlighted by a nine-run jamboree in the second, when FAU batted around the order.
Every player in the FAU starting lineup reached base in the game, and by the third inning, each FAU starter had scored a run.
The heart of the FAU batting order — No. 3 hitter Mark Nelson, No. 4 hitter Tyler Rocklein and No. 5 hitter Brendon Sanger — combined to drive in nine runs and go 7-for-14 in the game.
"We just kept it loose today," Sanger, who was named the tournament's MVP, said after the game. "We wanted to come out and prove a lot of people wrong, but we were just having fun. A lot of guys come out with the intent to put the barrel [of the bat] on the ball, and we did that and got some great results."
The win was FAU's 11th consecutive victory — the program's longest winning streak since 2004. FAU holds the NCAA record for consecutive wins (34 in 1999).
"I think we have plenty of runs still in us for the regional. We're a confident team right now," Sanger said.
Louisiana, who leads the NCAA with 72 home runs this season, used its potent offense to fight back from a 13-1 deficit. The Cajuns (41-18) chipped away at the FAU lead with runs in the third, fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, but it wasn't close to being enough.
Lightning delayed the championship game for one hour and 46 minutes in the eighth inning, but the lengthy delay only prolonged the inevitable.
Up 16-6, the Owls waited out the weather by playing "ping pong" with a baseball and bats.
Austin Gomber started the game for FAU and pitched three innings, allowing two earned runs on two hits. Gomber was slated to pitch for an inning— or at-most two — but the Owls' insurmountable lead, along with Gomber's poise on the mound, led McCormack to leave in his ace for an additional inning.
FAU used five pitchers in the game. Kyle Miller and Michael Sylvestri followed Gomber, and both pitchers allowed two earned runs.
Alex Koji was handed the ball after the lighting delay, and he allowed no runs before giving way to Kevin Alexander, who allowed a run, but closed out the game, sparking a celebration in the middle of the diamond.
The move to work Gomber for three innings will change FAU's rotation in next weekend's NCAA Regional — the location of which will be announced Monday at noon. Gomber, typically FAU's Friday-night starter will receive an extra day of rest and will pitch on Saturday. Jeremy Strawn will slide into the Friday start, McCormack said.
FAU boarded a bus and began a 15-hour drive back to Boca Raton after the win.
And if you're going to embark on a 15-hour bus ride, Sanger said it's best to have something to celebrate along the way.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun