A red-hot Corey Keller combined with a multitude of mistakes and missed opportunities meant the end of Towson's emotional 2013 season on Sunday.
With two outs in the top of the ninth and the winning run on third, Tigers coach Mike Gottlieb elected to intentionally walk Brendon Sanger so Nik Nowottnick could face Keller, but Keller lined Nowottnick's first-pitch slider off the base of the wall in left to score Geoff Jimenez and propel Florida Atlantic to a 6-5 win in the Chapel Hill regional of the NCAA baseball tournament.
The left-handed hitting Sanger is the Owls' leading hitter with a .360 average, nearly a hundred points higher than Keller, a righty, but Sanger was just 1-for-9 in the regional while Keller was 5-for-12 with three home runs and a double when Gottlieb decided to bring him up with game on the line.
"It's a good thing this isn't the major league world series. I'd be crucified," Gottlieb said. "I wasn't worried about a long ball there; I was worried about a single. Yeah, Keller was hot. That went through my mind, too. It didn't work."
Keller hit two homers and had four RBIs in FAU's 14-6 victory over Canisius on Saturday, and he had a solo home run in the second and an RBI double in the fifth against Towson. Nowottnick, a right-hander, struck him out on three pitches when the two faced off in the seventh, however.
"I told Corey before he went up there to just look breaking ball. That's all they were going to do," Owls coach John McCormack said. "They were going to live or die with that kid's slider."
Nowottnick hit Jimenez to lead off the ninth, and he stole second to get in scoring position.
Towson (30-30) put a runner on base as it did in every inning in the bottom of the ninth when Peter Bowles walked with two out, but FAU closer Hugh Adams (3-0) struck out Dominic Fratantuono on a questionable check swing to end the game.
The Tigers never trailed by more than a run but blew a 3-0 first-inning lead and couldn't overcome a trio of baserunning mistakes, an error and a wild pitch.
A day after two Tigers were picked off by North Carolina pitcher Kent Emanuel and Richie Blosser was easily thrown out at second in the ninth trying to stretch a single to a double, Brandon Gonnella was picked off first in the second inning and doubled off second base by FAU left fielder Geoff Jimenez in the fourth. He had singled both times.
"He's a good base runner. It sure as hell didn't show today," Gottlieb said of Gonnella. "He might have been the last guy I would have said that was going to happen to."
In the bottom of the fifth, Brendan Butler (John Carroll) ended what could have been a big inning when he was thrown out trying to get to second on his run-scoring single by Owls first baseman Mark Nelson, who had cut center fielder Nathan Pittman's throw to the plate.
With two outs in the top of the frame, Sanger singled, stole second and scored on Keller's double to bring Levi Meyer to the plate. Meyer's hard grounder was handled cleanly by shortstop Hunter Bennett, but Bennett's throw sailed over first baseman Butler's head to allow Keller to trot home.
In the seventh, Tyler Rocklein led off with a double, and he was able to score on Sanger's sacrifice fly after Nowattnick's wild pitch put him on third.
"You don't win the one-run games, you lose'em," Gottlieb said. "We made too many mistakes, certainly on the bases, to win a tight ballgame."
Towson took a 3-0 lead in the first when Zach Fisher (Perry Hall) and Pat Fitzgerald (Calvert Hall) led the game off with consecutive singles off Jake Meiers. One out later, Bowles' hit loaded the bases, and Meiers walked Fratantuono (Cardinal Gibbons) to force Fisher home before Butler's line drive up the middle plated Fitzgerald and Bowles.
The Tigers only managed to score twice more, with single runs in the fifth and seventh, despite getting 19 base runners on 14 hits, three walks and two hit batters.
Florida Atlantic (41-21) had 11 hits off of Towson starter Paul Beers (Atholton) and Nowottnick.
Towson's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991 capped off a season in which the players and coaches were told the school was going to eliminate the program, only to see the decision reversed after an outcry from the community and an influx of state fundings. Seven of nine hitters in Sunday's lineup were underclassmen.
"I have to thank Coach Gottlieb and all the coaches and all the parents for helping us fight this year. It's been a lot," said Butler, a sophomore. "All in all, it's a championship year. I'm proud of what our team has done."
"People rallied behind us, a lot of people I didn't know, and it's been uplifting in so many ways," Gottlieb added. "I guess it's been a great experience even though there have been some low lows."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun