As if seven baseball games against its bitter rival was not enough, Navy still has one more to play.
It’s a big one, and the Midshipmen are happy they are playing it.
Jared Leins had a massive performance, striking out eight and allowing two runs on four hits in eight-plus innings as Navy defeated Army, 4-2, to even the best-of-three Patriot League championship series at one.
First baseman Zach Stevens, catcher Christian Hodge, right fielder Liam Lowery and third baseman Jacob Williamson had two hits each for the Midshipmen, who bounced back from Friday night’s disappointing loss to the Black Knights.
“They always bring it when we play each other. They always do,” Hodge said. “We have to match their intensity. This is awesome. I was in this position my freshman year and we were able to pull out a win and go to regionals. I would love to have that feeling again and I don’t want to stop playing.”
Army (33-24) got to Navy ace Noah Song early Friday night, scoring five runs in the first two innings of a 6-2 victory. Leins set the tone early on Saturday, setting down Jacob Hurtubise, Tim Simoes and Anthony Giachin in order in the bottom of the first.
Getting Giachin, who drove in all five of those early runs Friday evening, was particularly clutch. Leins held the third baseman hitless on the day.
“Giachin has given me trouble all season,” Leins said. “He has been on my fastball and on my changeup, so today I was just trying to locate my off-speed with him, whether it was the slider or curveball. I was trying to hit my spots all game and give my team a chance to score first.”
Navy (39-16) took advantage of that opportunity. Stevens, Hodge, Lowery and Williamson each singled to start off the second. Lowery’s single plated Stevens and Christian Policelli was hit by a pitch to bring in a second run. A double play scored Lowery and that gave Leins the space he needed early.
“Jared was good. He executed a game plan that was unique from the standpoint of being able to throw three pitches for strikes,” Navy head coach Paul Kostacopoulos said. “He threw key pitches when he needed to. He came in with the fastball, he got his breaking ball over and he mixed in his change. He pitched a masterful game and he was locked in mentally.”
The Black Knights got two back in the fifth with a ground out and an RBI single by Hurtubise, but Leins responded by retiring seven in a row and 10 of 11 going into the ninth inning.
“He could throw wherever you wanted him to. He was really on today, like he has been his past couple of starts,” Hodge said. “That is everything and more that we could have asked of him. I was very proud of him. We just knew after yesterday that we had to bring it with the sticks.”
The Midshipmen responded to Friday night’s two-hit performance by banging out 11 on Saturday. Evan Lowery gave Navy some insurance in the seventh when his single to right under the glove of first baseman John McKenna scored Policelli, who opened the inning with a single.
“We were pretty frustrated with our offensive performance last night,” Kostacopoulos said. “Not down, but frustrated. We responded well today. Those guys hit in the middle of the order for a reason. We even had two guys thrown out at the plate today, but we needed to be aggressive with the season on the line.”
Leins was pulled after walking Andre Walden to start the ninth. Trent Topping walked the one batter he faced, prompting Kostacopoulos to bring in Jackson Zoch. A senior like his battery mate Hodge, Zoch was locked in with two runners on and nobody out.
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“We just needed to get a one-game winning streak and that is all I was focused on,” Zoch said. “We know we have the guys in that dugout that can get the job done. It was just next man up when it came to me.”
The first batter Zoch faced was pinch-hitter Carter Macias, who laid down a bunt that died right in front of Hodge, who was originally looking to go to first. Hodge’s throw to third went in the dirt, but Williamson — who has played Gold Glove-caliber defense at the hot corner all season — made the clutch save.
“We knew they were going to square around and bunt. I was just trying to get an out, but I heard Jackson Zoch yell ‘three,’ ” Hodge said. “My stomach still hurts from that play, but Jake made a great play and that allowed us to finish off the game.”
Zoch retired three in a row to set up a winner-take-all game Sunday afternoon. It will be the eighth game of the season between the Mids and Black Knights, and 15th in the past two years.
“We were going over the scouting report and joking that it was only the 14th time we have played them the last two years,” Kostacopoulos said. “After a while, there really are no secrets. It just boils down to execution. The 15th game in two years will be a big one.”
Leins felt good about the role he played in securing another game tomorrow, but was blunt about the objective.
“It all comes down to how we do tomorrow,” said the sophomore from Raleigh, North Carolina. “My victory does not really mean anything if we cannot finish the job.”