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Navy baseball takes 2 of 3 from Army to capture Star, secure Patriot League tournament berth

Navy rallied past Army, 10-5, on Sunday thanks in part to center fielder Joe Simourian, batting against Towson on April 7, who epitomized the Midshipmen's determination by battling hard-throwing reliever Tanner Gresham before flaring a single into short left field in the seventh inning.
Navy rallied past Army, 10-5, on Sunday thanks in part to center fielder Joe Simourian, batting against Towson on April 7, who epitomized the Midshipmen's determination by battling hard-throwing reliever Tanner Gresham before flaring a single into short left field in the seventh inning. (Will Newton/AP)

This has not been a typical season for Navy baseball, arguably the most consistent program in the Patriot League over the past decade.

A month-long pause of all athletic activities at the Naval Academy was a real setback for baseball, which had 12 games canceled or postponed from Feb. 28 to March 24. Remarkably, the Midshipmen hitters were able to regain their timing in short order, but the pitchers found it much more difficult to settle into a rhythm.

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Following a roller coaster conference campaign, the Midshipmen suddenly found themselves in do-or-die mode going into the final series of the regular season this weekend.

Facing four games against archrival Army at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona, New York, Navy needed to win at least two to qualify for the Patriot League tournament. Having the Star on the line only added to the pressure for the Mids, who won five straight Patriot League regular season championships from 2015 through 2019.

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“This was the first time in a long time that we were on the bubble. There was a different mindset going into the final weekend,” said Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos.

Thanks to a gutsy come-from-behind win on Sunday, Navy not only captured the Star but also extended its impressive postseason streak. The Midshipmen will make their 10th consecutive appearance in the Patriot League tournament, having secured the fourth seed by beating the Black Knights in two of three games.

Sunday’s series finale, the back end of a doubleheader, was canceled because of rain.

“Resiliency is the best way to say it,” Kostacopoulos said about the thrilling victory that accomplished two major goals.

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“I am really proud of the guys that we have been able to make it into the postseason. Nothing has come easy, and we’ve really had to push to make things happen. Now we have the second season and get to start all over again.”

Army ace Anthony Loricco allowed just one run on five hits and notched 12 strikeouts through 6 ⅓ innings in shutting down Navy in Game 1. Shortstop Kevin Debrule and pinch hitter Andre Walden drove in two runs apiece for the Black Knights, who won 6-1 to gain the upper hand.

First baseman Zach Stevens smashed a solo homer in the second inning then blasted a two-run shot in the fourth to spark the visitors in the second game. Center fielder Joe Simourian hit a three-run homer as the Midshipmen took a commanding 6-1 lead in the top of the fourth.

“It was now or never in the nightcap on Saturday, and I loved the way we responded,” Kostacopoulos said. “Unfortunately, we built a big lead then just watched it evaporate.”

The Black Knights scored three runs in its half of the fourth then tied the score with two more runs in the seventh, an impressive comeback that could have rattled the Mids. Undeterred, Navy scored twice in the top of the eighth with second baseman Nico Valdez and left fielder Colin Smith delivering RBI singles.

Army got one run back in the bottom of the ninth, but reliever Trey Braithwaite shut the door as Navy won 8-7 to salvage a split.

“I thought the way we reacted after Army tied it up was the turning point of the whole weekend,” Kostacopoulos said. “We were able to scratch across a couple runs late to pull out the win and I thought the momentum carried over into the third game.”

With heavy rain in the forecast for late afternoon, both teams knew Game 3 could be crucial. A solo homer by Tim Simoes helped Army take a 4-2 lead after five and a solid outing from starter Ray Bartoli had Navy on the brink.

Navy slugger Zach Stevens, batting against Towson on April 7, belted two home runs in the second game of a doubleheader against Army on Saturday.
Navy slugger Zach Stevens, batting against Towson on April 7, belted two home runs in the second game of a doubleheader against Army on Saturday. (Will Newton/AP)

Down to their last at-bat, the Mids dug deep and found a way to prolong the game. A pair of plebes sparked the rally with right fielder Zane Raba and shortstop Eduardo Diaz delivering back-to-back singles with one out. Catcher Christian Policelli drew a walk to load the bases, extending his streak of reaching safely to 25 straight games.

A swinging bunt by Stevens caused trouble for Army with both the pitcher and catcher attempting to field the ball and Raba was able to slide home to make it 4-3. Third baseman Logan Keller followed with a sacrifice fly to forge a 4-4 tie.

Junior reliever Dalton Baker set the side down in order in the bottom of the seventh, which sent the contest into extra innings.

Diaz and Keller both drove the ball into the gap for three-run doubles as Navy exploded for six runs in the top of the eighth. A lengthy at-bat by Simourian, in which he fouled off multiple pitches from hard-throwing reliever Tanner Greshman, epitomized the Midshipmen’s determination.

Down two strikes, Simourian fought off several tough pitches and finally flared a single into shallow left to put runners on first and second. Raba drew a walk to load the bases and that set up the key hit by Diaz, who drove the ball to the wall in left-center.

“I thought we had six or seven straight great at-bats toward the end. Guys just refused to give in,” Kostacopoulos said. “Simourian’s at-bat was the best, but Raba’s was really good as well. They wore down Gresham, who made three or four quality pitches that normally would have produced outs.”

Kostacopoulos also had high praise for Baker and Braithwaite, who were instrumental in Sunday’s victory after having already pitched on Sunday.

“We went back-to-back with Baker and Braithwaite and those two gave us everything they had,” the 16th-year coach said. “That is really what you want to see in an Army-Navy series — guys doing whatever it takes.”

Navy (16-13 overall, 11-12 Patriot League) seized the fourth seed for the Patriot League tournament and will travel to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for a three-game series against regular season champion Lehigh (21-15, 17-9). Second-seeded Army (23-20, 15-10) will host No. 3 Lafayette (13-15, 12-13) in the other semifinal series.

“It’s amazing how winning a series like that against a strong team like Army is a great elixir,” Kostacopoulos said. “I’m hoping we can build off that momentum and roll into next weekend.”

PATRIOT LEAGUE TOURNAMENT

NO. 4 NAVY at NO. 1 LEHIGH

Saturday, noon and 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. (if necessary)

J. David Walker Field at Legacy Park

STREAM: ESPN+

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