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UMBC following ace Michael Austin’s lead into NCAA baseball tournament, a place he’s been before

The night before the UMBC baseball team started the America East tournament, pitcher Michael Austin addressed his teammates.

The redshirt senior told the Retrievers to envision each step of the weekend. To picture three victories, prevailing in the winners bracket and claiming the program's first conference title. To look forward to the celebration, the bus ride home and seeing UMBC appear on the screen during the NCAA tournament selection show.

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The Retrievers heeded the Bethune-Cookman transfer's advice and have accomplished each task since last Thursday's discussion.

Entering a meeting with No. 1 seed Wake Forest on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Winston-Salem Regional, they'll continue to follow Austin's example as their ace and the lone player with NCAA tournament experience.

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"Once you get into the tournament, it's literally just baseball," said Austin, an Eldersburg resident who attended Century. "It doesn't matter what they did in the past. It doesn't matter what you did in the past. But it just matters the moment that you're in and just fighting the moment you're in, and hopefully you come out on top."

Austin started the process Friday in his win against Stony Brook. A few days after earning All-America East second-team honors, he went 5 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing five hits and striking out six.

It was a performance coach Bob Mumma has come to expect despite Austin's rocky start to the season.

Upon leaving Bethune-Cookman after his junior season, Austin had a redshirt year in 2016 to comply with NCAA transfer rules. He arrived at UMBC and spent the season focusing on pitching after spending time on the mound and in the outfield with the Wildcats.

He worked with pitching coach Liam Bowen in bullpen and extra throwing sessions to improve his velocity and accuracy and in film study to tweak his mechanics.

When this season started, though, the Retrievers lost 10 of their first 12 games and Austin faltered.

So Mumma moved him to the bullpen. When Austin had a 4 1/3-inning save in April against America East regular-season champion Binghamton, the sixth-year coach knew Austin had found a rhythm. He soon returned to the starting rotation.

"So many kids get caught up into, 'What do I do?' How do I perform?' " Mumma said. "But really he came up to us and said, 'If I come out of the bullpen, I don't care. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win.' And when your best players do that, everyone does that, and that's awesome."

"He did everything we asked him to do," said senior catcher Hunter Dolshun, who played with Austin in the Coastal Plain League last summer. "He's really worked hard and taken every role he's been put into, and he's handled it well."

Entering the NCAA tournament, Austin leads the Retrievers in ERA (4.21), strikeouts (45) and innings pitched (62).

The improvement and steadiness, Mumma said, has earned him the start against Wake Forest.

Austin pitched three innings in Bethune-Cookman's tournament appearance against Miami in 2014, allowing one earned run on two hits with two walks and a strikeout in the Wildcats' 10-0 loss, and he had already started to visualize his next postseason outing when the team returned to practice at the beginning of the week.

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UMBC played at Wake Forest in February 2016, so he joked that the Retrievers will embrace the upgraded dugout and won't need to worry about the groundhogs that live on a hill behind their home field.

Plus, he plans to tell his teammates to relax in their bracket against the Demon Deacons, No. 2 seed West Virginia and No. 3 seed Maryland because "they put their pants on just like we do."

Mumma also has an idea of what he wants to see from Austin in the program's first NCAA game since 2001.

"Hopefully he goes out there and gives us a good five, six, seven innings, gives us a chance to win a baseball game," Mumma said. "The kids will feed off of that and be excited for him and want to play really well for him."

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