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May 2, 2009

 

Red Dragons survive soggy start

Top-seeds overcome rain delay and feisty Cardinals

Dragons Baseball

Photos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland’s Steve Nickel (right) reacts to teammates who come to congratulate him on his second inning home run against Plattsburgh in Friday’s playoff game at Wallace Field. Cortland won,10-6.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

With his team rolling along, a rain delay was the last thing SUNY Cortland baseball coach Joe Brown wanted to see Friday afternoon.
So when a storm halted this SUNY Athletic Conference first round playoff game against Plattsburgh for well over an hour, the antsy Red Dragons skipper bemoaned Mother Nature’s poor timing while checking out weather patterns on a computer screen in the Wallace Field press box.
Sure the top-seeded and defending champion Red Dragons survived that soggy interlude and feisty Plattsburgh to secure a 10-6 victory to get the conference playoffs underway, which was of the utmost importance. “You’ve got to win on day one any way you can,” Brown said later of this double-elimination tournament that will crown a champion Sunday afternoon.
And by surviving Cortland (27-12) will face third-seed Brockport (20-19) at 1 p.m. this afternoon in a game that will send the winner into Sunday’s championship round at noon, Brockport having gotten Friday started with a 3-1 win over Fredonia. Fourth-seed Plattsburgh (23-16) and second-seed Fredonia (25-9) went at it this morning in an elimination contest, the first of three games on the SUNYAC docket for today.
But Brown’s fears came true as this Cortland-Plattsburgh outing became two games rolled into one, separated by the delay of an hour and 16 minutes that arrived with the Cardinals batting in the top of the sixth inning.
Unbeaten Cortland starter Matt Tone was breezing along for the opening five innings, striking out the first three batters he faced and not allowing a hit until the fourth frame. The junior lefty had eight whiffs before getting into a bit of trouble and yielding a run just before the deluge arrived.
The top five hitters in the Cortland batting order had all collected two RBIs apiece by then, including the two-run homer junior third baseman Steve Nickel lofted over the right-field fence during a six-run scoring spree in the bottom of the second.
The Red Dragons built a 10-zip lead for Tone to take into the sixth inning, the lone hit by the Cardinals coming one-out into the fourth inning when Andrew Gooch sent a perfectly placed hit-and-run grounder into left field with Cortland shortstop Zach Reynolds busy covering the second base on the steal attempt.
TONE STARTED running out of luck in the top of the sixth, however.
Plattsburgh leadoff man Joey Bouyea dumped an opposite field double down the right field line, John Campbell had an infield hit and took second on a wild pitch and Bouyea scored when Kyle Kawalowski had another infield single off Tone’s leg.
Cortland luck really turned bad when the rains arrived, which meant Coach Brown would have to take Tone out of the game after having thrown just 86 pitches. “Anything can happen now,” said Brown of that occurrence.
“I don’t know,” said Tone (now 8-0 on the season) when asked if he thought he could continue. “It would have been an hour wait, so I don’t think it would have been a good idea to go back out there.”
The Red Dragons changed uniforms from soggy whites to fresh red tops, made another change with lefty Mike Mahay coming on to pitch for Tone and then saw the momentum change as well.
“The only thing that was bad (about the delay) was the bugs. It was bad in the outfield,” said hometown product and Red Dragon centerfielder Mike Avery of the break, the senior with a triple and a double in the early going. But Plattsburgh prove to be just as much of a nuisance as the bugs who arrived once the rain ceased.
“I really have respect for Kris Doorey,” said Brown of the Plattsburgh head coach. “Of all the teams we’ve played this year, that team always plays nine innings of baseball against you.”
A Gooch sac fly and Joe Curcio double brought two more Plattsburgh runs home when play resumed, cutting the lead to 10-3. And in the top of the seventh when Cortland committed its lone error and Mahay made the mental mistake of not covering the bag on a grounder to first, Kawalowski had a two-run single and Gooch an RBI double. The Red Dragon lead was now a perilous 10-6.
That’s when George Jweid came out of the bullpen, the third Red Dragon lefty. He retired eight of the nine batters he faced to save the day.
“George has been working hard all year. He’s really our ace in the hole,” said Coach Brown of the New Hartford product, who missed most of last season with an injury and is just starting to round back into the form he showed as a fabulous freshman.
CORTLAND BATS were impressive in the early going, knocking out freshman Plattsburgh starter Matt O’Leary (7-2) after only 27 pitches — his shortest outing of the season.
Leadoff bat Andersen Gardner singled, stole second and scored on a Kevin Jackson single to open the scoring in the bottom of the first, Jackson also swiping second and scoring on a Jason Simone two-out single up the middle.
After Matt June and Reynolds drew walks with one out in the bottom of the second, Cortland came up with five straight hits to post six more runs. Gardner pulled a double the right field line for two runs, with Avery and Jackson following with back-to-back triples to the same right field corner locale.
Nickel’s two-run homer followed, along with another Simone single before Plattsburgh turned a double play to escape further damage. Gardner singled and scored on an Avery double in the fourth, with Avery scoring when Plattsburgh was unable to turn what could have been an inning-ending double play on a Simone grounder.
“We’ve been working on taking the ball the other way, and we got a lot of base hits going that other way today which was nice,” said Avery, who was 2-for-5. “We’ve been working on keeping our hands inside and pushing them out.”
Gardner had three hits, while Jackson and Simone had two apiece, as the work paid off in an 11-hit assault — though the Red Dragons never threatened over the final four innings.
And Tone was on his game going against the same Plattsburgh batting order he faced just last Saturday when the Red Dragons came up with the victory that gave them first place in the SUNYAC standings and the chance to host this weekend’s festivities.
“I think it helped me having faced them before, because I knew what pitches it would take to get them out,” said Tone.