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May 17, 2008

 

Red Dragons one win away

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

AUBURN — While Ryan Hooper was credited with the victory for his shutout pitching performance Friday night at the NCAA Division III baseball regional, SUNY Cortland coach Joe Brown also handed out a save of a unique kind.
Coach Brown credited team trainer Pat Donnelly as crucial for getting Hooper ready for an assignment like this, the right-hander coming out of bullpen to shut down Rensselaer bats while the Red Dragons went about securing a 9-5 victory Friday night to move a win away from returning to the NCAA Division III World Series.
Four runs in the top of the eighth inning broke things open as the top seeds captured their third straight regional victory in as many days at rain-soaked Falcon Park.
Cortland is now 41-3 on the season, with a staggering 37-game winning streak, and will have to be beaten twice over the weekend to be denied a regional title.
The Red Dragons will face the winner of this today’s elimination contest between Rensselaer (33-11) and Eastern Connecticut State (32-14-1) next. That championship round game is a 5 p.m. start this afternoon at Falcon Park.
A second game — if Cortland is handed its first loss in this double-elimination affair — will be played Sunday at 1 p.m.
This has been an injury-plagued senior season for Hooper, who struck out seven batters during a successful 4-2/3 inning stint that kept third seed Rensselaer from crossing the plate in this winner’s bracket showdown of nationally-ranked squads.
“Only about a month ago Ryan was taking cortisone shots and wondering if he would ever pitch again,” noted Brown after the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Hooper got the job done against a potent foe ranked 18th in the country. That is why Brown tipped his hat to the rehabilitation work of trainer Donnelly.
“It was one of those things where you knew the offense was going to get going and put up some runs,” said Hooper after coming on for freshman starter Travis Ratliff after RPI tied the game at 5-5 with a couple of fifth inning runs.
Over the final four innings, 18th ranked Rensselaer did not get a base runner beyond second base against Hooper.
That enabled the Red Dragons — ranked second in the country — to pull this game out in the eighth inning. That’s when leadoff hitter Khyle Dimino singled home the go-ahead run, clean-up hitter Matt Vitalone delivered a crucial two-out single to plate two more teammates and designated hitter Andersen Gardner smacked an RBI double.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Red Hawks put two runners aboard when this three-hour plus game — that started two hours late due to a day-long drizzle that caused delays throughout the day — came to an abrupt ending.
The Rensselaer base runner at second thought there were two outs and was trotting towards home on a fly ball, which enabled left-fielder Anthony Coromato to make the catch and double up that inattentive Red Hawk for a game-ending double play.
THE VITALONE BASE hit was the true back-breaker for Rensselaer.
The Red Hawks had intentionally walked catcher Mike Zaccardo — who had a two-run homer earlier — to pitch to Vitalone. And when Zaccardo failed to draw a throw when he took off and helped himself to second base, the Cortland senior was the exact same scenario from earlier in the evening.
Back in the sixth inning, with two outs and runners on second and third, Vitalone fouled off a 3-2 pitch before striking out on an inside fastball.
Now here was Vitalone at the plate again, fouling off two full count pitches before singling to center past diving Red Hawks shortstop Matt Muscatiello to up the Cortland lead to 8-5.
“I just wanted to put the ball in play,” said Vitalone of that moment.
Vitalone then scampered home all the way from first when sophomore Gardner hit his line drive down the right field line for the final Cortland run of the evening — the last of some aggressive Red Dragon base-running throughout.
“We stayed within ourselves,” said Vitalone of this victory, the closest game Cortland has played in a while. “We didn’t get complacent at all and stuck with our game.”
Though out-hit 11-8, Cortland made the most of their scoring chances and did not make an error for the second consecutive regional game.
“That and our pitching. That’s our game,” said Vitalone of the steady defense Cortland has been playing this post-season. “We made the plays when we needed to.”
The shortstop and senior second baseman Joey Russo both came up with stellar plays behind Hooper in the late going.
“I’m so pleased with the mental toughness we showed when we were down,” said Coach Brown, whose Red Dragons had captured the opening games of this regional with relative ease — beating Grove City 10-1 Wednesday and Montclair State 9-2 Thursday.
THE RED HAWKS out of Troy gave Cortland fits early, starting with an infield single legged out by leadoff man Sean Wilkes in the bottom of the first.
Dan Valentine doubled down the line in left and Pat Reardon hit a two-run single — the first of four hits for the DH, to put Cortland in a quick 2-0 hole.
Zaccardo got those runs back with his sixth home run of the season and second of the regional, an opposite field shot over the left-field fence with teammate Mike Avery aboard following an infield hit.
Cortland then took a 4-2 lead scoring twice without the benefit of a base hit in the fifth. Nick DeVito was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game and Coromato reached when his sacrifice bunt drew an errant throw. After a wild pitch moved the runners into scoring position, a Steve Nickel groundout and Russo sacrifice fly plated two runs.
Dan Stroud tripled and scored on a grounder to get the Red Hawks within 4-3, only to have Cortland answer right back when DeVito delivered a two-out RBI single in the top of the fifth.
A hit batter, a Jim Devine double, a Valentine sacrifice fly and a wild pitch enabled Rensselaer to pull even in the bottom of the fifth at 5-5. And when Reardon singled Coach Brown lifted freshman Ratliff and beckoned Hooper.
After giving up a single, Hooper recorded back-to-back strikeouts and the Red Hawks scoring was over for the evening.
IN OTHER games Friday, elimination games had Montclair State trim Ithaca 7-6 and Eastern Connecticut send Ohio Wesleyan home with a 5-1 win.
After Cortland prevailed, Eastern Connecticut State won a 14-0 game over Montclair that stretched into early this morning.