When the Saint Mary's University (SMU) baseball team dropped a pair of heartbreaking, 3-2, extra-inning contests to Concordia last Wednesday, the Cardinals' hopes of a return trip to the playoffs were on life support.
A whole lot of pieces had to fall in place for Saint Mary's to get a shot at defending its first-ever Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Playoff title.
And fall in place they did.
Thanks to circumstances beyond their control — including Concordia being swept by Bethel and St. Olaf losing two to Gustavus — the Cardinals' playoff status had been upgraded from critical to stable heading into last Sunday's conference doubleheader against Carleton College.
There were just two remaining pieces to fit into place during the final day of the regular season to complete the MIAC Playoff puzzle and send Saint Mary's back to the post-season — the Cardinals had to sweep Carleton, and Concordia needed to drop both of its games against Gustavus.
Saint Mary's did its part — posting 13-10 and 3-0 victories over the host Knights Sunday afternoon at Mel Taube Field — but the Cobbers refused to cooperate, rallying for two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning in beating Gustavus 5-4 in Game 1 of their doubleheader to officially eliminate SMU from the playoff equation.
The Cardinals rallied from an 8-2 deficit — scoring 10 unanswered runs in claiming their 13-10 victory in game one against Carleton, before riding the arms of four SMU pitchers in making a three-run first inning stand up in a 3-0, sweep-clinching win in the nightcap.
The Knights struck first in the opener, greeting Cardinal starter Jake Mercado with back-to-back-to-back singles — including an RBI single by Paul Hinton — to grab a 1-0 lead. With that one run already across, Carleton had the bases loaded with nobody out, but Mercado escaped without any further damage, inducing a line-drive double play and a strikeout to minimize the damage.
After going down in order in the first, the Cardinals cranked up their offense in the second, loading the bases with one out on singles by Daniel Marxen and Will Boeckman and a Carleton throwing error. Tyler O'Brien drew a bases-loaded walk to plate SMU's first run, and an RBI groundout by Ben Coons gave Saint Mary's a 2-1 lead.
Carleton reloaded the bases for a second straight inning with one out in the second — this time without the benefit of a hit, thanks to a hit-batter and two straight walks. And by the time the Cardinals were able to get the second out of the inning — an Aaron Berkowitz groundout — Carleton had scored six times. The Knights would add their seventh run of the inning on an RBI single by Luke Mager to take a commanding 8-2 advantage.
Saint Mary's whittled the Knights' lead to four, 8-4, with two runs in the third, despite not collecting a hit. Weber was hit by a pitch to open the Cardinal third and moved to third when Carleton pitcher Quinn Brannan's pick-off attempt sailed wide. Mason Coyle became Brannon's second hit batter to put runners at the corners with one out and Marxen followed with a sacrifice fly to left to score Weber. Boeckman walked, Bauman became the third Cardinal hit batter to load the bases, and O'Brien drew his second bases-loaded walk to score SMU's second run of the inning.
And the Saint Mary's offense was just getting warmed up, continuing to chip away at the Carleton lead with a three-run fourth inning to make it a one-run game, 8-7.
Brandon Merfeld singled and Weber was hit by pitch for the second straight inning to open the Saint Mary's fourth. Trevon VanEgtern grounded out to move the runners to second and third, and Coyle laced a two-run double to left-center. Tanner Bauman chipped in a two-out single to left to cap the Cardinals' three-run inning.
After reliever Timmy Smith set the Knights down in order in their half of the fourth, the Cardinals bats went back to work, scoring five, fifth-inning runs.
Coons led off the fifth with a single, was sacrificed to second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Weber reached for the third time on the afternoon via a walk and quickly stole second on the first pitch to VanEgtern. VanEgtern promptly belted the next Ryan Antrim offering into left field, scoring both Coons and Weber.
And that was just the beginning.
Coyle followed up VanEgtern's single with one of his own and Marxen hammered a two-run double to center to plate SMU's third and fourth runs. Bauman chipped in an RBI infield single — giving SMU a 12-8 lead.
Carleton made things interesting, scoring twice in the bottom of the sixth, but the Cardinals plated an insurance run in the seventh. Coyle was hit by a pitch to open the inning, stole second, and, one out later, scored on a Boeckman RBI single.
Andrew Fischer sealed the come-from-behind win, setting the Knights down in order in the bottom of the seventh — including a pair of strikeouts — for his team-leading sixth save.
Unfortunately, by the time the Cardinals had completed their marathon, come-from-behind victory, Concordia had pulled off some seventh-inning magic of its own, scoring twice in the bottom of the seventh to give the Cobbers a 5-4 win over Gustavus — and officially eliminate the Cardinals from playoff contention.
Coyle led the Cardinals' game-one offensive attack, going 2-for-3 with four runs scored and a pair of RBIs, while Merfelt, Marxen, Boeckman, and Bauman also had two hits for Saint Mary's. Marxen drove in a team-high three runs, with Bauman, VanEgtern, and O'Brien joining Coyhle with two RBIs. Smith picked up his fifth pitching win against no losses, allowing two runs on three hits in three innings of relief.
The layoff between games did nothing to cool down the Cardinals' bats, as Saint Mary's scored three times in the top of the first inning in game two. Weber kicked things off with a one-out infield single. He then stole second and scored on a VanEgtern RBI single. VanEgtern stole SMU's second base in the inning and scored the Cardinals' second run on a Carleton throwing error. Bob Tilot delivered the biggest blow of the inning, lacing a run-scoring double to left to push Saint Mary's lead to 3-0.
From there, however, the Cardinals' bats went silent, managing just two hits over the next five innings, before Merfeld delivered a single in the top of the seventh.
Saint Mary's threatened to finally add to its lead in the eighth when Coyle was hit by a pitch with one out in the eighth — marking the third time on the afternoon the freshman was hit by a Carleton offering — but he was quickly thrown out trying to steal.
In the ninth, the Cardinals once again had a golden scoring opportunity, getting a one-out double off the bat of Bauman and a single by O'Brien to put runners on the corners. But Bauman was thrown out at the plate on a bunt by Brett Lettner and Merfeld grounded into a force-out to keep the Cardinals' lead at 3-0.
But with six solid innings from starter Jordan Zabel and three shutout innings by senior relievers Zach Streit, Keegan Majerus, and Justin Haugo, three runs was more than enough.
Zabel went the first six innings, blanking the Knights on four hits, before giving way to Streit to open the bottom half of the seventh. Streit set the Knights down in order in the seventh, Majerus blanked Carleton on one hit, and Justin Haugo threw just five pitches in the ninth en route to his second career save.
Weber went 2-for-4 with a run scored to lead the Cardinals' eight-hit, game-two offensive attack, with Merfeld, VanEgtern, Tilot, Bauman, O'Brien, and Lettner accounting for SMU's other six hits.
With the sweep, the Cardinals close out the 2022 season at 10-10 in conference playing, while improving to 18-19 overall.