FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Central Connecticut baseball head coach Charlie Hickey told his players before arriving in Arkansas for the Fayetteville Regional to enjoy the moment.
The Blue Devils certainly got the chance to do that and perhaps a little bit more, even as they walked off the field for the final time of the season following Sunday’s elimination game to TCU, a 9-5 loss.
For the first time in program history, CCSU (31-23) is heading back to New Britain doing what no other Blue Devils team has been able to do — win an NCAA Tournament game. The Blue Devils accomplished that feat on Saturday, in their first win-or-go-home game, when they beat the Pac-12’s Cal 7-4 after rallying multiple times to snap Hickey’s 0-10 streak in regional play.
The closest the program had been to winning a regional game before that was as a 6-5 loss to Dallas Baptist in 2017.
“We battled as hard as we could,” Hickey said. “I’m awfully proud of our kids and glad they got the chance to play another game at a high level. The reality is [these games are] a step up for us in terms of competition and I’m just awfully proud we held our own and played as hard as we could.”
That was the way CCSU played all season, especially once the games began to mean more. The Blue Devils won 12 of their final 15 games entering the Regional, including three straight to come out of the loser’s bracket to win their sixth Northeast Conference Tournament championship. The win marked the second time in three seasons CCSU had secured the conference’s automatic bid.
It was also the most success a senior class has had during their time in a Blue Devils uniform. The quartet of Mike Appel, Bristol Eastern’s Tom Curtin, Berlin’s Jared Gallagher and Patrick Mitchell end their career having won two of those NEC championships and playing in a pair of NCAA regionals.
Appel and Gallagher both pitched in Sunday’s game against the Horned Frogs.
Appel made his 37th career start and gave up 11 hits and six runs (five earned) in 5 2/3 innings pitched. He threw 111 pitches in the losing effort. The senior finished his career with a 15-14 record and a 3.77 ERA in 239 innings of work, but went 6-1 with a 3.02 ERA and 8.87 K per 9 for his best year at CCSU.
Gallagher, who closed out Saturday's win over Cal, pitched 1 1/3 innings in his final appearance and gave up three runs and five hits. The Berlin product finished his career with 71 appearances and 21 career saves, the second most in program history. The left-hander went 3-0 with 10 saves and a 2.48 ERA this season.
“Every hitter that I faced [Sunday] was a tough out from top to bottom,” Appel said. “They challenged me a lot. It was a battle from pitch to pitch and I was prepared for that. But it was a great lineup and knew what to do with pitches. They challenged me to be a better pitcher.”
Offensively, the Blue Devils certainly did enough to win. CCSU scored at least five run in each of its three games — the only team in its bracket to do so. The host Razorbacks were held to three runs in their win over TCU on Saturday, a game in which the Horned Frogs managed just a single run. The Golden Bears didn’t hit the five-run mark in either of their two games. Cal lost 13-2 to TCU before the Blue Devils beat it for its first tournament win on Saturday. CCSU was just unable to hold off the Razorbacks on Friday and the Horned Frogs on Sunday. Although for a while, the Blue Devils made it interesting.
CCSU and TCU (34-27) traded the lead multiple times throughout the first six innings.
The Blue Devils held the lead in the top of the first, third and fifth. The Horned Frogs did so in the bottom of the first, third and sixth innings. But it was in the sixth when TCU pulled away for good.
Hunter Wolfe got the scoring started with a tiebreaking sacrifice fly as part of the Horned Frogs’ three-run frame. Austin Henry followed with a two-run single to make the game 7-4. Henry also hit a two-run homer in the third.
TCU tacked on two more insurance runs in the eighth for good measure on Wolfe’s two-run shot in the bottom of the inning to make it 9-5. Wolfe and Henry were responsible for the majority of the Horned Frogs’ runs. Wolfe finished 1-for-4 with three RBI, while Henry went 2-for-5 and drove in four runs. Jake Guenther drove in the other two for TCU with a two-run homer of his own in the bottom of the first.
Peyton Stephens was the offensive star of the game for CCSU. The sophomore connected on a solo home run and two-run single. Overall, the Blue Devils’ offense finished out 13 hits with sophomore TT Bowens and juniors Dave Matthews and Buddy Dewaine in the middle of the order combining for seven hits. Dewaine went 3-for-5 with an RBI.
Mathews drove in the game’s first run with a single up the middle in the first inning, while Stephens’ two-run single put the Blue Devils back in front in the third. Henry’s home run put CCSU behind again, but Dewaine tied the game for CCSU in the fifth on a double down the third base line to make it 4-4.
It was TCU’s game after that. The Blue Devils managed just six hits over the final six innings against Jake Eissler, who came on in relief for the Horned Frogs and threw the final 5 2/3 innings to leave with the win.
“I just knew we were going to have trouble getting them out late,” Hickey said. “We were going to try to piecemeal it between Mike and Jared, but I’ll be kicking myself if we didn’t run our best guy out there. He’s never been taken out of a game since his freshman year. He’s usually the one finishing them.”
CCSU had the possibility of scoring three runs in the second to break the game open themselves when TCU outfielders Johnny Rizer and Josh Watson collided hard on a fly ball in the left-center field gap with two on and two out. Rizer made the catch and held on to protect TCU’s 2-1 lead. A dropped ball would have likely been a three-run, inside the park home run for the Blue Devils’ Sam Loda.
“It would have been three runs [had it dropped],” Hickey said. “Everyone wants to run to replay nowadays. Our first base coach indicated to me that they caught it. I didn’t think there was any way they would overturn something like that. I didn’t think it was the appropriate time to go down that road.”
So now, CCSU will head back home with an even better memory than it had the previous times it reached the regionals. Sure, the season may not have ended like the Blue Devils had wanted it to, but program first’s are never bad either.
“At least we’re able to get out of here in a respectable manner and that showed how competitive the game was,” Hickey said.
“It was an unreal experience,” CCSU junior second baseman Chandler Debrosse said.
It certainly was for this year’s Blue Devils.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org