Four Days in May. Four Games in The Bronx. Four Fordham Wins

After a string of quality starts, senior Anthony DiMeglio, picked the wrong time to not even make it out of the second. He wasn’t exactly shelled but two runs on three hits and three walks against Richmond was enough for the quick hook. Fordham skipper, Kevin Leighton, rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. He could have started surprise sophomore sensation, John Stankiewicz, the Atlantic 10 pitcher of the year. Instead, he went with the veteran while hoping to save his star for a showdown against top-ranked VCU in the next stage of the A-10’s double-elimination postseason tournament. But a loss to Richmond would prevent that showdown from even happening so it was up to Fordham’s bullpen to keep things close. They too came up short as the light-hitting Rams found themselves down 6-1 with two outs and only one on in the bottom of the sixth.

Another mediocre year appeared to be winding down in the Boogie Down. It’s not like the Rams run a weak program. In fact, thanks to a history which predates the Civil War, Fordham is credited as the single winningest baseball program in NCAA history. Throughout the turn of the century (the one before the Y2K one), they peppered the majors with players like Dirty Jack Doyle and Clean Dave Shean. As late as the WWII years, All-Stars like Johnny Murphy and Hank Borowy could point to Rose Hill as the place where their adult careers began. Between those two eras, Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch, aka the Fordham Flash,
won a pair of World Series titles with the Giants in the 1920s and a pair more with Cardinals in the ’30s.

Just like the more acclaimed football program however, Fordham baseball was also deemphasized during the 1940s. Aside from a slight revival in the late ’80s and early ‘90s it’s been mostly mediocrity since. In fact, since joining the Atlantic 10 in 1996 the Rams owned an all-time conference record of 299-298-2 before heading into this year’s postseason tournament. 12 times during their 24 year tenure with the A-10 Fordham has qualified for that postseason tournament. 12 times they haven’t. To be more mediocre is pretty much a mathematic impossibility. But for 5 1/2 innings against Richmond, the Rams seemed headed there.

Making things more frustrating, this year’s A-10 tournament was being hosted by Fordham from within the friendly confines of Houlihan Park, and if you are a better, you can use a BetAmerica Code. Down five with 10 outs left, it seemed almost fitting that darkness was creeping in on this season just as the sun began setting behind the empty football grandstand overlooking the left field wall. But as the lights in the wide open baseball/football/soccer complex came on, so did Fordham’s bats. As if honoring their many Deadball Era greats, or the legendary Flash himself, these Rams play a scrappy style of small ball with an emphasis on speed. Enough speed to not only routinely turn singles into doubles, as well as advancing extra bases on the pads, but to also lead the entire nation in stolen bases.

“Speed is something we’ve looked for and embraced while recruiting,” Leighton explained to SportsDay following the tournament. In giving credit to associate head coach Rob DiToma for turning their backs on today’s analytics and putting together a roster that Whitey Herzog would be proud of, Leighton added, “We want to give every guy the green light.” Although not getting any straight steals, the Rams used that green light to take some extra bases in manufacturing two runs to close the sixth while cutting Richmond’s lead to 6-3. After a scoreless 7th, four singles, a sac bunt and sac fly helped bring in three more runs in the 8th to tie things at 6.

Richmond hadn’t choked things away just yet but the pressure was building. As extra innings approached Fordham’s speed only gave the Spiders more to think about. Sophomore CJ Vazquez led off the 10th with a single that put him on second after a throwing error. He advanced to third on a groundout then eased in for the winning run after a rope to right by fellow sophomore, Jake MacKenzie. Suddenly, Leighton’s gamble paid off twofold as he was allowed to save Stankiewicz for VCU and could even give DiMeglio another start later in the tournament. Snake eyes turned to boxcars as Fordham was now in position to make their first legit A-10 postseason run since 2007.

First however was that little matter of taking out the league’s top team. A preseason coaching poll picked VCU to finish first in the A-10. They did just that while also beating Duke and 6th-ranked North Carolina during their non-conference schedule. Fordham was picked fourth but Leighton had no objections. He shrugged, “I would have loved to use the preseason poll as bulletin board material for our guys but truth is they (the other coaches) were technically right.” Fordham did finish an “okay” fourth but needed pitchers like DiMeglio and closer, Kyle Martin (All A-10, First Team), to get hot down the stretch just to make it that high. They also needed their team speed to squeak by a series of close encounters in winning 6 of their final 7 regular season contests. Finally, they needed Stankiewicz to blindside the entire Atlantic 10.

Starting off as a middle reliever, the Jersey native was given a spot-start due to an earlier DiMeglio injury. He’s been unhittable ever since. Stankiewicz remained lights out against VCU in scattering just three hits over 7 innings. The gloves helped too, especially when junior centerfielder, Billy Godrick, made a home run-saving snag in preserving a 2-1 lead. The score never changed as Martin, also aided by a pair of Sports Center-worthy web gems, came in for a two inning save. DiMeglio did his part the following day against Dayton but after six was on the wrong side of a 2-1 score. A single, a stolen base, a Dayton throwing error and a sac bunt tied things in the 7th. Anthony Zimmerman, who’s saved his best for senior year, kept the door shut as Fordham added runs in the 8th and 9th to advance into the A-10’s Championship Round. Once again they’d face the Flyers but this time Dayton would need to sweep both contests for the A-10 title while the Rams needed just one more win.

For the first of a possible two game set Leighton turned to sophomore, Matt Mikulski. The lefty was one of the middle relievers who had earlier flopped against Richmond. But like DiMeglio, his second outing would more than make up for things. Mikulski pitched shutout ball into the sixth as Fordham methodically scratched out a 3-0 lead. Dayton bounced back by giving the Rams a taste of their own medicine in the seventh. A hit batsmen, a wild pitch, a two base error, a walk, two Flyer stolen bases and a sac fly gifted Dayton two runs without so much as a hit in the 7th. With the Flyers sneaking closer, Martin was called in to make an 8 out save. The first 7 came with little drama as the stopper stood an out away from celebration. The same Rose Hill crowd that was eerily lackadaisical for most of the Richmond affair was ready to explode for what appeared to be the clincher.

Fordham hadn’t won an A-10 title in 21 years. Back when TV critics were incorrectly lambasting the Seinfeld finale and music critics were correctly praising Lauryn Hill’s first, and still only, studio album. It’s also been 21 years since the NCAA’s winningest team qualified into the NCAA Tournament. But as Dayton slugger, Alex Brickman, stepped to the plate the 500+ in attendance were ready to party like it was 1998. Brickman promptly played the part of party pooper with a 410 foot solo blast over dead center. If not for a score of ecstatic Flyers jumping up and down from within the visitor’s dugout while yelling over to their supersized DH, the silence would have been deafening. As Martin and the other Rams tried regaining their composure those in attendance hoped in vain that the party would restart in the bottom of the 9th. When that didn’t happen it was onto the 10th. Then the 11th. Then the 12th.

Throughout all the extra frames Leighton was in “win now” mode. He put all his cards in the Martin basket, thus making it impossible to use him again for any potential second game. Like some sort of workhorse, the closer went inning-after-inning until reaching the top of the 12. Done, the Fordham skipper had no choice but to finally pull in the reigns. Once again his gamble seemed fruitless as he had spent Martin and had nothing to show for it. Onto the mound came Cory Wall. Like DiMeglio and Mikulski, the freshman was last seen getting smacked around by Richmond. Like DiMeglio and Mikulski, Wall earned some redemption. After pitching a perfect top of the 12th, a calming feel overtook the vast Jack Coffey athletic complex. Even with Martin gone, Fordham had the deeper pen. They would hold. Now it was simply up to the bats to pull it out.

Two hits and a walk loaded the bases as senior Justin Bardwell came up with two outs and the crowd back on their feet. Once again those in the small set of stands surrounding home plate started bouncing as the count turned to three-and-one. Maybe nerves made Fordham’s catcher incapable of swinging in that situation? Maybe it was a great eye? Either way, Bardwell took a high fastball for ball four. After cutting his way through the mob of teammates in his path, freshman Jason Coules, finally stepped on home plate to make it all official. Four days in May. Four games in The Bronx. Four Fordham wins and finally an Atlantic 10 crown as well as the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

With several softball players in attendance, including Madie “Filthy” Aughinbaugh, it seemed fitting that Fordham would win another title out on the diamond. For the first time since 1996 (UMass), one school has simultaneously swept the conference’s softball and baseball crowns. After watching softball dominate the entire A-10 for an entire decade, it also seemed fitting that baseball’s winningest team in NCAA history would finally get back into the habit of winning. In the process they garnered their 8th trip into baseball’s Big Dance and also became the school’s first varsity men’s team to qualify into the NCAA’s postseason this year. After a disappointing campaign for the once nationally ranked men’s soccer team, a putrid season on the gridiron and the usual rubbish men’s hoops has been used to for over two decades now, a men’s team finally got to ring the Victory Bell. They’d also get to see their names on ESPN’s Selection Show.

Two days later it was revealed that Fordham’s next stop would be Morgantown, West Virginia to challenge the host Mountaineers on Friday night, 8:00PM. The contest is part of a double-elimination regional which also includes Duke and Texas A&M. Coincidentally, Fordham opened the year down in College Station and is already familiar with A&M.

Calling it a rough start would be a bit of an understatement. Blue Bell Park, a Triple-A-type facility filled with soccer-like ultras went particularly ballistic during the second game of what would be a three game sweep for the Aggies. A&M jumped all over their Bronx guests for a commanding 10-1 lead. It only got worse from there as the Rams found themselves down 19-2 after 8 innings. Between songs and chants, 5,000+ serenaded Fordham middle reliever, Marc Bisogno, with a ball count (the junior threw 9 straight of them) that even BarstoolSports, not known for political correctness, took offense to. Not that he was the only visiting hurler with difficulties finding the strike zone. In total, 8 Fordham pitchers combined for 11 walks. None were helped on the field, where Fordham committed 7 errors; none were helped at the plate, where Fordham was limited to six hits before a four run 9th made the rout a somewhat closer, 19-6.

But as Bisogno himself proved for most of the regular season, this is a different Rams team. Counting the regular season Fordham goes into the NCAA’s as winners of 10 of their past 11. In none of those 10 wins has Ram pitching given up more than three earned runs. While Stankiewicz (recently named a Third Team All American) has clearly been the difference, the entire staff has come together to keep things stingy. “I couldn’t be happier with how our guys performed. Everyone stepped up. I truly feel blessed,” Leighton told SportsDay after the NCAA selection show. While not taking anything away from an incredible league tournament, it’s easy to see how advancing out of Morgantown could make the head coach just a tad bit happier. Maybe more so should the road to the super regionals involve a Texas-sized heaping of revenge on Texas A&M. For now though, simply enjoying the four day run through the A-10 is enough. Celebrating at home, and with Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” (although Cat Power’s lo-fi/DIY version would probably better fit this low key, small ball collection) blaring off the stadium speakers, almost made the 21 year wait worth it.

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