BOWLING GREEN — The Bowling Green State University baseball team knows how close this season came to ending.
“We were two outs away from not even making the Mid-American Conference tournament — and now we are MAC champs,” senior pitcher Nick Bruns said. “Ever since that game there has been a new life to the team, both on the field and in the locker room.
“It has been a brand-new season, and we have been a brand-new team.”
And BG’s “brand-new” team has been extremely successful, parlaying the seventh seed in the MAC tournament into the program’s first league title since 1998. That league title also is a ticket into the NCAA tournament, meaning the 24-29 Falcons get to play in the Louisville regional that begins Friday.
Bowling Green will face the host school at 6 p.m. Friday on the first day of the double-elimination tournament, following the 2 p.m. game between Oklahoma State and Miami (Fla.). The winner of this regional will advance to the super-regional at a site to be determined.
But this storybook finish came close to not happening when the Falcons struggled to claim a spot in the MAC tournament. Needing a win on May 17 against Buffalo, BG saw a 2-1 lead vanish in a 4-3 loss in 10 innings, making a May 18 contest a win-or-be-eliminated game.
In that contest the Falcons trailed 4-0 after two innings, and still trailed 4-3 in the ninth before senior Matt Pitzulo singled home Nick Glanzman with the tying run. With two outs, Patrick Lancaster doubled down the left-field line to score Pitzulo with the game-winning run.
“The last few days of the regular season were really an emotional roller-coaster,” BG coach Danny Schmitz admitted. “Mike Frank pitched a whale of a game Friday … and we really wanted that win badly. Unfortunately, we lost in extra innings, and I haven’t been that frustrated in a long time.
“Then we fell behind 4-0 right away, and you could see the guys get uptight. … But in the ninth, if we don’t get those hits, we’re done — and we know we are done. To go from being so down to earning a trip to the Mid-American Conference tournament — and we earned that trip — was satisfying.”
In the first game of the MAC tournament against Northern Illinois, the Falcons found themselves in a familiar position: trailing 4-0 early.
“I called the guys in after the fourth inning and asked them to remember the score on the last day against Buffalo,” said Schmitz. “At that point we started grinding out at at-bats, and we won the game. I told them, ‘You did it before. Let’s do it again.’ ”
And the Falcons did it again, scoring twice in the fifth, once in the seventh and one more in the eighth to force extra innings. BG scored twice in the 11th to win 6-4 and start rolling. The Falcons beat Toledo 4-3, then avenged a 5-2 loss to the Rockets by eliminating UT 1-0 on Saturday.
In Sunday’s championship game against Ball State, Schmitz took a chance and gave the start to Bruns, the team’s closer, who already had thrown 3⅓ shutout innings to claim a win and a save.
“We knew on Sunday he would take the ball,” Schmitz said. “We thought if we got three or maybe four innings from him, that would be fantastic. We had it all mapped out who would follow. Then we scored those seven runs in the fifth, and that was it. You could just see it: He wasn’t coming out. And he did a phenomenal job.”
Bruns threw a complete-game four-hitter in shutting out the Cardinals in his second start of the season.
“I went on the field thinking that I was going to give everything I had,” Bruns said. “Win or lose, I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Everyone had a ‘senior’ mentality that we didn’t want to walk off the field without giving it everything we had.”
Bruns, who was named MAC tournament MVP, is 6-2 with six saves and a 2.32 ERA. He and Ethan McKenney, who is 3-1 with a pair of saves and a 1.93 ERA, are the foundation of a bullpen that has backed up strong starting performances from Cody Apthorpe, who is 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA, and Anthony Wayne product Mike Frank, who is 5-7 with a 3.61 ERA.
The offense is led by junior catcher T.J. Losby, a Bryan native who was named to the All-MAC first team and has hit .324 with a team-best six home runs and 37 RBIs. Junior first baseman Jeremy Shay, who has batted .328 with five homers and 37 RBIs, was voted to the All-MAC second team.
But Schmitz said his team is playing much better than it did early in the season — and much better than its 24-29 overall mark.
“Well, we went 4-1 in the MAC tournament, so let’s use that as our record,” Schmitz said. “At this point in the season, we’re playing just one game at a time.
“Winning and losing record are for others to worry about — we don’t worry about that.”
NOTE: All of Bowling Green’s NCAA tournament games will be broadcast on WBGU 88.1 FM.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.