Courtesy of Cornell Athletic Communications
ITHACA, N.Y. – Understandably, it may have been the fastest home run trot you'll ever see.
"I couldn't trot that one out," Chris Cruz said. "It was just way too exciting."
The sophomore slugger bashed a program-record 12th homer of the season on Sunday. But more importantly, the two-run blast came in the bottom of the 11th inning to lead the Big Red baseball team to a 3-1 victory over Dartmouth in the winner-take-all Game 3 of the Ivy League Championship Series. It's the first time Cornell has won the title since the league added baseball 20 years ago, while the Big Red's last championship team won the EIBL title in 1977.
The reigning Ivy Rookie of the Week, freshman Kellen Urbon pitched five scoreless innings of relief to earn the victory. Freshman starter Brian McAfee was equally good in surrendering just one run in six innings of work.
With the win, Cornell (31-15-1) advances to the NCAA tournament for just the second time in program history. The Big Red will join three other teams in a double-elimination regional tournament June 1-4 at a site to be determined.
In a way, Cornell had been down this road before. The team's second three-game losing streak of the season left the campaign in peril last Sunday. The only way the team would survive was a win in its regular-season finale in the second game of its doubleheader at Princeton. There similarities in the do-or-die games – most notably, a quality start from McAfee and dramatic extra-inning home runs.
Last week, it was Ben Swinford who delivered the big blow in the 12th inning. This week, it was Cruz, ending the longest-ever Ivy Championship Series Game 3 in the 11th inning. After the first Cornell batter of the frame was retired, senior Brian Billigen laced a single to right-center. Cruz then left little doubt when he crushed a fastball over the wall in right, igniting the crowd as Dartmouth right fielder David Turnbull gave up his pursuit along the warning track. The only retrieval of this ball was by a young fan who later gave the ball back to Cruz.
The league leader in home runs had actually been slumping coming into the day. His last home runs came in a doubleheader against Columbia on April 15, amounting to a 13-game drought since he pulled himself into a three-way tie for the now-previous program record for home runs in a season.
While Cruz's home run was his only hit on the day, he actually drove in the Big Red's lone run in regulation play with a sacrifice fly. Cruz's at-bat to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning was also ominous, especially when he cranked a foul ball well clear of the right-field fence – just 25 feet to the wrong side of the foul pole. He proceded to foul off the next four offerings before going down swinging. But he wasn't far off, and he made up the difference in his next at-bat to send Cornell to a league crown for the first time in its three appearances in the Ivy Championship Series.
All of the pressure of a Game 3 fell on the shoulders of freshmen starting pitchers for both squads — and both Cornell's McAfee and Dartmouth's Adam Frank performed admirably in no-decisions, surrendering one run apiece while working six and five innings, respectively.
The Big Green got on the board first in the third inning. A perfectly executed hit-and-run by Joe Sclafani pushed Nick Lombardi to third base and gave the visitors runners on the corners with one out. Thomas Roulis followed with a single to right to plate Lombardi. Chris O'Dowd then walked, loading the bases. With so much on the line and a big deficit not an option, the Big Red bullpen began to stir — but McAfee bounced back. A couple of sliders missed the zone to Dartmouth cleanup hitter Dustin Selzer, but McAfee came back to set him down on a swinging strikeout. McAfee then induced a flyout from Jeff Keller, and the Big Red escaped the threat sustaining minimal damage.
Billigen sent a 3-2 pitched to deep right in the bottom half of the frame, but Keller made a leaping catch as he crashed into the fence. The game wasn't more than an hour old and the inevitability of a pitchers' duel was palpable.
Dartmouth's next big threat came in the sixth. O'Dowd worked his second walk of the day with one out and a team-leading eight stolen bases in his pocket. A pickoff attempt squirted away from the Big Red first baseman and rolled so far down the line and into the Dartmouth bullpen that O'Dowd was able to advance two bases. The infield came in and McAfee got ahead on Selzer with a 1-2 count before the Big Green's first baseman roped a liner to the left side. But Cornell third baseman Ben Swinford was positioned perfectly to snare the drive off his shoe-tops, then take two strides to his right to double off a helpless O'Dowd and get the Big Red out of another jam.
Cornell tied the game in the bottom half of the inning. Junior Brenton Peters led off with a single, then got an excellent jump on an off-speed pitch to easily steal second base. Down in the count, 2-0, to Marshall Yanzick, Frank was then lifted in favor of Big Green closer Thomas Olson. Yanzick was still able to draw the walk to give the Big Red two baserunners with no out. Billigen stroked another ball to the deep reaches of Hoy Field, this time flagged down by Dartmouth center fielder Jake Carlson, but the ball was deep enough to allow Peters to advance to third with the first out.
Cruz then followed with a towering pop-up to shallow center. Normally not deep enough to allow a runner to score from third, this particular play turned to the Big Red's favor when the ball started to descend in a soft spot in the Big Green's defense. Roulis, the second baseman, was the only player who could field the ball cleanly, but he could not get set before the catch. Reading the play, Big Red Ted Thoren Head Coach of Baseball Bill Walkenbach sent Peters home-ward, and the speedy leadoff man slid to the inside of the plate to avoid O'Dowd's tag and knot the score at 1.
The rest of the game belonged to the teams' respective top relievers. Urbon came on for the seventh, getting into tight spot with two runners reaching with two out. Sclafani then hit a line drive up the line, but Big Red first baseman Frank Hager caught the ball while falling to his left to retire the side.
Neither team had significant threats until one swing ended the game. In a reprieve of last week's win at Princeton, Urbon tossed five shutout innings while yielding just a pair of hits and a walk to go with a strikeout. Against the Tigers, Urbon pitched 6.1 innings of relief with similar results.
There were just 15 total hits in the game, but the Big Red had three players with multiple hits. Peters was 2-for-5 with a stolen base and run scored. Billigen was 2-for-5, also scoring on Cruz's winning blast. Senior catcher Brandon Lee was 2-for-4 with a two-out double in the bottom of the ninth.
It was the eighth time this season Cornell has won a game when it was trailing or tied coming into its final at-bat.