Cougars Add Heart-Stopping Finish To Legacy In Regional Opener

Joe Silva
Joe Silva

Courtesy of Concordia University Chicago

DULUTH, Minn. -- The "Cardiac Cougars" are on the road again, and they are playing in Duluth, MN this weekend. The main question is, what can the Concordia-Chicago baseball team do for an encore after pulling off a heist of epic – and heart-stopping – proportions?

To all appearances, game one of the NCAA Division III Midwest Regional was not what the Cougars were hoping for. Leading 3-0 early, CUC saw Bethany Lutheran College take the lead in the fourth and looked as if they would be able to match every challenge the Cougars put up. But, in a finish that will rival just about every other finish in CUC baseball history, the Cougars put up a five-spot in the bottom of the ninth to steal game one, 13-12 at Frank Wade Municipal Stadium on the shores of Lake Superior.

Brian Musielak drew the mound assignment on this chilly and mostly cloudy morning. The senior gave up a lead-off hit to BLC's Grant Becher but ten settled down and retired the next three batters. That gave the Cougars to break the ice, and they did so quickly. Jose Mercado led off and sliced a 2-2 pitch to the right-field corner that landed just fair and one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double. One out later, Joe Silva worked a patient at-bat and slapped one back up the middle for a hit, scoring Mercado.

The Vikings put their lead-off man aboard again in the second, but that was erased as he attempted to seal. Catcher Justin Rodriguez threw a laser to second, causing the runner to retreat. The Cougars threw back to first, where the out call was made.

In the bottom of the third, CUC struck again, and fittingly, it was Mercado starting it again. The shortstop made it 2-2 with a single to left and promptly stole second despite the Vikings' pickoff attempt. Silva walked with one out, and then the Cougars' running game struck again. On a double steal, the throw to third got by the third baseman, allowing Mercado to score and Silva to take third. Silva then came home on a fly ball to deep center by Andrew Massey, and the Cougars led 3-0 after three.

Bethany Lutheran broke through in the fourth. With one out and a man on first, Nick Caldeen doubled to right, and the runner stopped at third but then caught the Cougars napping on the relay throw. He beat the throw to the plate for BLC's first run. A fielder's choice scored the second run, and Ross Beumer then gave the Vikings the lead when he hammered a 2-0 pitch over the fence in right for a two-run homer and a 4-3 lead.

The Vikings continued the momentum, first stopping the Cougars in the bottom of the inning after CUC had loaded the bases. BLC then added an unearned run in the fifth, as they strung together a hit, error, hit-by-pitch and infield hit after two were out.

Concordia-Chicago stifled some of the momentum in the sixth after the Vikings put their first two men aboard. First, Musielak made a nice play to get the force at third on a sacrifice attempt. The next batter then hit a ball directly up the middle, but the defensive shift had Mercado right in its path. He fielded the ball as he stepped on second and threw to first to complete the double play.

The Vikings were not done scoring yet, however. With two outs and a runner on second, Alex Meyers got ahead of Ben Boran 1-2, but Boran reached out and went with the next pitch to right for a clutch RBI single. The next two men reached to load the bases, and CUC head coach Mike Stawski went to the bullpen for Mike Formella. However, Kevin Harris touched Formella for a two-run single to left, and the Vikings suddenly had a five-run lead on the Cougars.

As it turned out, the action was just beginning. Bryan VanDuser led off with a base hit and was at third base with two out
when Mitch Wilson fly to center fell in for a double. Wilson moved into third on an error while VanDuser was scoring, and Brady Roberts then singled to left, scoring Wilson and bringing the score to 8-5 after seven.

Bethany Lutheran extended the lead to five again as they put runners on third and second with one out. A fielder's choice to third on which CUC looked to have an out at the plate scored one, and Boran delivered the final hit of his 5-5 day with an RBI single to center for a 10-5 advantage.

The call-and-response continued as CUC came to bat in the eighth. Keegan Tyrell and Mercado hit back-to-back singles with one out. Van Duser's line drive was caught by the third baseman for the second out, but Silva kept things going with an RBI single to center. Massey then singled to score Mercado and make it a 10-7 game. Wilson extended the inning with a walk, and Roberts' grounder to third was misplayed, allowing everyone to move up 90 feet and make it a two-run game. However, the BLC pitcher got the third out on a ground ball to second, giving CUC just one more chance to catch up.

That task became harder as the Vikings tacked on two runs in the ninth. However, the Cougars were the home team on this day, giving them the final response. Singles by Connor Brandon and Tyrell, and a walk to Mercado quickly loaded the bases. The Vikings summoned Logan Nissen, normally a starter, from the pen. Nissen hit VanDuser with a 2-1 pitch to force in a run. Silva then singled between first and second for his third hit of the game, Tyrell and Mercado scoring to make it 12-11. Nissen restored some order for BLC by striking out Massey, but VanDuser and Silva pulled off a double steal on strike three. The Vikings then chose to give Wilson a free pass to first base, setting up a possible double play. Nissen struck out pinch-hitter Jacob Frank, bringing up Kevin Coppin, who was a late-inning substitute. Coppin was down in the count 1-2 when Nissen's pitch hit the dirt and bounced away toward the side wall. The catcher ran to retrieve the ball while VanDuser broke for home. The throw to the plate was wild, sailing off to the first-base side, and Silva followed home with the final tally of a most improbable – and incredible – comeback.

Stawski, who credited Bethany Lutheran for an "unbelievable" game and "keeping us off balance," suggested that the Cougars' previous experience in regional play helped them through this game. He later added, "I'm very proud of the guys. To be able to score that many runs in the last three innings and being that many runs down…to walk it off like that, it was not a game for the faint of heart!"

The Cougars (34-12) will play Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. against the loser of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh versus Bethel (MN) University contest, which will be the final game played on Thursday.