Baseball Wins Atlantic 10, to Travel to West Virginia in NCAA Tournament


Fordham Baseball had a lot to smile about in 2019. (Vincent Dusovic/Atlantic 10 Conference)

By Jimmy Sullivan

Fordham Baseball has done something it hasn’t done since 1998: win the Atlantic 10 and go to the NCAA Tournament. With a 4-3, extra-inning win over Dayton on Saturday, the Rams will be moving on to the Morgantown Regional to face West Virginia on Friday night.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” Fordham head coach Kevin Leighton told Fordham Athletics. “It took a little while after the game for it to really sink in, but it was awesome.”

Hosting a conference tournament is undoubtedly an advantage for the home team. If the squad is able to make it, its players, coaches and staff don’t have to worry about travel arrangements or not sleeping in their own beds, both of which are just two of the reasons why playing on the road can be so difficult.

When Fordham officially clinched a berth in this year’s Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, the Rams knew they would get a chance to win it on their home turf. In a conference where the first through eighth-seeded teams were separated by just six games, making it to the tournament gave Fordham a legitimate chance to win it.

Fordham head coach Kevin Leighton’s team earned the fourth seed after taking two out of three games from Dayton University in the final series of the year. Their first game in the double-elimination tournament would be against Richmond, and it didn’t go according to plan. Senior starter Anthony DiMeglio – who pitched to a 2.61 ERA in 62 innings and 12 starts this season – got the quick hook after just 1.2 innings and two runs allowed. After freshman Cory Wall conceded three more runs in the top of the sixth, Fordham trailed 6-1. A loss would mean that Fordham would need to win five games in the next three days without a loss to triumph in the tournament.

It was at this point that the Rams kicked it into gear.

Two run-scoring hits from seniors Justin Bardwell and Nick Labella brought the lead down to three runs. After knocking Richmond starter Tim Miller out of the game, Fordham attacked the Spiders’ bullpen in the eighth. Junior Jake Baker drove in two more runs with an RBI double, and freshman Jason Coules – one of the breakout hitters in a talented lineup – hit a sacrifice fly to center to drive in junior Billy Godrick and tie the game at six. In the top of the ninth, Leighton yanked freshman reliever Gabe Karslo in the middle of an at-bat, a rare move for a head coach to make, but one that is less rare in the postseason. He brought in sophomore closer Kyle Martin, who struck out three of the four batters he faced in 1.1 electric innings.

In the bottom of the 10th, the Rams captured momentum in the tournament and stole game one from Richmond. Sophomore second baseman C.J. Vazquez – who finished the day four-for-five from the plate – advanced to second base after an errant throw by Richmond first baseman Justin Cook landed in the Fordham dugout. After Coules moved Vazquez to third on a groundout, sophomore second baseman Jake MacKenzie ended the night with a walk-off single to right field. MacKenzie, who was Fordham’s best hitter all year with a .313 batting average, had been held down all night before coming through in the 10th.

As it would turn out, the comeback win shifted momentum in Fordham’s direction for the whole tournament.

Leighton turned to sophomore ace John Stankiewicz on day two against top-seeded Virginia Commonwealth University. Stankiewicz was the Atlantic 10’s Pitcher of the Year after going 7-3 with a conference-best 1.20 ERA in the regular season. After allowing a first-inning run, he pitched to those numbers, giving up just two hits over his final six innings. With the score tied at one in the fourth inning, speedy junior Alvin Melendez came home on a throwing error to give Fordham a 2-1 lead. It remained that way until the ninth inning, when a cell of thunder, lightning and rain descended on the Bronx and delayed the game for an hour and 17 minutes. Martin had pitched a scoreless eighth inning before the delay, but nonetheless, he was entrusted with the bottom of the ninth and struck out pinch-hitter Logan Amiss to end the game and give Fordham the rest of Thursday off.

With the win, Fordham moved on to a Friday afternoon matchup against Dayton. DiMeglio got another chance and was much better, pitching seven innings and giving up two runs, only one of which was earned. Despite his strong performance, Fordham trailed 2-1 entering the seventh. The Rams turned to what has worked all season long: scrappy baseball and manufacturing of runs.

Melendez started the inning with a single and a steal of second. He moved over to third after a throwing error on a pickoff attempt. With runners on first and third with one out, Labella bunted and brought home Melendez to tie the game. In the next inning, Fordham’s small-ball prowess came through once more; Baker singled and Vazquez pushed him to second on a sacrifice. Coules came through in the clutch once more and drove in Baker on a double. Fordham came through with one more run in the ninth on a Labella RBI single, which came one batter after a sacrifice bunt from senior catcher Justin Bardwell.

With the Rams leading late, Leighton turned to dominant senior reliever Anthony Zimmerman to try to take some of the load off of Martin. Zimmerman, who gave up just three earned runs in 35.1 innings this season, was excellent, and his two scoreless innings helped push Fordham to Saturday afternoon’s championship game(s). Fordham would have to win just one of two games on Saturday to take home the A-10 crown and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Their opponent: Dayton, again.

Fordham got off to a hot start when MacKenzie, the nation’s fourth-leading base stealer, swiped third and came home on a throwing error in the first inning. The Rams added two more runs on a bunt single by Vazquez in the fifth and an RBI single by Baker in the sixth. However, Dayton began closing the gap after sophomore lefty Matt Mikulski was removed after throwing 5.1 scoreless innings. Second baseman Takahiro Yamada scored on a throwing error by junior third baseman Matt Tarabek in the seventh. Dayton designated hitter Alex Brickman – more on him later – brought the Flyers within a run later in the inning with a sacrifice fly. The score would stay like that until the ninth inning. Martin had come in earlier in the seventh inning with the lead at two runs and the Rams not wanting to mess around with a chance to lock up the tournament.

Martin finished the seventh inning scoreless and allowed just a single in the eighth. A groundout by Connor Wilson and a strikeout of Marcos Pujols brought Fordham to within one out of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

That’s when the aforementioned Brickman had other ideas.

Martin hung a 1-0 pitch and Brickman bombed it over the left-center field wall at Houlihan Park to tie the game at three. A Dayton win would push both teams to a winner-take-all title game shortly after the conclusion of the first game. While the game was not make-or-break for Fordham, it felt like it was after the Rams were so close to putting the tournament away.

Leighton stuck with his closer after he allowed the home run, and the head coach’s trust was rewarded. Martin tossed scoreless frames in the 10th and 11th innings, but Fordham couldn’t cash in. After Wall threw a scoreless 12th, Fordham got a golden opportunity against Dayton reliever Cole Pletka. After giving up two hits and a walk to MacKenzie, Tarabek came up with a chance to end the game and the tournament. He struck out swinging, putting the onus on Bardwell with two men out and three men on. Pletka fell behind 3-1 and left a fastball high to Bardwell to end the game and send Fordham to its first NCAA Tournament in 21 years.

“It’s hard to throw two strikes in a row in that atmosphere,” Leighton told WFUV. “I wanted to make him do it. I had confidence in Justin getting a hit, but I felt like odds are one of these next two pitches will be a ball.”

With the conference championship under their belt, Fordham will head to Morgantown, W. Va. and the Morgantown Regional. The Rams will face 15th-ranked West Virginia on Friday night at 8 p.m., and depending on the result of that game, they will face either Duke or Texas A&M on Saturday; the regional, like the A-10 Tournament, is double elimination. Fordham faced Texas A&M the first weekend of the season and got swept, but the familiarity with the Aggies could help the Rams if the two are matched up.

“I think we had a bigger reaction [to seeing Texas A&M in our region] than actually finding out we were going to West Virginia,” DiMeglio told Fordham Athletics. “I think that’s gonna be really cool. It was a good time down there and I think a lot of guys are excited to see them again and hopefully give it to them a little bit.”

Fordham Baseball is in the NCAA Tournament, and the Rams got here with a scrappy style of play many teams are unable to replicate. They are the fourth seed in the Morgantown Regional, but they will be by no means an easy out.