Point Park goes Back-to-Back on KIAC Baseball Tournament Championship
April 27, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. ET
KINGSPORT, Tenn. -- Top seed Point Park University made it back-to-back KIAC Baseball Tournament championships by beating No. 3 seed IU Southeast, 3-1, in the championship game of the 2014 tournament on Saturday (April 26) at Hunter Wright Stadium in Kingsport, Tenn.
The Pioneers (38-13, 16-4 KIAC) now have two KIAC Tournament titles in two years in the conference. Point Park, which is ranked No. 23 in the NAIA Top 25 Poll, receives the KIAC's automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship Opening Round May 12-15 at campus sites. The Pioneers will learn their regional destination on May 9 when the bracket is announced.
It is the third year in a row that the Pioneers are in the NAIA Opening Round, and they will be looking to advance through that regional stage to gain their 12th NAIA World Series appearance in school history.
Point Park went a perfect 3-0 through the KIAC Tournament, just as it did last year. It also beat IU Southeast (32-23) in the finals for the second year in a row and improved its playoff record to 5-0 versus the Grenadiers. Point Park has won nine in a row versus IU Southeast and leads the series, 11-2, since 2012, in what is a matchup of the top two programs in the KIAC.
Sophomore right-hander Alex Mateo pitched all nine innings for the complete-game victory in the finals. The Miami, Fla., native gave up only one run on six hits, all of which were singles. He also fielded his position with excellent skill to shutdown the Grenadiers' bunting strategy.
Tom Birko led Point Park's hitting by going 3 for 4 to become Point Park's all-time, career hits leader with 217 in four seasons. Birko, from Kennedy Twp., Pa., had seven hits in the three KIAC Tournament games, and he has 11 hits in last five games to jump from sixth to first on the Pioneers' career hits chart.
Point Park had 10 hits as a team and pushed across three runs in what was a pitcher's duel throughout. IU Southeast, which was playing its fifth game in four days, had closer Evan Bickett go six innings in his first start of the year. The submarine righty who had 11 saves and appeared in 27 of the Grenadiers 54 games to that point, held Point Park to one run the first six innings before the Pioneers got single runs in the seventh and eighth for the win.
Point Park got on the board in the first inning when Oscar Romero delivered a two-out hit through the hole on the right side to score Yuliecer Arias, who had been hit by a pitch.
That was the only run of the game until the Grenadiers had Marcus Howard score on a wild pitch in the fifth to tie the score at 1-1. Howard led off with a single, was sacrificed to second with a bunt, moved to third on a groundout back to the pitcher and came home when Mateo threw too far high and inside for catcher Ossie Alfonzo to handle.
And that was the only run IU Southeast got off of Mateo. The Grenadiers had plenty of chances but could not get the big hit. IU Southeast sacrifice bunted four different times but could never back it up with an RBI hit as Mateo limited them to just six singles on the day. The one time they did follow up a bunt with a hit, Brian Crider was held up at third on Louis Helmburg's base hit to left field with two outs in the second.
Mateo not only pitched a strong game with four strikeouts and three walks, he also recorded eight infield assists, seven of which came on balls that were bunted. One of the better ones thwarted the Grenadiers' squeeze play with two outs in the second when Mateo made a great play to get the third out at first base. A run would have scored if Mateo didn't make a great, off-balance throw from the third-base line to end the inning.
Another highlight came with runners at first and second with no outs in the ninth when he fielded a bunt and got the lead runner at third. That kept the tying run at first base given the 3-1 lead for Point Park. The game ended two batters later.
The score remained 1-1 for a few innings even though both teams had chances to open things up. The Pioneers left the bases loaded in the fifth when Bickett struck out Romero to end the threat.
But Point Park eventually pushed across the runs it needed. Shane Conley led off the seventh with a single, and Birko followed with a base hit to the left side that not only set the Point Park career hits record, but also set up Yuliecer Arias' hard-smash single to third base, which brought home the eventual winning run, 2-1.
IU Southeast threatened again the top of the eighth with runners at first and second and one out, but Mateo got a fielder's choice groundout and a strikeout to strand runners at first and third.
Point Park pushed its lead to 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth with a big insurance run that came home on Tyler Cattapan's squeeze bunt. Jordan Crowell, who hit a one-out triple to deep center, dived head first into home to get under Helmburg's tag.
Pitching at the time for IU Southeast was Clint Chestnut, who was operating on one day's rest after beating Brescia, 9-1, in eight innings as a starter on Thursday. He game up just the one run on two hits -- one of which was Crowell's triple -- in two innings.
In the last chance for IU Southeast in the ninth, the Grenadiers had Helmburg and Tyler Adams reach on a hit batter and walk with no outs. IU Southeast again called for a bunt, and Mateo got the lead runner at third when Howard dropped down a bunt on the third-base side.
The next batter, Kyle Rupe, also squared around to bunt with one out, but he eventually struck out. Frank Pluskota then grounded into a fielder's choice as third baseman Michaeal DeJesus tagged out the runner from second to end the game.
DeJesus was the only other player besides Birko to have more than one hit for Point Park. He was 2 for 4 with a double.
Bickett ended up pitching six innings for IU Southeast with eight hits and two runs allowed. He struck out four and walked one.
Point Park will learn of its NAIA National Championship Opening Round site on May 9 when the national qualifiers and regional brackets are announced by the NAIA. There will be nine regional sites, each with five teams playing a double-elimination tournament with the winner advancing to the NAIA World Series May 23-30 in Lewiston, Idaho.
The NAIA National Championship Opening Round host sites were announced April 15: READ MORE
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NOTES: Birko's record-setting hit total passed previous hit king Mike D. Smith, who had 216 hits from 1997-00. That record stood for 14 years for the 2011 Pioneer Athletic Hall of Fame inductee outfielder from Canada...With its back-to-back KIAC championship, Point Park now has 22 conference titles in its 47 years of baseball. The Pioneers have two KIAC titles, two Keystone-Empire Collegiate Conference titles and 16 NAIA District 18 titles.