CARY, N.C. — The University of Tampa baseball team was all but unbeatable while cruising through the regular season and region tournament with a 51-2 record for the best winning percentage in NCAA history.
But that air of invincibility was shattered Saturday, as the top-ranked Spartans lost 4-3 to Southern Indiana in the opening game of the Division II Championship Series.
The defending national champions fell behind in the top of the ninth and left the tying run in scoring position while seeing their 21-game winning streak snapped. UT will have to advance through the loser’s bracket, starting Monday against either Chico State or Lander.
“In baseball, you can lose at any moment,” said UT second baseman Orlando Rivera, whose fifth-inning home run gave the Spartans their only lead of the game. “This one hurts the most, getting here after all those games and losing the first one. But our guys are confident we’re going to come back strong.”
Although it’s been close to two months since UT has had to bounce back from a loss — its previous setback came against Florida Southern on March 30 — coach Joe Urso’s team has been flirting with defeat since the start of the postseason.
Twice during their run through the South Regional last week, the Spartans scored in their final at-bat to secure a victory. Saturday, the Spartans’ luck ran out.
USI (46-12) answered Rivera’s homer by pushing across a run in the top of the sixth, then taking the lead off closer Kevin McNorton in the ninth. The winning run scored when Screaming Eagles leadoff hitter Kyle Kempf laced an 0-2 pitch down the right-field line for a double.
“Our pitching just didn’t execute pitches when we had to,” Urso said. “McNorton is one of the best closers in the country, but he doesn’t execute in an 0-2 count. Just very uncharacteristic of him.”
Equally as uncharacteristic was the performance of the Spartans’ usually hot bats.
Other than Rivera and shortstop Giovanny Alfonzo, who combined to record four of their team’s seven hits, UT’s batters were never able to find a rhythm against the steady diet of change-ups from USI pitcher Ben Wright.
The junior right-hander didn’t have a strikeout in his complete-game effort. But he did induce 16 fly balls and pop-ups that his teammates chased down in the pitcher-friendly ballpark.
“Wright established his change-up really well and we didn’t make adjustments throughout the game,” Urso said. “I don’t know how many lazy fly-ball outs we hit, but it’s just not a formula for success.”
The final of those lazy fly balls, off the bat of Rivera, came with runners on first and second and two outs in the ninth, leaving the Spartans in an unfamiliar — though not uncomfortable — position.
“This group is definitely capable,” Urso said of advancing through the loser’s bracket. “We’ll go back to practice (today) on the things we didn’t do well and prepare for another tough club on Monday.”