Columbus State University

Columbus State’s magical run ends just short of Division II national championship

Columbus State’s Robert Brooks watches on deck as the final out of the season was being made Saturday in the Division II World Series.
Columbus State’s Robert Brooks watches on deck as the final out of the season was being made Saturday in the Division II World Series. Brett Friedlander

Columbus State’s impressive run to the Division II baseball national championship came up one run short Saturday, thanks to an aptly-named pitcher named Blank.

Augustana’s Jacob Blank didn’t give up any runs or hits in eight of the nine innings of the decisive final game. And the Cougars didn’t do enough damage against him in the one inning in which he faltered.

It added up to an anti-climactic 3-2 loss to the Vikings at the USA Baseball Training Center.

“Usually when we lose, it’s because we didn’t hit,” said CSU coach Greg Appleton, whose team lost twice in five games of the double-elimination tournament, both by 3-2 scores.

“The one thing that’s kind of been constant with our team has been pitching and defense all year long. We know if we score some runs it gives us an opportunity to win the ballgame.

“You have to give most of the credit to their pitcher. He did a great job. They won the ballgame. I don’t think we lost it.”

The Cougars, who would have to win twice Saturday to earn the title, were coming off the highest-scoring game of the week after scoring 11 runs in their semifinal win against Florida Southern on Friday.

But it became clear right away that things would be different against Blank, an unbeaten junior right-hander. Mixing speeds and keeping CSU’s hitters off balance, he breezed through the first four innings, retiring all 12 men he faced.

Cougars’ starter Perez Knowles, who had already won a game in the tournament, matched Blank’s zeroes through the first three innings, getting help from a pick off and a double play to keep the game scoreless until Augustana (52-9) finally broke through with a pair of runs on four hits in the fourth.

Despite the deficit, CSU’s players were anything but discouraged.

“I had confidence in our team,” said senior second baseman Gunar Drinnan, who had one of his team’s four hits in the game. “We’ve been knocked down before and we always come back. I knew that our offense was going to get something started.”

That’s exactly what happened in the bottom of the fifth.

Austin Pharr broke up the no-hitter with a solid single to center. Then after Chase Brown struck out, catcher Robert Brooks turned on an inside fastball and sent it over the left field wall for CSU’s first home run of the World Series.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, tying the game up at two and giving the Cougars new life.

“I came up there just trying to find a way on and pass it down to the next guy,” Brooks said. “With a pitcher like that, we knew we had to scrap away, down by two especially.

“It kind of gave us momentum,” the freshman said of his 11th homer of the year. “We knew it was a brand new ballgame.”

The Cougars (48-15) threatened to get even more after the homer when consecutive singles by Frank Wager and Drinnen put runners on second and third with only one out. But Blank rallied to strike out Drew Webb looking and leadoff man Grant Berry on a fly ball to right.

Then the Vikings took the momentum right back by scoring a run and retaking the lead in the top of the sixth on a two-out single by ninth hitter J.T. Mix.

That was all the cushion Blank needed, as he retired 12 of the final 13 CSU batters and struck out the side in the ninth to wrap up the national championship.

“I thought it was a great game,” Appleton said. “There wasn’t a lot of scoring, but there were some good plays made and a heck of a lot of good pitches made.

“I thought we gave as good an effort as we could. We’re kind of running on fumes right now. It was just a tremendous effort and I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”