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Baseball battles back to capture AE crown, advances to NCAA tourney for second straight year

The tradition stands: the America East champion amalgamated into a dog pile in the diamond after its triumph today, swept by the fury of its exhilarating win. And for the second consecutive year, Binghamton baseball captured that AE title and will represent the conference in the NCAAs.

The Bearcats (25-25) may have replicated their 2012-13 success, but they did so in a much different style. The title game – an electric, 12-inning, one-run BU victory over Stony Brook – was the seventh of the tournament, and the defending champs forced the decisive game.

BU faced an uphill battle after opening its tournament with a loss to Hartford. The team had to ascend through the losers’ bracket, toppling Maine and redeeming itself against the Hawks (31-23), before it was even in position to contend against the top-seeded Seawolves (35-18).

“It was difficult,” BU head coach Tim Sinicki said with a laugh. “After the first loss, our guys obviously knew they had their work cut out for them. But they took the approach of one game at a time and their motto was survive and advance, and in every opportunity to play, they took advantage of it.”

Through their trials and tribulations in hiking the losers’ path, the Bearcats exposed just how crucial a role first-pick draft-prospect Sean Newcomb played in Hartford’s Thursday win over them: without Newcomb on the mound, Binghamton – behind its own potent pitcher in junior Greg Ostner – shut out the Hawks, 8-0, on Saturday.

“He was everything,” Sinicki said of Newcomb. “He was as impressive as I’ve ever seen a college pitcher on Thursday night.”

“But our guys found a way to rebound from that and kind of shake it off and move on, and that’s just what you need to do to play good baseball,” he added.

That Game five win over a Newcomb-less Hartford brought Binghamton a step closer to its crown, but Stony Brook still held the advantage. BU already suffered one loss in the double-elimination tournament; SBU stood scot-free. BU had just blown past Hartford in a high-energy game four hours earlier; SBU had been off and resting for the day.

But Binghamton’s veteran squad proved well acquainted with the constant pressure of conference championships. The Bearcats flaunted the depth of their pitching staff as well as the tenacity of their field and lineup when they persevered through three end-game, back-and-forth innings for a 4-3 victory over the formerly undefeated Seawolves. Junior left fielder Jake Thomas disrupted the three-run tie in the top of the ninth; sophomore third baseman Reed Gamache hurled a line drive to senior second baseman Daniel Nevares for a double play in the bottom, squandering the potential pieced together by Hartford’s junior catcher and AE Player of the Year Kevin Krause.

“We’ve been through these kinds of games before. One thing I thought our guys did a good job of was keeping their composure and never really panicking,” Sinicki said. “And even when we went down, there was a sense of that. The guys knew that we were going to make a run and come back, and we found a way to get that done.”

Just over 12 hours after the sixth game ended, the teams returned to LeLacheur Park at noon for the winner-take-all seventh. The energy of each team was apparent: both BU and SBU opened with a run in the first before the former exploded for three in the second. Binghamton’s lineup pumped Hartford’s senior Frankie Vanderka for six hits and four runs over two innings before he was replaced by sophomore Tim Knesnik.

Knesnik was bad news for the Bearcats. He paced their offense over the next four innings, scattering seven hits and allowing just one run. Hartford caught up during Binghamton’s muffled mid-game, divvying three runs through three innings before inciting a surge of its own. Things looked ominous for the Bearcats – the Hawks dismantled BU’s 4-1 lead and turned the tides, taking a 7-4 advantage of their own in a monster seventh inning.

But BU clearly wouldn’t roll over. Enter the Bearcats’ fourth – and final – pitcher of the game: sophomore Anthony Grillini, a mid-week starter with a 7.77 ERA. Grillini inherited a clutch situation, and though two Hartford runs were plated under his tenure, he forced a pop up and left two on base. Through the remaining five innings, the sophomore allowed just three hits, struck out five and forced nine fly outs. He lowered his ERA to 6.18 through his shutout innings.

With Grillini and the defense surrounding him securing the top of the inning, the Bearcats’ offense got back on its grind. BU produced six hits and three runs through the eighth and ninth, evening the score and catapulting the game into extra innings. The score remained stagnant at seven through a 10th and 11th, though BU stranded five during that stretch.

Come the 12th, Binghamton broke through. With bases loaded, freshman catcher Eddie Posavec sent a hit deep into left field. Posavec was the seventh BU player to hit an RBI in the outing and that hit was BU’s 21st, but Posavec’s walk-off single was the cap, the catalyst of the mound of champions celebrating on home plate.

“Our kids were desperate, really, to continue to play baseball,” Sinicki said. “There was no margin for error, there was no room for failure. When you’re playing and your season is on the line, it’s really a different type of approach.”

Only a 2002 Maine program has achieved the feat Binghamton did today: winning the AE Championship after suffering a loss in the tournament.

In his performance through BU’s five games, senior first baseman Shaun McGraw merited Most Outstanding Player honors. He hit .450 with five RBIs, managed a .520 on-base percentage and recorded the only home run of the tournament, against Maine. He, Grillini, Ostner and Posavec each earned all-tournament honors.

Binghamton’s torrid four-day stretch will see the fruits of its labor at noon on Monday, when ESPNU broadcasts the selection show for the 2014 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament.