Less than three weeks ago, the Colonials stood with a 7-8 conference record, a distant ninth place in the Atlantic-10 standings and an unlikely playoff contender.
From many perspectives, it was the story of typical struggles under a first-year head coach, and of a rebuilding program still trying to find its legs.
Dayton, VCU, and La Salle – three conference foes – were all that remained on the schedule. Just finish out the season strong, bring in the new recruits, and start fresh next year.
But that’s not how the 2013 Colonials wanted to be remembered.
Instead, over the last 18 days, they’ve fought for a Dayton sweep, a VCU series win, and with Saturday’s 4-1 victory in their final regular season game, a sweep of La Salle.
The Colonials now sit with a 15-9 conference record, a remarkable four-place jump into the five spot of the playoff standings. They will face fourth-seeded Xavier in Charlotte, N.C. Wednesday.
“We knew we had to win a majority of the latter half of our season and conference games to have a shot to move forward,” senior Tyler McCarthy said. “We were able to lock it up yesterday and improve our seeding today, so we’re really excited about it.”
The Colonials have gone 8-1 over that stretch, led by McCarthy, senior Justin Albright and junior Owen Beightol, giving GW the chance to add on to their second-most A-10 titles in league history.
“I think we’ve come a lot closer as a team overall and when we won some conference games, I think they started to believe that, ‘Hey, we got a shot at this if we play well,’” associate head coach Tom Sheridan said. ”And over the last month, we’ve played good baseball. Even some of the games we lost we’ve been competitive on a daily basis.”
In Saturday’s season finale, senior day, head coach Gregg Ritchie turned to Albright to take the mound.
Coming in with only five pitching appearances on the year and a pedestrian 6.41 ERA, Albright surprised everyone but his team, maneuvering through a few thick jams to earn the win for himself and his fellow seniors.
“The most important thing for me at least, is that he’s [Albright’s] such a competitor and whatever he has to give that day is what you can always count on from him,” Sheridan said. “He did a great job, anytime he’s pitched for us this year he’s battled, and he continued to do that.”
Albright battled through one such jam in the bottom of the second, after letting the first two batters reach base on a walk and hit-by-pitch. A sacrifice bunt left runners on second and third with one out, and the Explorers threatening to end the senior’s outing early.
Albright responded by inducing a ground out back to the mound and getting the final batter of the inning to strike out looking. No runs and no hits for the inning.
“I just had to focus up a little bit harder and bear down and make good pitches so that they would get themselves out in a situation like that,” Albright said.
The Colonials backed up Albright’s resilient pitching performance with some run support of their own in the next inning.
After a double by senior Matthew Murakami to lead off the third, Matthieu Robèrt’s single to left field allowed Murakami to come around a score. With the bases loaded later in the inning, junior Owen Beightol hit a sac fly to right field that allowed senior Ryan Hickey to score, giving GW a 2-0 lead.
Albright got himself into another jam in the fourth, after two singles and a walk left the bases loaded with only one out. He struck out the next batter, appearing on his way to again ending the inning unscathed, but a single through the left side allowed one La Salle runner to score.
The damage luckily ended there thanks to a pinpoint throw from Beightol in left field and a controversial play at the plate that called out the second runner.
From there, the Colonials cruised on forward to the sweep, as Albright seemed to get stronger as the game went on, going three-up-three down in the fifth and sixth innings.
He finished the day with the win and a line of seven innings pitched, four hits allowed, one earned run, two walks and three strikeouts.
Thankful for his teammates over these past four years, he said he was proud of the way the team scrapped and executed their way to victory and to the playoffs.
“We’re not a power team, we’re not gonna drive home runs out of the park, but we’re gonna play small ball, score runs every inning, try to chip away, and good pitching has been our success all year,” Albright said.
Sticking to that strategy, the Colonials added some insurance runs for Albright, scoring one run in the bottom of the fourth off a single from Robèrt, giving him a total of two RBIs in the game.
Then in the eighth, after a double, single and walk loaded the bases, a sac-fly from Murakami allowed McCarthy to tag-up and score from third.
The game was left to the lately unhittable bullpen duo of senior Kenny O’Brien and junior Craig Lejeune, who together pitched a scoreless final two innings to get Lejeune his 10th save of the year.
Albright found his usual success on the offensive side of the plate, garnering one hit and three stolen bases, good enough for 28 steals on the year and a tie for second in the A-10.
Ritchie declined to comment on today’s sweep of the Explorers. He has not spoken to The Hatchet in over a month, after he said his team played “uninspired, ‘no care’ baseball” following an April loss. Ritchie was hired last offseason after working as the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates
The Colonials will now move on to the A-10 tournament, held at Charlotte’s Hayes Stadium from May 22 to 25. The format is a bracket-style, double-elimination tournament, with GW expected to start junior Luke Staub in their first round game against fourth-seeded Xavier at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
GW has not squared off against the Musketeers this season, but the Colonials have momentum on their side as they enter the tournament.
“We’re happy we made the tournament, but we don’t want to be done there. We don’t want to just show up, lose two games and go home. We’d like to make an impact,” McCarthy said. “The moves we’ve made in the last couple of weeks have shown that we can pretty much stick with anyone. So we want to turn some heads and stick it to everyone.”