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Baseball | Division II tournament

Tampa baseball shoots for third straight national title

Tampa junior infielder Jesus Barroso goes after a grounder in practice. The Spartans will try to become the first Division II baseball program to win three consecutive national titles.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Tampa junior infielder Jesus Barroso goes after a grounder in practice. The Spartans will try to become the first Division II baseball program to win three consecutive national titles.

TAMPA — The scoring monster that University of Tampa baseball coach Joe Urso created — the one that came into the season having won back-to-back Division II national titles —was built on tape-measure homers and frenetic base­running.

This year's Spartans are not quite as scary.

A forced transition to small ball hasn't produced the same one-sided victories, but the Spartans still sit in a familiar place, this time with an opportunity to make history.

The Spartans are back in the Division II World Series, which opens tonight in Sauget, Ill. Tampa has a chance to become the first D-II team to win three consecutive baseball titles.

"This year in general has been more rewarding, watching a group of guys that on paper not many people gave a chance," said Urso, vying for UT's sixth national title in baseball. "Now it's just a matter of finishing the job."

The Spartans (42-9-1) enter their opening game Sunday against Ashland (39-16) ranked third in the nation in the Collegiate Baseball poll, but UT's stolen base and home run numbers are down significantly from the past two title teams.

"We're doing a lot of different things, but we're still winning, so that's all that matters," said first baseman Jose Jimenez, the team's only double-digit home-run hitter with 10. "We'll take it, whether it's pretty or ugly we'll take it."

Ask Jimenez how the bar has been raised. A junior, he doesn't know what it's like not to win a national title. And one of Urso's main recruiting tools is the shiny championship ring on his right hand.

"We're always expected to go far now, so it would kind of be disappointing if we didn't go," said freshman pitcher and Northeast High grad Josh Bowman, Sunday's starter. "I don't want to be conceited with it, but we're expected to be there every year for the most part."

Make no mistake, this team had to be retooled. It was going to be a good team, Urso thought, "Not a great one." The Spartans needed replacements at impact positions: second base, shortstop (Jesus Barroso and Rob Kane, both of whom have played both spots) and catcher (Leo Alvarez).

Players had trouble adjusting to their new roles. It wasn't until their final regular-season games until Urso became a believer. Then they outscored their opponents 52-23 in four region games.

They're not as scary, but they might be good enough, Urso says.

"When you look at the eight teams, we're going to be fifth in batting average, last in home runs, last in stolen bases, fifth in ERA out of eight teams," Urso said. "But they know how to win, and that will be important. When you get to this type of tournament, it's so much more than the best team. It's who is getting hot at the right time."

>>FAST FACTS

Division II CWS

What: NCAA Division II World Series

Where: GCS Ballpark,

Sauget, Ill.

When: Today through Saturday

Format: The tournament has two separate brackets and is double elimination. The championship game is May 31 at noon.

The Spartans: UT (42-9-1) plays its first game against Ashland (39-16) at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The winner plays the winner between top-ranked Mt. Olive (54-6) and Ouachita Baptist (47-14) at 6:30 Tuesday. The loser faces the loser of the same game at 2:30 Tuesday.

Eduardo A. Encina, Times staff writer

Tampa baseball shoots for third straight national title 05/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 10:47pm]
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