Sunday, December 17, 2017

Want a winning baseball team? Look here

Absorb the record for a moment or two. Let the cerebrum encircle it for a few laps. Say it out loud, let it roll off the tongue.

Just don't let it roll down the gullet. After all, 51-2 can be pretty difficult to swallow.

Even the record's proprietors, the University of Tampa's baseball players and coaches, struggle to attach reason to the preposterous.

"It's really hard to explain," senior infielder Tyler Ding said.

"I've just been almost waiting for when my moment's going to come to have to put my foot down to start sharpening things up when they fail, and they have not," added coach Joe Urso, whose club's pursuit of consecutive national titles continues today at the eight-team Division II Championship in Cary, N.C.

"And it's been amazing to go through a year and see guys stay focused all year like this. It's awesome."

Focus has been only one component. No team reaches 51-2 without a few streaks, staggering rallies, even superstitions. Here's a sampling of the elements that have propelled UT to this rarefied stratosphere.

Top 3 comebacks

The Spartans are 8-2 in games in which they trailed after six innings. Their three most notable rallies:

UT 5, Flagler 4 (March 25)

"Flagler came in here and absolutely dominated us for seven innings," said Urso, whose team trailed 4-0 at that point. Former Wharton High star Zach Gawrych helped kick-start the comeback with a run-scoring single in the two-run seventh, then hit a two-out, three-run homer in the eighth.

UT 8, South Carolina-Aiken 4 (Feb. 8)

Facing the nation's No. 2 team on the road in their fifth game of the season, the Spartans spotted the hosts a 4-0 lead before storming back and sealing things with a five-run ninth. "That kind of just set the tone for the rest of the season," said sophomore right-hander Trey Oest, Durant High's former ace. "We were facing one of their top closers (Caleb Smith), and we were able to come through and pull it out."

UT 9, Saint Leo 8, seven innings (March 8)

With the Spartans trailing 8-6 and down to their last out with nobody on base, No. 8 hitter Gio Alfonzo was hit by a pitch. Three singles, a passed ball, a wild pitch and two walks later, the Spartans had retaken the lead for good.


• Urso, who never has really enslaved himself to quirky rituals, has made one concession this year: After making out his lineup, he gives it to an assistant coach to post on the wall.

• Every game day, Oest wears a blue pair of "lucky" boxer shorts, with a pair of dice emblazoned on the front.

• Regardless of the direction from which he's arriving, Ding has entered the Martinez Center (UT's athletic complex) from a right-side door all season.

• After each win, the team drops a Cuban peso — known as a CUC — in a toy bank shaped like a portly Napoleonic military figure. Its nickname: Herschel (it's a long story).

By the numbers

.959 The Spartans' regular-season win percentage (47-2), an NCAA Division II record.

3 Victories needed to equal the program record for wins in a season, held by the 2006 team.

7 Everyday players hitting .310 or better.

18 Players on the roster who attended a bay area high school (Pinellas/Hillsborough/Hernando/Pasco).

21 Consecutive games won by the Spartans entering the national championship tourney.

78 Pitches needed by Oest in his one-hit, complete-game 3-0 win against Florida Southern in Sunday's South Region final.

.334 Team batting average, seventh-highest nationally among Division II teams.

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