Midshipmen adjust eyes to postseason darkness

Michalowicz, Navy set to open NCAAs tomorrow with 1st night game of year

May 27, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In many ways, the topsy-turvy ride of center fielder Matt Michalowicz personified the Navy baseball season as a whole.

A rather unproductive beginning, followed by a furious finish. A study in perseverance that has carried the Midshipmen into the NCAA Division I tournament tomorrow night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Michalowicz, from Anne Arundel's Chesapeake High, had three at-bats in the first two months while Navy sloshed around, going nowhere in particular. The team was 7-13-1 at one point, and visions of a Patriot League title seemed just a pipe dream.

A senior who had expected to start after playing extensively the previous season, Michalowicz considered quitting several times, but he was determined to stay the course.

"When Coach [Bob McDonald] didn't take me on the spring trip [to California], it was kind of heartbreaking," Michalowicz said. "But I decided to stick it out as well as I could. I didn't want to quit, but I thought about it."

"He didn't give up and complain. He hung in there and his hitting got better and he started running down every ball. He caught the eye of the coaches," McDonald said. "Then it came. A game-winning hit, a game-saving catch and a home run against the Player of the Year in our league.

"A lot of guys would have just packed it in, but Matt became a real big contributor. His hard work paid off for him and us."

Michalowicz hit .310 over the final month and drove in 11 runs in 29 at-bats. He will be in the lineup when Navy plays host Alabama at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Midshipmen's first night game of the season. South Alabama and Southern Mississippi are also in the four-team, double-elimination regional.

The turning point for the Midshipmen came a third of the way through the season, when McDonald shifted All-Patriot League pick Tony Mauro from third base to shortstop and into the leadoff slot in the batting order. Sophomore Nick Sylvester became the third baseman, and Navy went 20-7 the rest of the way.

"We had to juggle some things around," said McDonald, who has won four Patriot League championships in six years after succeeding the legendary Joe Duff. "That move was a big part of our turnaround."

Mauro leads the squad in 10 offensive categories, including batting average (.352), and Sylvester has pitched in with 15 RBIs for a team that has experienced a decline in power but has a knack for manufacturing runs.

On the mound, Navy will open with junior right-hander Shane Groover (8-2, 2.78 ERA), the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, and follow with senior right-hander Scott Kozink (7-6, 3.82 ERA, league-record 101 strikeouts and a no-hitter). Sophomore left-hander Brad Deafenbaugh, a control specialist, will start a third game if necessary. Collectively, the three are 22-10 with a 3.37 ERA.

"We're pretty strong in pitching, but I'd like to have more depth," McDonald said. "You really need eight or nine guys at this time, but I think having a four-team tournament [the format has changed] rather than six helps us."

Alabama, ranked ninth nationally with a 46-14 record, will be a tough opener on its home field. Especially under the lights and in possible hot, humid conditions.

"We haven't played at night, so that might be a little tricky," McDonald said.

"I love night games because of the atmosphere," Michalowicz said. "We're looking forward to it."

Navy's third All-Patriot League player is junior first baseman Mark Zematis, the major power source with five home runs, 18 doubles and 46 RBIs. He will be striving to help the team to its first NCAA victory since 1982.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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