St. John's surging into Arizona, 2 wins from CWS
NEW YORK (AP) - Matt Wessinger just had a feeling about this St. John's baseball team.
A year ago, the Red Storm shortstop considered starting his professional career, but couldn't shake the thought that this season's squad had a chance to be special. And, he needed to be a part of it.
"This is exactly the reason I decided to come back,'' said Wessinger, a 37th-round pick of Kansas City last June as a junior. "I knew what we had coming back and I knew the offense we had and the pitching we had. I mean, everything was pointing to a super regional and hopefully the College World Series.''
Talk about having some serious intuition. St. John's (40-21) is two wins away from its first trip to Omaha since the 1980 team that featured John Franco and Frank Viola. The Red Storm went undefeated in the regional round of the NCAA tournament and knocked off host and No. 6 national seed North Carolina.
"I've always had the confidence,'' Wessinger said, "that we had the ability to accomplish what we did last weekend.''
Next up: the slugging Arizona Wildcats (41-17) in a best-of-three series starting Friday in Tucson with a spot in the College World Series on the line.
"We just proved we can play with anybody in the country,'' said Wessinger, drafted in the fifth round by Colorado on Tuesday. "Right now, we're playing our best baseball. We respect them, of course, but we know that we can play with them.''
The Wildcats scored at least 15 runs in all three of their wins in the regionals. But St. John's has a terrific trio of starting pitchers in righties Kyle Hansen (5-5, 3.46) and Matt Carasiti (7-5, 3.98), and lefty Sean Hagan (8-2, 2.72).
"We have three front-line starters who can go out any day and get us a W,'' junior outfielder Jeremy Baltz said. "They all pitched great last weekend, gave us wins, and I think that's what sets us apart.''
Since the NCAA expanded its tournament to 64 teams and added the super regional round in 1999, St. John's has never gotten this far. The Red Storm have gotten close, though, having been to the regionals eight times in Ed Blankmeyer's 17 seasons as coach.
While the school might be known more for basketball with Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Walter Berry and Malik Sealy gracing the hardwood over the years, the baseball program has also been a big hit - albeit perhaps a bit under the radar. The Red Storm's 34 NCAA appearances rank tied for eighth, among some of the traditional baseball powerhouses such Texas, Florida State and Miami. They also have been to the College World Series six times, but a 32-year absence and the lack of a consistent presence in Omaha by cold-weather programs had some wondering if St. John's could ever get back.
Except, of course, the guys from Queens.
"I'll tell you what: If you ask around when the regionals come up, and we're in a particular regional, people don't like to face us,'' Blankmeyer said. "They know that we have a bunch of guys that are going to play hard, and play the game the right way and pitch you pretty good.
"Teams better be alert because they could get bumped off.''
Just as North Carolina learned - the hard way.
St. John's opened the NCAA tournament with an 11-3 drubbing of East Carolina, and then pulled off an incredible comeback against the Tar Heels. Trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Danny Bethea hit a walkoff three-run homer off star closer Michael Morin that stunned the pro-North Carolina crowd and put St. John's in control of the regional.
"It was probably the biggest home run in the history of St. John's baseball,'' Blankmeyer said.
Not only because it won a huge game, but because the already-confident Red Storm began to truly believe that the super regionals were within reach.
After North Carolina staved off elimination by beating East Carolina last Sunday, the Tar Heels took an early 3-1 lead against St. John's. The Red Storm pecked away and won 9-5 and celebrated with a huge dogpile on the mound.
"That was probably the happiest I've ever been in my entire life,'' said Baltz, a second-round pick of San Diego who's hitting .345 with eight homers and 51 RBIs. "Going into the regionals, we were hearing things like people saying that it was the easiest regional for North Carolina. It was just motivating us. I've been to the regionals all three years I've been here and we weren't able to break through. To finally be able to do that is the best feeling ever.''
And St. John's has done it without many eye-popping statistics, including a .287 team batting average and 3.82 team ERA - respectable but middle-of-the-pack numbers among the national rankings.
"I'm not sure if this team is more talented than teams in the past, but we definitely know what we need to do to win,'' said Wessinger, the school's career leader in hits and runs scored. "We do the little things right. The toughness of this team and the competitiveness, never backing down or giving up is what sets this team apart.''
Big things were expected of the Red Storm, but they scuffled to a 4-9 start. That prompted a few team meetings to clear the air, remove the doubts that were creeping in and get back on track.
"We knew what we were capable of and knew we had to start doing the little things and not focus on the individual things,'' said Wessinger, hitting .353 with six homers and 47 RBIs. "Once you do that and start really playing like a team, I think that's what really made us better.''
Blankmeyer and his staff also made some key personnel moves, solidifying the lineup by putting Brett Dennis at second base, Frank Schwindel at first and Kyle Richardson establishing himself in center field. The starting rotation also got a boost when Matt Carasiti, once the team's closer, was solid as the team's Friday night starter.
After losing two of three against Louisville and Seton Hall to end the regular season, St. John's hasn't missed a beat since. The Red Storm are in Tucson with a seven-game winning streak and the confidence that they can finish the job.
"When you look at the whole picture, with the expectations we had at the beginning of the season - high expectations - that were bestowed upon us coming out of the gate with a mild winter and then starting really kind of sluggish, we were trying to figure things out and kind of doubting ourselves,'' Blankmeyer said. "And now we're at this point and, boy, it's full circle. It's a mighty good feeling.''
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