Army wins Patriot League Title and NCAA bid

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
WEST POINT, N.Y. – Matt Fouch allowed just six hits and two unearned runs over eight solid innings in the opener and Ben Koenigsfeld permitted eight hits and one run over eight dominant frames in the second game as Army captured its third Patriot League championship in six years and fifth conference crown overall by sweeping Lafayette, Saturday afternoon at Doubleday Field.

Army won the first game 6-2, then completed a sweep of the Leopards in the best-of-three Patriot League Championship Series by wining the nightcap 8-1. With the victories, the Black Knights earned their fourth berth in the NCAA Regionals, securing the automatic berth that accompanies the Patriot League title.

“We just wanted to make sure we played the game the best we could today,” said Army head coach Joe Sottolano. “Lafayette’s pitchers threw the ball well today. They really hampered us in a lot of ways. We did an excellent job of playing offense and taking care of the baseball in key situations defensively. Offensively, we did a nice job of taking what was given to us and maximizing our opportunities. We stayed focused all day.

“Obviously, our pitching was outstanding today. Matt Fouch and Ben Koenigsfeld were very sharp. They gave us a lot of confidence and took pressure off our offense. Matt threw his best pitches in key situations and that allowed us to extend our lead and maintain control of the ball game. Both of those guys showed great mental toughness today, and that’s what you’re going to get out of those two individuals. They located well and controlled the tempo of the game against a quality offensive club.”

Fouch worked in and out of trouble much of the first game, walking five and stranding seven Lafayette runners on base through the first five innings.

Army grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second on Koenigsfeld’s leadoff home run to deep left-center field off Leopard starter Zach Fritz (2-6). But Lafayette took what proved to be its only lead of the day in the fourth inning, pushing across a pair of unearned runs. Justin Shepherd singled and moved to third when Matt Hall’s sacrifice bunt was mishandled for an error. Matt Fenster followed with an RBI double to right that delivered Shepherd and moved Hall to third base. Alex Bechta’s run-scoring groundout chased home Hall with the Leopards’ second run of the inning.

The momentum of the game swung greatly in Army’s favor in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Black Knights had managed just two hits opposite Fritz through the first four innings, but needed just one massive hit in the fifth to turn the game’s fortunes dramatically. Fritz hit Kyle Fleming with a pitch to open the frame. J.T. Watkins followed with a successful sacrifice bunt before Zach Price was hit by another Fritz pitch, placing runners at first and second with one out. Andy Ernesto then blasted a mammoth home run just inside the right field foul pole. The monstrous three-run shot turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead for the Black Knights. Army would not trail the remainder of the day.

The Black Knights added a pair of insurance runs in the seventh as Price ripped a leadoff single and moved to second on a one-out walk by Clint Moore. Fritz’ errant pickoff try at second base allowed both runners to advance into scoring position. Ryan Hanna relieved Fritz and promptly surrendered a line-drive double to the gap in right-center field by Joey Henshaw, driving home both Price and Moore for a 6-2 Army advantage.

By that time, Fouch had settled down nicely. He yielded just two base runners over his final three innings of work and did not allow a Lafayette runner to reach third base after the fourth inning. Fouch, who carried a four-hit shutout into the eighth inning of his Patriot League Tournament semifinal series defeat of Holy Cross last Saturday, retired eight of the final nine batters he faced. He struck out eight and walked five in upping his record to 7-3 on the season. In two Patriot League Tournament starts spanning 16.0 innings of work, the junior southpaw went 2-0 with a 0.56 earned run average. He allowed 11 base hits, while fanning 11 and walking eight.

Ernesto colleted two of the Black Knights’ five hits in the opener, none bigger than his game-turning three-run homer in the fifth.

“I hit that ball very well,” Ernesto said. “I think it was a changeup and I was able to put a good swing on it. I was trying to direct it fair as I was running down the line.”

Serving as the visiting team in the nightcap, Army benefitted from three base hits and three Leopard fielding errors in the top of the third inning to take a 3-0 lead. Fleming began the attack with a leadoff single. When Lafayette unsuccessfully tried to nail the lead runner on David Darnell’s sacrifice bunt, both runners were safe. An errant pickoff throw at second base by Lafayette starter Corey Shea allowed Fleming and Darnell to advance to third and second, respectively.

Watkins followed with an infield single that brought home Fleming with the first run of the game. When Lafayette second baseman A.J. Pisarri threw wildly to first base on the play for an error, Darnell scampered home and Watkins moved to second base. Price then beat out a sacrifice bunt down the third-base line for a single. Lafayette third baseman Justin Shepherd’s throw eluded first baseman Jeff Butler on the play for another error, allowing Watkins to score Army’s second unearned run of the inning.

The Black Knights padded their lead in the fourth, fashioning a two-out rally that stretched their lead to 5-0. After retiring the first two batters in the fourth, Shea (4-3) issued a walk to Fleming. Darnell stroked a single to right-center field that pushed Fleming to third. After Darnell stole second base, Watkins followed with a clutch two-run single to right field.

That proved to be more than enough offensive support for Koenigsfeld. The Patriot League Pitcher of the Year permitted just one Leopard base runner to reach scoring position over the first three innings. He yielded Lafayette’s only run of the game in the fifth when Butler smacked a leadoff single up the middle, advanced to second on an infield single by Shepherd and scored on a single to center by Fenster.

That was the Leopards’ (24-29) final serious scoring threat of the day as Koenigsfeld, who would earn Patriot League Tournament Most Valuable Player honors for his work both on the mound and at the plate, allowed just two Lafayette runners to reach scoring position over his final four innings of work. In running his record to 8-4, he scattered eight hits, while striking out nine and walking one before departing after eight innings of work.

Army (33-18) rounded out the scoring when Ernesto singled and scored on an RBI groundout by McKague in the fifth. Consecutive sacrifice flies by Darnell and Watkins following a pair of leadoff walks by J.P. Polchinski and Fleming in the sixth accounted for the final 8-1 margin. McKague, who closed out three of Army’s four Patriot League Tournament wins including both victories on Saturday, fired a scoreless ninth inning in relief of Koenigsfeld to complete the sweep. Army’s hard-throwing closer struck out Brian Davilla on a check swing to end the game, setting off a wild celebration at the mound.

“It’s a great feeling for the team, especially the seniors,” Ernesto stated. “A lot of hard work went into this season, especially right out here on this field. It was a total team effort. This was our goal at the beginning of the year. We didn’t take anything for granted today. Lafayette always plays us tough. They have a bunch of tough kids on their team. We just came out and played real well today.”

“Today was a great example of playing offense, rather than just hitting,” explained Sottolano. “We executed very well in key situations.

“Andy Ernesto was really the key player for us today in both games. His home run was just the spark we needed in the first game. He comes up with runners on first and second and hits a monster home run into the teeth of steady wind. That was a huge momentum shift, and it took the wind out of their sails.”

Saturday marked the culmination of a comeback season of sorts for the Black Knights, who captured a share of their fourth regular season Patriot League championship and in six years and earned the No. 2 seed in the Patriot League Tournament after beginning their league slate at 1-5.

“We certainly don’t like to start out 1-5, but it seems like we have a track record of playing our best baseball as the season progresses. We had some key wins early in the season that were critical for this team’s confidence. It showed our players the level at which they could compete. Once we became more consistent as a team, we knew what we were capable of. I feel that really helped us through this tournament.

“I’d like to congratulate our entire coaching staff. The relentless hours that they’ve put in through preparation, organization, instruction and scouting has all paid off. They are the backbone of this program and I feel privileged to work with them. We’d also like to thank the Academy’s senior leadership for their support and all of our fans who have been with us throughout the year. They continue to make an impact on our program.”

The postseason berth will mark Army’s fourth trip to the NCAA Regionals and third since 2004. It also means that every four-year member of the Black Knights’ program during that six-year period (2004-09) will have made at least one trip to the NCAA Regionals during their time at West Point.

“Going to the NCAAs is something you want each and every one of your players to experience,” Sottolano added. “It’s something that we talk about with our young men during the recruiting process. That streak is a tribute to the players that have gone through this program and to what they have accomplished.”