Baseball clinches championship as Shimabuku returns from injury

A celebration ensued as Chapman’s baseball team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III championship on June 4, 2019. Courtesy of Steven Olveda

Ashley Raciak had tried everything she had in her tool belt. The Chapman athletic trainer had vacillated between applying heat pads and ice, had used a percussive therapy device called a Theragun and had run to the store to pick up a special back brace. She had done everything she could in hopes of getting now-sophomore Brad Shimabuku back to manning his spot in the outfield, in a game that could clinch Chapman’s first Division III baseball championship since 2003.

“I’m always optimistic, I’m always hopeful, so there was never a part of me that said, ‘Oh, he’s never going to get back in the game,’” Raciak said. “I’m going to keep trying and doing everything in my willpower that I can until he gets in the game.”

On June 4, after a 6-4 win earlier in the day against Birmingham-Southern College, the Panthers had a chance to take home the Division III national title in the second game of a doubleheader. But Shimabuku, who had established himself as the team’s starting center fielder and season leader in batting average, was watching his teammates play from the dugout, hobbled by a stress fracture he sustained in his back the previous day in a game against the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“Brad’s a competitor. He’s told me the whole time, ‘Coach, I can go, I can play,’” said head coach Scott Laverty. “He couldn’t walk up the stairs, and I said, ‘Brad, you can’t play right now, bud.’”

Through the first six innings, Chapman only mustered a single run against Birmingham-Southern pitcher Hanan Mauldin. But just as effective was Chapman’s own starter, now-graduated Mason Collins, who was in the process of throwing a complete-game shutout – nine innings, no runs allowed. Knowing it would be the final game he would ever pitch in his college career, Collins said his attitude was to simply leave everything on the field.

“The thought process was, ‘Look, I’ve put so much work in and so much effort over the years since I was a little kid,’” he said. “This is everything I’ve been playing for and living for my whole life – to pitch at this stage and to get the opportunity to throw my last game at that level in that tense, competitive environment.”

Meanwhile, Shimabuku was starting to loosen up. Raciak said she couldn’t pinpoint which treatment was successful, but the sheer combination of remedies provided some relief.

After finally being cleared by Raciak mid-game to enter the field, Shimabuku relayed the information to Laverty. In the bottom of the seventh inning, with Chapman up by a single run and players on first and second base, Laverty pinch-hit Shimabuku for the game’s starting center fielder, now-sophomore Trevor Marrs. Shimabuku then slapped a single into centerfield and extended Chapman’s lead to 2-0.

“At the time, we still had no hits on the board and I wanted to be the guy to get that hit,” Shimabuku said.

The next half-inning, Shimabuku assumed his regular position in centerfield as his coaches watched from the dugout. Before the third delivery of the inning from Collins, assistant coach Geoff Fox looked at Laverty and asked, “Are you sure he’s OK?” And as if on cue, the ball was lined into right-center field, a sprint away from where Shimabuku was positioned.

“I said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll find out,’ because he’s running after it,” Laverty said.

Shimabuku said he realized he wouldn’t be able to catch the ball by just running, so he laid out in a dive and the ball landed in his glove. Collins, who watched from the mound, estimated his teammate had run about sixty feet to make the catch.

“Once he made that catch, I was so emotional at that point. I said to myself, ‘This is why I do what I do, and this is why I love my career and I’m so passionate about it,’” Raciak said.

The final out of the game descended into now-junior first baseman Henry Zeisler’s glove and sealed an 11-0 victory and the championship title. Shimabuku later found himself sitting in his hotel room, thinking about how special it was that the team’s seniors had ended their careers with a championship win. But after the whirlwind of emotions from the dogpile and a trophy celebration with pictures, the reality of their success didn’t truly sink in until that moment, he said.

“I just sat there by myself on the bed, and then it hit me at once like, ‘Whoa, we just won my freshman year,’” Shimabuku said. “Is it going to be like this every year?”