‘It wasn’t supposed to happen’: Baseball wins championship after 9-run deficit

The Chapman baseball team celebrates its first conference championship after a comeback 20-12 victory against the University of Redlands May 6. Photo courtesy of Chapman Athletics

Three innings remained. Chapman trailed the University of Redlands 10-1 in the conference championship. After winning three straight conference playoff games May 5 and 6, Chapman was on the brink of elimination.

Jared Love, a senior first baseman, had seen this happen before. He played in last year’s conference semifinal where Redlands beat Chapman 17-6.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” Love said. “(Redlands) was cruising. We couldn’t get anything going.”

But in the top of the seventh inning, Redlands pulled its starting pitcher, Chris Fousek Jr., for freshman pitcher Matt Crow. Fousek Jr., a pitcher who often plays infield, hadn’t started a game since March 20 against Williams College. Despite the hiatus, he made only one mistake: a first-inning throwing error that later allowed a run to score.

“I get why they took (Fousek Jr.) out,” said Chapman head coach Scott Laverty. “He only had three starts on the season. He’s not used to going six innings, his pitch count was up. (Redlands) probably thought, ‘Maybe they score a few.’”

But Crow’s performance was disastrous. He hit his first batter, Chapman senior third baseman Gavin Blodgett. The next batter, senior outfielder Conner Larkin, drove a single into right field, moving Blodgett to third.

Then, Chapman received its second stroke of luck since Foucek Jr.’s mistake in the first inning: an error by Redlands third baseman Brendan Gardiner that allowed Blodgett to score, moved Larkin to second, and put junior shortstop Jarod Penniman on first. Crow walked his next batter to load the bases.

After a strikeout, the chaos continued. Crow relinquished back-to-back singles, scoring three Chapman runs, which closed the deficit to 10-5. He was relieved of his pitching duties by sophomore pitcher Austin Williams, whose performance was similar. Williams walked his first batter, loading the bases again.

Then Love stepped up to the plate. He cracked a deep drive to right-center field, with the wind blowing in the same direction. It was headed toward Redlands senior outfielder Kyle Kabeary, who had been a pest for Chapman in the outfield, picking out fly ball after fly ball.

“I’m a little cynical, honestly,” Love said. “(Kabeary) had been tracking balls down all day. So I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to dive and catch this ball, this is so stupid.’”

Kabeary, with his eyes hidden behind a pair of opaque sunglasses, sprinted toward the ball like a hunter tracking its prey. He dove, glove outstretched, and the ball touched the edge of the leather.

The white of the ball disappeared into the green of the deep center field grass behind Kabeary. It had tipped off the edge of a glove that had caught balls so predictably for the entire game.

Love trotted into second and sophomore catcher Justin Stream stopped at third as two runs scored. The deficit was 10-7.

“It seemed like we didn’t get any breaks all day,” Love said. “It was frustrating. We were getting bad hops in the infield and nothing was going our way at all. And then all of a sudden, their third baseman makes an error and that ball goes off Kabeary’s glove.”

The next batter was Blodgett, who’d started the inning as the first baserunner. He settled in the batter’s box before crushing a ball to left field. The Redlands left fielder backed away from the fence, hoping the ball would rebound off the top. But the ball kept flying, dropping well over the fence.

Stream jogged home, stepping on the plate and slamming his helmet on the ground in elation. Love followed him as the entire Chapman dugout emptied behind the plate, waiting to swarm Blodgett as soon as he crossed. The game was tied at 10.

Chapman held Redlands to no runs in the following half inning and returned in the top of the eighth to continue the offensive onslaught. Redlands put another freshman pitcher, Justin Yang, on the mound.

Love and Blodgett, who said they knew Redlands didn’t have a deep pitching staff going into the game, both added two more RBIs in the inning. By the end of the eighth inning, Chapman led 17-10. The team added another three runs in the ninth to conclude a streak of 19 unanswered runs.

“You know (pitchers) are shaking a little bit because you’ve been there,” Blodgett said. “Once we started putting up runs, you could tell guys were getting a little bit rattled, and we had all the confidence in the world.”

Redlands added two more runs in the bottom half of the ninth inning, but the effort was futile. Jordan Babbitt, a senior Redlands outfielder, had the final swing of the game. The ball pinged off his aluminum bat and sailed high, but not far. It fell into the mitt of Trevor Marrs, a freshman Chapman outfielder.

The entire Chapman team dogpiled atop the mound, celebrating the team’s first-ever SCIAC championship. After the comeback, Love said he felt both relief and disbelief.

“Even the day after, just talking to some the guys, we were like, ‘What happened yesterday?’ It hasn’t even set in,” Love said. “We were getting our (expletive) kicked and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, all this stuff starts happening. It was insane.”

Laverty said he knew Chapman would win as soon as he saw Love’s double tip off Kabeary’s glove, but that the comeback was surreal.

“I’ve been a part of some things where you have some big comebacks like that, but not for the title,” Laverty said. “It went from one minute getting our butt kicked and the next minute, everything we hit is falling.”

Chapman hasn’t come back to win again after trailing by 8-plus runs since a 2015 game against the California Institute of Technology.

“It was the craziest game I’ve ever played,” Blodgett said. “It still hasn’t hit me yet, truthfully. It was not supposed to happen. Not in a winner-take-all championship.”

The victory means Chapman has qualified for the regional championships, which will take place May 17-21. Love, Blodgett and Laverty all said they expect to compete for a bid to the national championships, which goes to the regionals winner. The timing of the tournament – which coincides with Chapman’s graduation proceedings – is not an issue for Blodgett, he said.

“Hopefully we can miss graduation,” Blodgett said. “Because I’m not trying to sit through that.”