ARLINGTON—Rarely does anything of value come easily. If they didn’t know it before, a couple of Fredericksburg-area natives got a reminder of that Friday during the Atlantic 10 Conference baseball tournament.
Freshman Daniel Brooks from Spotsylvania High School and his George Mason teammates took on a George Washington team coached by North Stafford graduate Gregg Ritchie in an elimination game that ended after deadline Friday night. The winner got a shot a top-seeded Saint Louis Saturday but will need to beat the Billikens twice to claim the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.
Thanks to Brooks’ two RBI singles, the Patriots were three outs away from taking control of the double-elimination tournament. But they stumbled and lost a heartbreaker to Saint Louis 5–4 early Friday afternoon. Then Ritchie’s injury-plagued Colonials showed grit in coming from behind to edge Richmond 5–4 for their third straight win in the loser’s bracket.
“These guys are so resilient,” Ritchie said. “We’ve told them, ‘We know we’re banged up. But we’re not going to make excuses. You just play in that moment and be the best you can be that day.’ ”
According to Ritchie, the Colonials (32–25) have lost to injury, at times, their two best starting pitchers and all four catchers on the roster, prompting tryouts for the position.
On Friday, starting pitcher Elliott Raimo aggravated an injury while facing the game’s second batter. Closer Will Kobos—who had thrown 126 pitches six days earlier in a 13-inning win over Saint Louis that got G.W. into the A-10 tournament—gutted out seven emergency innings.
He kept the Colonials close until third baseman Isaiah Pasteur blasted a three-run homer that kept the Colonials’ season alive—along with their quest for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2002. Perhaps not to be dismissed is that the superstitious Ritchie had eaten the same breakfast and dinner for three straight days since G.W. lost 11–3 to George Mason in Wednesday’s tournament opener.
“This is the closest we’ve been,” said Ritchie, who’s completing his sixth season at his alma mater. “We like to say this is the best team we’ve had, but it’s hard to say with all the players we’ve lost.”
As with Ritchie, Brooks’ patience and resolve have been tested, along with his teammates’. After leading Spotsylvania to its first state tournament berth in 2017, Brooks saw little action over the first third of his freshman college season before finding a niche as the Patriots’ DH.
He had two hits in Wednesday’s first-round win over G.W. On Friday, he struck out in his first two at-bats by Saint Louis starter Jackson Wark, who held the Patriots hitless through five innings. But Brooks got George Mason on the board with a two-strike bloop RBI single to center field in the sixth off reliever Connor Lehmann.
“I just kept grinding,” said Brooks, who’s batting .223 with one home run and 18 RBIs. “It was tough when you strike out your first two at-bats, but I just stuck with it and got my pitch.”
In the seventh, Brooks roped another RBI single to left field, helping the Patriots grab a 4–1 lead that could have been larger had Billikens left fielder Parker Sniatynski not thrown out Mason’s Trevor Kelly at the plate on the play.
That missed opportunity proved huge when Saint Louis scored once in the eighth, rallied for two runs off George Mason’s shaky bullpen in the ninth, then scored the game-winner in the bottom of the 11th.
“He’s proven he belongs,” George Mason coach Bill Brown said of Brooks, who struck out with the potential go-ahead run on third base in the top of the 11th. “He delivered twice in a high-leverage game where the winner has the inside track to the NCAA tournament.”
It took Brooks time to crack the Patriots’ veteran lineup, but Brown predicted: “he’s going to be an every-day infielder, maybe as early as next year.”
No one’s looking that far ahead yet. Ritchie said several of his players may require surgery after the season is over, and Brooks may take a bigger role in 2019. But with a prize still attainable, the focus is on the present, despite the obstacles.