But up to the final frame of the last game the Eagles certainly looked in position to win the event, having themselves rallied from an early 3-0 deficit to take a 7-5 lead into the last inning. Had they finished the day out, first baseman Ryan Puskar would have been the undisputed hero with his grand slam in the fifth inning and fifth RBI in the seventh for the last UNF score.
Instead it was the Diamond Dogs taking full advantage of their last chances to swing. "I'm really proud of how our kids fought back," Coach John Cohen said. "Because it's very easy in those situations to get down, and our kids just aren't going to get down because that's not who we are going to be."
"It was a lot of fun," said 3B Russ Sneed. "Man, our guys really competed from the first pitch to the last."
Nobody had more fun, or a greater relief, at the outcome than Butler. The junior infielder had hit the ball well in the first three games, but an errant throw on what should have been a double-play had opened the door for a big Northern Illinois inning and eventual State loss Saturday night. With Cohen wanting to work various lineups in the first weekend, the veteran spent all but his at-bat watching. Waiting. And hoping.
"Yesterday was a tough loss for the team and for me personally," Butler said. "It was a tough night. It feels good to be able to come out and do something good to help the team today."
Not just good but great. Cohen was working what was left of his roster in the ninth looking for something to work against righthander Pryor, who had entered in the State sixth and limited a promising situation to just one run. From there he'd maintained the two-run lead until the ninth when 1B Conner Powers led off by lining a shot that somehow evaded the UNF shortstop's glove. Sneed worked for a walk, then when 3B Jarrod Parks grounded to the third base side he ran hard enough at second to break up any chance of a double play.
This left Dogs on corners with one out, and C Scott DeLoach got his side within one score by lining a single into center to plate pinch-runner Mark Goforth. In fact the UNF centerfielder nearly over-ran the first hop which would have tied the tally. Instead Parks stopped at second and Nick Hardy was sent to that post for a bit more speed. As it turned out he didn't have to run hard at all.
Instead of letting freshman 2B Justin Bussey take a right-handed cut at Pryor, Cohen called for switch-hitter Butler to swing from the left side. "He wasn't the automatic guy," Cohen said of the choice of Butler. "But I just felt he's done such a nice job from the left side staying on soft stuff, that's what the guy (Pryor) gave us. I said stay beneath this soft breaking ball or splitter and it gives us a chance to hit the ball to the right side of the field. We hit some balls hard to the left side and they weren't going to go anywhere."
Since State had been subbing for several frames Butler had been hoping to get an earlier chance. "I'd been trying to get warm for four innings and it wasn't working!" he said. And he had little time to loosen after Cohen's at-last call. "So I ran out there and had a little excitement, I guess!" Or a lot, because afterwards Butler couldn't say if the pitch had been a splitter or two-seam fastball. "It had some kind of movement. But it was down and I just got barrel on it."
The walk-off shot made a winner of Drew Hollinghead, State's third hurler, based on two complete innings' work with no runs, a strikeout and a hit. Pryor absorbed the tough loss charged with four runs, four hits, three walks and four strikeouts in his 3.1 innings.
Righty Tyler Whitney got the State start and got half-way through before UNF's fifth-inning assault. The soph gave up five runs on four hits with five strikeouts and two walks. "I really liked what Tyler did early in the game," Cohen said. "He just ran out of steam. That happens a little faster in cooler weather." Whitney did have some steam in the first three innings, facing one over the minimum with a couple of scratch singles.
Meanwhile State got on the board in their first inning as Connor Powers grounded-in RF Ryan Collins from third base. UNF starter Michael Kelly got through the second without trouble but one down into the third he walked the top two in the Bulldog order. Both stole into scoring positions on a covering strikeout by Powers, which was worth the sacrifice because Sneed lined a shot past shortstop for two RBI and a 3-0 lead.
The Eagles got on the scoreboard in their fourth as with two on and two outs Andrew Karmeris slapped a single off 3B Parks' glove, scoring Preston Hale from second. Whitney stranded two others and State got the run back in the bottom of the frame as SS Ryan Powers singled in CF Brent Brownlee, at the expense of reliever John Frawley.
The 4-1 lead didn't hold though. Whitney gave up a leadoff single in the fifth and threw high of second on a bunt. A passed ball advanced the runners, and a wild pitch scored Michael Smith. Consecutive walks filled all bases and Whitney was replaced by Michael Busby, who had the misfortune of facing Puskar. The Eagle slugger already had a slam to his credit Sunday, off Northern Illinois. He made it two on the day by sailing a 1-1 offering over right-centerfield for a 6-4 UNF lead.
The Eagles made repeated mound-changes, all right-handers, until Greg Koehler was able to strand some Dogs in the fifth. A couple of walks to start the sixth brought Pryor from the pen. He didn't begin well as a wild pitch advanced sub-C DeLoach along where he could score on a ground-out by new CF Luke Adkins. Pryor managed to leave the tying run at third, and in the seventh Puskar came through again with a high hopper over third base that stayed fair for a RBI double and 7-5 score.
"Busby had great stuff but he couldn't get down in the zone and that's kind of been his deal," said Cohen. "When it's belt-high what happens is gonna happen." Busby worked 2.1 innings with two runs on three hits, striking out five and walking a pair. Hollinghead took over for the top-eighth and left an Eagle stranded on third base, then got the side in the ninth. Which meant he was on-record when Butler slapped his shot.
"Jet sat there for three-plus hours waiting for an opportunity to help, and he jumps right in there and does it," Cohen said. "When you have good ball clubs you have kids willing to do that."
"I think it shows we're tough all the way around," Butler said. "Nobody was ever down-and-out. Obviously nobody knew what was going to happen but we never quit."
Both teams tallied eight hits and the Eagles played sounder defense than the Dogs, with just one error compared to three. "They're going to compete in their conference very well," said Sneed of the visitors, whom State beat 7-1 Saturday afternoon. But it meant more the way State showed competitiveness from start to finish, especially at the end of a long three days of baseball.
"We had a chance to get a lot of guys some playing time this weekend," Sneed said. "Coach Cohen is doing evaluations with everybody and a lot of guys got in some, that's good for everybody."