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Friday, June 21, 2024

#AsForBaseball: Army Sweeps Navy, Wins 6th Straight Patriot League Championship!

What was NOT at stake in this series?! It would be hard to find an Army Baseball series that has ever mattered more. That is not just hyperbole. 

Here’s what was at stake: 

The Army-Navy Series Lead. Tied at 131 apiece entering the weekend.
The 2024 Patriot League Championship. For Army, a potential sixth straight. For Navy, a chance to exorcize the demons of Army’s recent dominance in Annapolis.
A bid to the NCAA Regionals (Round of 64). An expectation in recent years for Army. For Navy, it would be their first since 2016.
A chance to extend the season. In less than a week, the seniors will commission as Army Lieutenants or Navy Ensigns. 

There was a LOT of candy in this Pinata!

Throw in the setting. We got beautiful, late May weather, academics complete, and a buzz around post as Firsties start thinking about graduation while the rest of the Corps preps for their summer training. As if in a cheesy Army movie set, the cadet parachute team conducts practice jumps on the parade field, just over the right field wall of Doubleday Field, while other cadets run by with fully loaded packs and combat gear.

Friends, we saw West Point at its very finest.

A Tale of Two Games

Army showcased their well-balanced club in this two-game sweep of Navy. 

— Slugfest? Check.
— Pitching Duel? Check.
— Championship? Check.

On Sunday, in what was expected to be a pitching duel, Army poured on the offense, scoring 11 runs on 11 hits, including 3 doubles and 2 home runs. Navy did even more at the plate, scoring 8 runs on 14 hits, including 5 doubles and 2 home runs. Army won with superior fielding and straight-up damage control. Navy got hits, sure, but they couldn’t string enough of those hits together in a row to beat the Black Knights on the scoreboard. 

In Monday’s Game 2, pitching and defense dominated. Each team managed only two hits. Thankfully, Army took advantage of some Navy miscues and managed just enough on offense to win and advance. 

Game 1: A Deviation from the Script

Game 1 was billed a rematch of the April 26th game at Doubleday Field, a game in which Justin Lehman, Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, went the distance in a 1-0 complete game shutout. The team felt confidence in their pitcher. He entered the series with the fourth-best Earned Run Average (ERA) in the country. Lehman has struggled more as of late, though. He took losses in both of his starts since throwing that brilliant shutout against Navy, including the opener in the wild semi-final series against Bucknell only a week ago. 

Lehman continued to struggle on Sunday. Navy got to him right away, scoring 2 in the top of the first on a 2-RBI double by Victor Izquierdo. The double was Navy’s third straight hit. 

The script clearly did not call for a pitching duel on this day. 

Thankfully, Army’s offense came to life in the bottom of the second, scoring 7 runs – 5 of them with two outs. The Black Knights showed they can score both with the long ball and by playing small ball. Addison Ainsworth laid down a squeeze bunt to score the second run and tie the game at 2. William Parker then capped that 7-run rally with a 3-run homer, his 13th of the season. After 2 innings, Army was up 7-2. 

Navy clawed back in the 4th, pulling to within a run at 7-6. They never got closer. Army added 4 more over the next two innings. The 11-8 final score looked a lot closer than it felt. 

With the Game 1 win, Army only needed one of the next two games to advance to the NCAA Baseball Championships. 

Game 2: The Previously Scheduled Pitching Duel

Pitching and defense were on display in Monday’s Game 2. Both teams played excellently, save for Navy’s pitching in the bottom of the third. 

The Mids’ Matthew Shirah entered that third inning in complete command. His strikeout streak reached five straight before he lost control with one out in the third. Army’s hitters seemed to realize that his fastball was rising through the zone and started taking pitches. Shirah walked a batter, seemed to get rattled, and then let it spiral on him, losing the strike zone completely. He’d soon loaded the bases with two walks and a hit by pitch (HBP). A wild pitch to the backstop allowed Addison Ainsworth to score from third, and suddenly the Black Knights held a 1-0 advantage without even putting a ball in play. Chris Barr, the walkoff hero from the Navy series in April, then drove in two on a single, pushing the lead to 3-0. 

It appeared that Army might break the game open, but Navy centerfielder Hudson Lehnertz caught William Parker’s bomb at the top of the wall before throwing out Chris Barr at second base. That baserunning blunder looked ominous in the moment. It ended the inning prematurely in a game in which we expected the Black Knights to need every run they could score. 

Thankfully, the score remained 3-0 for the final six innings. Army Senior Matthew Ronnebaum pitched his heart out and delivered the best outing of his 2024 season. He retired the first 16 batters he faced! That means that Navy did not have a baserunner until the 6th inning. He also struck out 9 and allowed only one hit and two walks. 

Despite this Ronnebaum’s mastery, tension stayed high at Doubleday Field each time Navy reached base. The Army faithful seemed conditioned to expect drama, and who could blame them after the Bucknell series?! 

Twice Navy brought the tying run to the plate. In the sixth, Navy’s Zane Raba drew a walk. A long double by Lehnertz then pushed Raba to third. The 3B coach threw up a conservative hold sign, keeping Raba from scoring easily. Navy’s next batter then chopped one to the Army third baseman, Sean Ruta. Raba got caught in no man’s land between third and home. He then stumbled and was easily tagged out by Army firstie catcher Derek Berg. 

Army went to the bullpen in the ninth, asking Senior Tanner Gresham to close out the game. After striking out the first Mid, Gresham walked the next two. Gresham stayed in control, but the fans got nervous. Gresham then worked a strikeout and a harmless fly ball to seal the game, the all-time series lead, the Patriot League Championship, and a sixth straight appearance in the NCAA Division 1 Baseball Championships. 

Not a bad day’s work.

Army dogpiled Gresham on the mound in celebration. Navy solemnly lined up to sing the Navy Blue and Gold, earning the dubious honor of signing first. After the alma maters, the Navy team huddled quietly in right field while the Navy parents and fans waited quietly just beyond the walls of Doubleday Field. The Army Team returned to the field to collect their hardware – the Patriot League trophy and numerous All Tournament honors, including Matthew Ronnebaum’s Patriot League Tournament MVP. 

On to the NCAAs… After Graduation

For the seniors, graduation looms large. President Biden will give the commencement on Saturday, May 25th. Two days later, the team, which will now include several active duty Army officers, will find out their destination for the NCAA Regionals. 

The NCAA Division 1 Baseball Championships start with the Regionals, i.e. the round of 64, on May 31st. This round consists of sixteen separate 4-team double-elimination tournaments. After the weekend, the 64-team field is cut down to 16 survivors. Army will likely be a 4-seed in one of these regionals, meaning they will face one of the site hosts, a nationally-ranked top-20 team. 

Watch the selection show on ESPN2 at 12 PM ET or follow Army Baseball on Twitter/X for live updates. 

Cover image via @PatriotLeague.

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