Xavier Magazine

Baseball Grabs Big East Title

It didn’t matter that it was May and the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean along the New York shore was somewhere between cold and frigid.

It didn’t matter that people were walking along the Coney Island Boardwalk. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have swimsuits.

20140525_122259The Xavier baseball team was going for a plunge. The impromptu swim was actually a celebration following the team’s 5-0 win over Creighton that gave Xavier the 2014 Big East Championship title.

Xavier just barely made the Championship, claiming the final spot, and got off to a rough start, both on and off the field. Off the field, the team’s flight to New York was late, the bus to the hotel had a flat on I-95, and when they got to the hotel, the rooms were flooded because of a plumbing issue so they had to go to a second hotel and didn’t arrive until midnight. That was followed by a 9-2 opening game loss to—of all opponents—top-ranked Creighton. But wins against St. John’s and Seton Hall in the double-elimination tournament set up the rematch against Creighton.

Outfielder Mitch Elliott was named the tournament’s MVP, while five other Xavier players—Dan Rizzle, Joe Forney, Derek Hasenbeck, Sean Campbell and freshman pitcher Trent Astle, who threw the title-winning three-hit shutout—were also named to the all-tournament team.

The title earned the Musketeers a trip to the College World Series, where they lost their opener against Vanderbilt, beat Clemson and were eventually knocked out in an extra-innings loss to the University of Oregon. The team finished the season with a 30-29 record.

Xavier Magazine

Xavier: Turf and Time Upgrades

Xavier’s boys of summer were off for the fall, so the Department of Athletics brought in the sod squad in October to do some major renovations to Hayden Field. The crew ripped up the old baseball field and recrowned it for better drainage. It then laid down an all-new grass playing surface and built new dugouts. A three-foot brick backstop was also added from dugout to dugout behind home plate, with netting above it to protect the fans in place of the old chainlink fence. The $300,000 renovation was paid for with private donations.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the O’Connor Sports Center, the soccer teams got the chance to light up a new scoreboard—literally. More importantly, the players and coaches can now see it when it’s lit up. The scoreboard was relocated to the south end of the field where it can be seen from the benches. Previously, coaches had to step out onto the field to see how much time was left.

Xavier Magazine

Field of Dreams

Chalk up another victory for Xavier pitcher Tommy Shirley, who was drafted by the Houston Astros as the 273rd pick in the ninth round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft. Shirley’s selection is the second-highest draft pick in Xavier history, and he is the fifth Musketeer to be drafted in the last six years.

In 2010, the left-hander led the Musketeers with a 4.03 ERA in 15 starts, and he finished his junior campaign with a 4-3 record. In 96 innings of work last season, the North Huntingdon, Pa., native posted a team-best 98 strikeouts—the second-highest single season tally in Xavier history—and held the opposing batting average to .275.

“Tommy put himself in a great position for the draft this season with how hard he worked,” said Xavier’s assistant coach, Nick Otte. “It’s great that he’s one step closer to fulfilling his dream of being a Major League Baseball player.”

Xavier Magazine

Whole New Game

In his first year as Xavier’s head baseball coach, Scott Googins’ recruiting pitch went something like this:  “Come to Xavier and you have a chance to play right away.”

Four years later, it’s changed to: “Come to Xavier and be part of a winning program.”

“Even if you’re playing every day and getting your tail kicked, it’s no fun,” Googins says. “Players want to be part of a championship team.”

That’s the offer now. Xavier’s baseball program is coming off the best season in its history, finishing 39-21 and setting a school record for most victories. The team won its first Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title and earned its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

“In any sport, it’s easy to be good for a day or two or have a real good year,” Googins says. “The big step for us now is to be consistent.”

They’re on their way, due in large part to Googins. The 43-year-old first-time head coach inherited a program that had not finished with an overall winning record since 1998. He turned that around in a hurry, going 54-27 in Atlantic 10 play over the last three years, winning 17, 19 and 18 games respectively and advancing to the six-team conference tourney each year. He was named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in 2008 after leading the Musketeers to a share of the regular-season championship. And he’s done all this while purposefully putting together a more demanding non-conference schedule.

“I remember standing in front of the team that first year saying we could have something special,” Googins says. “But we would invent ways to lose. Now we’re finding ways to win. Our confidence level is so different. It’s a whole different mindset.”

Googins’ secret: Hard work and enthusiasm. The coaches require only two days of weightlifting a week. Some players, though, started lifting four times a week—and experiencing success. That led to others doing the same. “It’s that type of stuff that is contagious,” says Googins. “Now all of a sudden out of 32 guys, we have 19 guys lifting four days a week. It’s really snowballed. I still think we have a ways to go, but the buy-in is getting better.”

It all paid off in May when Xavier competed in the NCAA Tournament. Although they were eventually eliminated by perennial power and host Rice University, the players were not intimidated. Instead they were relaxed, energized, confident. “We felt we were going to surprise some people and maybe win that regional,” Googins says.

Now, he adds, “The guys are hungrier to get back to that level again.”

The success has also helped the program gain credibility—and recognition. The Musketeers had three players sign professional contracts this year—junior pitcher Danny Rosenbaum was picked by the Washington Nationals in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft in June, and senior catcher Billy O’Conner and senior pitcher Jordan Conley signed as free agents.

As Googins sits in his office recounting the season, he sounds excited, like he can’t wait to start the 2010 season. And it’s only late July, less than two months since the NCAA loss to Rice.

“I haven’t taken a day off since the tournament ended,” Googins says. “I’ve been doing something every day for the program, and it doesn’t even feel like work right now. When things are going well, you just want to keep that momentum going and stay with it.”

Xavier Magazine

Major Aspiration

Matt Watson remembers calling his parents in Lancaster, Pa., during the summer of 1999. He had just been selected in the 16th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Montreal Expos following his junior season at Xavier and was one week into his professional career. He appeared in just one game with Vermont in the New York-Penn League, was making about $850 per month—before taxes—and was doubting his choice to not return to Xavier for his senior year.

“I called home and wondered if this was the right decision,” he says. “Here I was, a backup in low Class A.”

Comforted by the phone call, he stayed, and it didn’t take long before he got his break. Or breaks, actually. Two of his teammates got hurt in the same game, and suddenly Watson found himself in the lineup every day. And playing well. So well, in fact, he led the league in batting average (.380) and hits (108), was named to the all-star team and even led the entire Expos farm system in batting.

It was the beginning of a career that has, so far, lasted 10 years and taken him to Mexico, Australia, the Dominican Republic and even Japan in search of a game. It has also taken him twice into the major leagues—first for 15 games with the New York Mets in 2003 and then 19 games for the Oakland A’s in 2005—making him the only Xavier player to make it into the majors. (NOTE: Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning actually played basketball at Xavier, not baseball. However, James J. Boyle, a 1926 graduate, played part of one season for the New York Giants. A catcher, he appeared in just one inning of one game. He has the distinction, though, of being the only player to play in the major leagues without ever playing in the minor leagues, going straight from Xavier to the majors and then retiring at the end of the season. For a story about Boyle, see the April 17, 2006, article by Steve Rushin in Sports Illustrated.)

“I enjoy it,” Watson said of that label. “It would be nice if there were some more. There are a lot of good ballplayers that have come through Xavier. It was always a dream of mine to make the major leagues and Xavier helped me get there. In hindsight, I was in a much better position going to college after high school than the minors. College let me grow.”

Watson, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox out of high school, decided to play college ball instead of going pro, coming to Xavier and taking the team by storm, starting his freshman year and hitting third in the batting order—a prominent place for a freshman. But he was there for good reason: He could hit. Watson still ranks fifth at Xavier in career batting average (.363) and fourth in homers in a season with 14.

And it’s his hitting that’s kept him at the ballpark for the last decade—including his current team, the Syracuse Chiefs, the Class AAA farm team of the Toronto Blue Jays.

“He is a very good hitter. He works his butt off on his craft,” says Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays’ assistant general manager for player personnel. “He has been very good for us this year. He is a total professional. He plays the game the right way.”

“He is still a very serviceable left-handed hitter,” says Syracuse manager Doug Davis. “He is one of the team leaders here. He is a really, really good guy for the young players.”

Watson signed with Syracuse after returning from Japan, where he spent parts of the previous two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the top Japanese league. He headed overseas after hitting better than .300 for three straight seasons with the Sacramento River Cats, the top farm team of the Oakland A’s.

“A lot of guys get stuck in Triple A,” he says. “You can make some good money and reinvent yourself in Japan. The pitchers there are better than Triple A. They have good control. They are not afraid to throw change-ups.”

Watson lived in Japan with his wife, Nicole, and their two young children. “We kind of soaked in the culture. Our neighbors had two young boys who spoke English.” There, he hit .274 in 2006 and .203 in limited duty last season. He pulled a muscle during spring training in 2007 and also battled allergy problems there.

He had options to play with other teams in Japan and Korea in 2008 but decided it was time to return to North America for perhaps one last shot at the majors.

“That is a reasonable goal,” LaCava said. “It is just a matter of timing.”

Even if he does not get back to the majors, Watson says, he hopes to play pro ball several more years. “It beats working,” he says.

That’s a message he’s constantly reminded of when he hears from his father, Rocky.

“My dad just retired after about 30 years with a freight company,” he says. “He would put in 12-hour shifts as a supervisor, so he tells me, ‘I don’t want to hear about when you go 0-for-4.’ ”