*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – As the 2019 baseball season wound down towards its conclusion, the first weekend of May loomed large. It marked the final series of the conference schedule for University of Chicago, with a spot in the Midwest Conference tournament on the line. Whoever won the MWC playoff would receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA postseason.
But the Maroons had to qualify for the tourney first, and they would need to win three out of four against Beloit College to do so. Saturday's road opener dampened those hopes when the Bucs blew out the Maroons in a run-rule shortened seven-inning contest. But a clutch pitching performance from Joe Liberman led to a 6-4 win in the second game to keep UChicago's aspirations alive.
"I would say that the sense of urgency was felt by everyone associated with the program," said Head Coach John Fitzgerald. "Beloit clobbered us in game one on Saturday. Losing one of those last three games would have kept us out of the tournament due to a tiebreaker. Joe Liberman was phenomenal in the nightcap on Saturday to even the series at a game apiece. So Sunday, it was truly win or go home."
Beyond the playoff implications, Sunday's doubleheader at J. Kyle Anderson Field also served as the final home games for the nine-member senior class. A twisting roller coaster of momentum ensued, complete with a ninth-inning rally and extra-inning heroics. The Maroons ultimately prevailed by scores of 7-6 and 11-6.
Game one saw the two teams exchange the lead a whopping seven times. UChicago senior catcher Ian Bohn – who went 4-for-4 at the plate – started things off with a first-inning RBI single. Beloit answered with a pair of unearned runs in the second inning. The Maroons recaptured the advantage 3-2 by the bottom of the fifth thanks to RBI from outfielder Josh Parks and Bohn. The seventh inning saw both teams score twice with the Maroons clinging to a 5-4 edge.
A big blow came in the top of the eighth when Beloit laced a two-run triple to the right field corner. The visitors were up 6-5 and UChicago was on the ropes. However, Fitzgerald still had confidence his players possessed the grit to rally.
"I think our guys had gained an attitude and belief that we can always fight back," said Fitzgerald. "We had done so all season, both in conference and non-conference play. I also don't believe that anyone was willing to have their season come to an end shy of a postseason berth. In a way, I really think our guys not only collectively believed but willed themselves to be successful."
Down to their final out in the ninth inning, the Maroon hopes were riding on Parks as he strode up to the plate with runners on first and second. The senior came through in the clutch by knocking a single through the right side. Pinch runner Cristian Rodriguez motored to home plate and slide wide to narrowly beat out the relay throw. Just like that, UChicago had new life.
The game headed to extra innings with plenty of tension in each at-bat. In the bottom of the 11th, two walks set the stage for infielder James Kelly to play the hero. The sophomore delivered with a walk-off single to left center to win the game 7-6. He was promptly mobbed on the base paths by jubilant teammates.
"We definitely had some really memorable at-bats and performances throughout that final weekend and the entire year," Fitzgerald said. "It is always memorable to be able to see guys succeed and overcome adversity like both Parks and Kelly did in their last two at-bats. It's always a joy to see your players succeed; however, we still had another game to play with just as much on the line. But without those two at-bats late in the game, we aren't in a position to win the North Division at all."
Despite the euphoria of the victory, there was still one more game to be played. Beloit struck first, going up 3-0 through the top of the second inning. But the Maroons would not be denied. The hosts loaded the bases with three-straight singles in the bottom of the second. Parks lifted a sacrifice fly to deep center, then senior first baseman Brady Sarkon tied it up by smoking a two-run double to the right center gap. Senior outfielder Connor Hickey put his team up 4-3 with a double up the right field line.
A throwing error in the fourth plated two more before fifth-inning hits by first-year third baseman Carson Weekley and Hickey increased the lead to 8-3. RBI from Weekley, Sarkon and Rodriguez put the game out of reach 11-4 in the sixth. While the Bucs put up two in the seventh, UChicago shut the door from there for an 11-6 decision. The MWC North Division was clinched.
"In hindsight it was really enjoyable for our senior class, who was our first recruiting class, to be able to win a league title at J. Kyle Anderson Field on Senior Day," Fitzgerald said. "I think that was a true testament to the growth of this program, their leadership and what college baseball is all about."
The 2019 Maroons finished the season with a 24-12 record. The senior class graduated with the best four-year record in program history at 90-59.