NORMAL, IL- Dallas Baptist looked down and out a few times in Saturday’s game against Illinois State.
The first time came when they got down 4-0 after one inning. The next was when they fell behind 7-3 after five. The last time came when Illinois State took an 11-9 lead in the bottom of the seventh, with the go-ahead runs coming home on a misplayed pop-up in shallow left field. Certainly, you couldn’t have blamed them if that type of play was the straw that broke the camel’s back on a day when they just couldn’t seem to put Illinois State away.
Each time, however, they fought back. The 4-0 deficit was shaved to just a 4-3 deficit. The 7-3 deficit became an 8-7 lead, and most notably, the 11-9 deficit became a 17-11 ten-inning win.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this type of performance from DBU, as they’re no stranger to performing when their backs are against the wall.
Last season, you may remember, they weren’t guaranteed a place in a regional as the regular season wound down. Their RPI was never better than 48 at any point over the second half of the season, and as conference tournaments got underway, their RPI sat at 70, well outside of at-large range. So they just went ahead and won the automatic bid to make sure they got there.
That placed them into the Fort Worth Regional, where they lost their opening game to Virginia. Rather than pack it in and sit satisfied with just getting to the postseason, though, they won back-to-back games before being eliminated in the regional final by host TCU.
So doing what they did on Saturday, with a group largely made up of players who were around for that run last year, was old hat.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on as a program,” said Dallas Baptist head coach Dan Heefner. “We’ve got a saying that ‘winners find a way.’ We keep track of how many come-from-behind wins we’re going to have throughout a season and how we get those comebacks. We’ve had a number of them this year, but that’s the first time where’s it’s been back and forth.”
That mantra was best exemplified on the field on Saturday by Kody Funderburk. The first deficit of the game, that 4-0 hole, came after a rough first inning for the big lefty on the mound. He walked three in the frame and surrendered an RBI single to Noah Sadler, an RBI groundout to Nick Zouras, and a two-RBI single to Joe Aielts.
But rather than let that be the way his day was defined, he found a way to help his team and atone for that tough inning. After ISU starter Brady Huffman cruised through the first three innings, Funderburk came to the plate in the fourth with two men on to try to cash in on the Patriots’ first real shot at breaking through. Five pitches later, he launched a mammoth home run to right field to make it 4-3.
Later, he was the hitter who put his team in the lead for the first time, as his solo homer off of Illinois State reliever Colton Johnson made it 9-8. It had to be somewhat cathartic for Funderburk to be able to come through like that after struggling to get through his 3.1 innings on the mound.
“He (Funderburk) didn’t give us a great start, but he did it with the bat, too,” said Heefner. “He’s a ballplayer. He really thinks the game well. He knows the game. The fact that he was mentally tough enough not to be down in the dumps about his pitching outing and score at the plate was a big job for us.”
Any time a team puts up 17 total runs, including a two-homer day from a player like Funderburk, it’s easy to fixate on the offensive production as the key to victory, but that would shortchange the effort of Sean Boyle, who had as much to do with the victory as anyone else on the DBU roster.
When he entered the game in the seventh, the pitching staff had yet to find an answer for Illinois State’s offense. After scoring four in the first, the Redbirds scored one in the fourth, two in the fifth, one in the sixth, and they’d just finished scoring three in the seventh.
After Funderburk exited the game, having allowed five runs in 3.1 innings, Jarod Bayless came on and surrendered three runs in two innings of work, and MacGregor Hines allowed three runs in 1.1 innings, giving two effective relievers in Bayless and Hines two of their worst outings of the season. The Patriots needed someone to come in and slam the door shut, and Boyle was that guy.
He threw 3.1 scoreless innings, giving up just one hit and no walks with three strikeouts, shutting down ISU long enough to allow his offense to mount another comeback.
“He was the game changer right there,” said Heefner. “Obviously the offense did a great job, but that doesn’t happen without the job that he does. They were doing a really good job offensively all game long. They were hitting everything that we were throwing up there, squaring it up, having great at-bats, and then he really changed it when he came in.”
When the Patriots did mount that final comeback in the ninth, to tie it up 11-11 and send things into extra innings, and then took the lead in the tenth, they really laid it on, showing how quickly they can change the complexion of a game.
In the tenth inning alone, they scored six runs on four hits, with the biggest blows coming from familiar faces in Jameson Hannah, who collected an RBI single, and Matt Duce, who drove in three with a double, along with a two-RBI double from freshman Jimmy Glowenke, who also homered earlier in the game.
That outburst made what was a tight seesaw game through nine innings a blowout heading to the bottom of the tenth, all because of the physicality and relentless nature of their offense, and once again, that’s what makes this Dallas Baptist team so dangerous.
Those who might have written this team off as a player on the national stage this season after they were swept relatively handily by Clemson in late-February did so far too quickly. There are still questions to be answered on the pitching staff, but this is an offense that can wear out just about any opposing staff, and because of that, this has the look of a team capable of making more noise come June, even if that means they have to bounce back, from both losses and adversity, from time to time along the way.