I grew up in New Jersey, so the names in Stony Brook University's College World Series-bound lineup seem very familiar to me. Frankie Vanderka, Sal Intagliata and Anthony Italiano remind me of kids I knew in my hometown of Teaneck -- kids like Jimmy and Georgie Georginis, for example.
I recognize the bravado that comes with being a baseball player in the Northeast. You need it. When I ran into Georgie in a local IHOP one offseason, he came over and asked me whom he needed to call for a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies. Even as I thought to myself, "You didn't even play in high school, and you're almost 30 years old," I let him talk. Since he was sure he could "throw 95 mph right now in these Timberland boots," I just gave him the Phillies' main office line. He probably wouldn't make a good talent evaluator, but he believed in himself, and that is something.
You also need that bravado as a team when you head down south to play college baseball. You know people are going to be skeptical about your game. They think "cold-weather teams" have been playing next to Santa's workshop in an AstroTurf igloo, and they're sure you can't really hang with them.
Well Vanderka, Intagliata and Italiano are all on the team that "shocked the world" by knocking off Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., last weekend: the Stony Brook Seawolves. I was there. I saw 11,000 LSU fans get to witness the Seawolves literally outplay their team in every facet of the game. SBU was tenacious. They wore LSU pitchers down by fouling off ball after ball. They took tough pitches, they slid hard, they took pitches in the back if need be. They didn't even bother arguing with the umps, because they either had a brother or mother in the stands that was already doing it for them, or they just knew they were going to win anyway.
I had a chance to interview their head coach, Matt Senk, along with players Brandon McNitt (from California, whoa) and Travis Jankowski. Senk had dreamed of this moment for 22 years. He's taken Stony Brook from a Division III program to the College World Series on nothing but guts, glory and vision. By 2000, he helped get them Division I status, and they've never looked back. Now everyone is looking at Stony Brook's back, as the Seawolves ran through the America East Conference and top-ranked national powerhouses such as Miami.
Their pitching staff is loaded with control guys. Tyler Johnson is a senior who is so hard-core that he threw 119 pitches on two days' rest, after throwing over 100 in his previous start. Then he turned around and shut down LSU on another 127 pitches. He nearly collapsed on the mound after the last pitch, but he gave up only one run in a complete-game win.
Jankowski, the center fielder, is the next level. First-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres. He has the California-dude look with the long hair and the eye black, but he is all business. He could have been the really smart kid with the denim jacket with a picture of his favorite metal band on the back in high school. He single-handedly baffled LSU pitchers by changing his approach at will. He would fight off pitches during eight-pitch at bats, or he would jump on the first pitch. In the end, his on-base percentage was nearly .500. This is something even Mets and Yankees fans can agree is good. He also runs everything down. He will be in the big leagues before Mariano Rivera comes back.
The Seawolves have seven players who were drafted. Seven. That is three more than the team they were supposed to lose to, LSU. The draft list includes two hard-throwing relievers, James Campbell (12th round, Dodgers) and Jasvir Rakkar (26th round, Cubs). There's Maxx Tissenbaum (11th round, Padres), who plays second base, catches everything and struck out fewer than 10 times the entire season. And Pat Cantwell (second round, Rangers), a catcher who will remind you of ex-Met John Stearns. He was hit by pitches 27 times this year. He bunts, he runs, he can throw anyone out and he leads by example. (Oh, and I found out that for breakfast, he puts as much bacon as he can on some bread and goes to town.)
I almost forgot Willie Carmona (11th round, Phillies). This is a guy you might see walking down the streets of Queens with a bat in his hands. He could be going to practice; he could not be going to practice. He also has better grades than you do. He is a stone-cold hitter from both sides of the plate. He has completely destroyed the best pitching in the country. The Most Outstanding Player in the Miami regional, Carmona hit .524 with 10 RBIs in five games. He has a cannon for an arm and could even be your closer if you need him.
But don't let me rave on about this team. Read the words of LSU's head coach, Paul Mainieri:
"Offensively, one through nine, that was the toughest lineup we have faced all year."
And just in case you are not sure the Seawolves are for real, here is what Mainieri said about their chances in Omaha:
"I would not be one bit surprised if Stony Brook goes on to win the national championship. I cannot imagine anyone in the country being better than that team. If they are, I'd like to see them."
Up here in the Northeast, we like to brag a little. But it's much better to let someone else do it for you.
Do the Seawolves have a shot against the UCLAs, Floridas and Florida States of the world?
No doubt about it. Georgie Georginis, I hope you're watching.