Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #5
Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #5

Outstanding pitching and a three-run blast in the seventh inning was enough for the Jacksonville baseball team to knock off No. 6 Florida on the road in Gainesville.

The 2014 season for Jacksonville University baseball showed bright promise for the future of the program under the direction of first year Head Coach Tim Montez. Shorthanded by injuries throughout the year, the resilient team continued to grind and trust the process being instilled in them by the coaching staff. A belief in that process and in each other resulted in a season highlighted by achievements not met since the 2011 campaign.

With all the accomplishments that 2014 had to offer as proof that JU baseball was returning to prominence, none stands out more than the three wins the Dolphins registered over Top 20 teams. Of those victories at No. 19 TCU, against No. 17 Indiana and at No. 6 Florida, it was the 3-1 victory over the Gators that holds a lasting effect on JU fans throughout the country.

Jacksonville made the two-hour trek to Gainesville for a mid-week matchup on April 22 with little to lose and hopes of building momentum heading into a 10-day break for final exams. Coupled with a rainout that canceled one of the previous weekend’s contests against East Tennessee State, the Dolphins pitching staff was in prime shape to go up against a Florida team riding a six-game winning streak that included victories over South Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast, and a weekend sweep of Georgia.

“It didn’t happen by plan, but with our weekend against East Tennessee State having a rain out, it just made more sense to start (Justin) Russell that Tuesday against Florida,” said Montez, a 27-year coaching veteran who had served as the Dolphins pitching coach the past eight seasons before taking over the reins of the program last summer.

“I had a good feeling coming in,” Montez continued. “Russell was coming off a strong outing against Florida Gulf Coast and I thought they (Florida) could be pitched to. Plus with the 10-day break ahead, I knew we’d have all our arms available, including our usual No. 1 starter (Alex) McRae. It just happened to line up perfectly for us.”

Line up perfect, indeed. In his previous outing, Russell nearly made JU history in his attempt to become the first Dolphins pitcher to throw a nine-inning perfect game. The Jacksonville native had a perfect game through 7 1/3 innings against eventual A-Sun regular season champion Florida Gulf Coast on April 13. He would finish that game with a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 JU victory, setting the stage for a signature performance a week later in Gainesville.

“Russell was locked in,” Montez said of the redshirt-sophomore righty who already had a win over No. 19 TCU to his credit. “He was confident and had all three pitches working that evening. He was locating his fastball and in a couple of key situations made big pitches when he had to get out of a couple jams.”

The first five hitters went down in order before a solo home run to right by Zach Powers gave the Gators a 1-0 lead in the second. After that second inning however, Russell retired 10 of the next 11 batters with the lone base runner coming by way of an error in the third.

“He has a tendency to rise to the occasion,” said Montez on Russell’s performance after the game. “I’ve been blessed over the years to coach some pretty good competitors; from Matt Garza to Cliff Lee to Doug Fister. While he doesn’t have those types of tools, he competes as hard as any of those three and that’s what makes him so good.”

Still clinging to the 1-0 lead, Florida was threatening to open the game up in the sixth following a one-out triple by Richie Martin. Russell was up to the challenge however, ending the inning with a ground out to short and a fly out to right before working a 1-2-3 seventh.

The Dolphins had already posted the other two Top 20 wins, and just one week prior to the match-up in Gainesville held a 1-0 lead over No. 5 Florida State after five innings. So there was little doubt up and down the JU clubhouse that they could compete in a game like this.

Jacksonville put the pressure on Florida, placing runners in scoring position in the first, fourth and sixth innings. The Dolphins were unable to breakthrough however, but with Russell dominating on the mound, still had a chance as they came to bat in the seventh.

Senior catcher Braddock Rowe started a rally when he was hit by a pitch with one out. Sophomore right fielder Michael Babb followed Rowe with the same result putting two men on for Alex Seifert.

Anyone who had followed the progression of the Dolphins throughout the 2014 season knew that the ball club made its living at the plate by being fundamentally sound and aggressive. True to form, Seifert, a freshman, was called on to drop down a bunt and move both runners into scoring position.   

“Getting a bunt down is something that we work on throughout the season,” Montez said of his team, which ranked second in the A-Sun in sacrifice hits. “Alex did a good job all year not trying to do something he wasn’t capable of. That was a good movement for him and it paid off.”

To say it paid off might be an understatement as the next batter, sophomore Dylan Dillard, sent shockwaves through McKethan Stadium with one swing of the bat.  

“You know he is going to try to throw fastball after just hitting two guys, so I looked for one middle in and put a good swing on it,” said Dillard, who drove a 1-0 pitch deep into the left field bleachers for a go-ahead three-run homer.

“We were hoping that scenario would happen,” added Montez. “Dylan has some pop in his bat and we could not ask for anything better in that situation. He did a nice job getting his pitch and capitalizing on it.”

It was a fitting moment for Dillard, who after being named to the Atlantic Sun All-Freshman team in 2013 had struggled early on this spring.

“He was pressing a little bit, had some good swings early in the year when he was hitting a lot of balls at people,” Montez said of Dillard, who would go on to hit .354 in conference play.

“It seemed like a good time to take some pressure off of him and drop him down to the ninth hole to see some better pitches. That helped him gain some confidence and it allowed him to finish the year on a positive note swinging the bat as well as he did at the end.”

Entering the eighth with a 3-1 lead, Montez felt it was a good time to showcase McRae to close out a signature win.

“McRae was starting to throw the ball fairly well at that point in time during the season and his arm was fresh with his last start coming the previous Thursday,” said Montez. “For the most part he is a strike thrower and that’s what you want coming out of the bullpen.”

McRae – who would end the season with a career best five wins and 69 strikeouts – was making just his fifth career relief appearance.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of scouts and pro coverage that game,” Montez said of the move to bring his normal Friday starter to close the game. “We as coaches attempt to put our players in the best position to get drafted if they have an opportunity. I think his performance opened a few people’s eyes and they kept on him towards the end of the year.”

In early June, McRae was selected in the 10th round of the MLB First Year Player draft, becoming the 80th player in school history to be picked.

“On top of giving him an opportunity to be seen, it allowed him to build confidence heading into a key portion of our conference season,” added Montez on McRae, whose next start resulted in a complete game two-hitter in a win at Stetson.

McRae had little trouble with the Gators, facing just eight batters over the next two frames to earn his second career save. The win was finalized when the Wisconsin product struck out pinch hitter A.J. Puk on a 3-2 pitch with a man on, setting off a wild celebration for the JU faithful in attendance.

“It was one of those things that worked out well and we had great pitching and great defense throughout the game,” said Montez looking back. “What our guys accomplished being shorthanded throughout the year with all the injuries is just a testament to the kids and how they went about their business and played every day hard.”  

“Things look bright for the future; we have most of those kids back and a good recruiting class to add. I’ll be very disappointed next year if we are not in the mix at the end of the year for a championship and a postseason bid. The Florida win was certainly a highlight and we’ll be expected to have more like that in the near future.”
Check in every Monday and Thursday for the next two weeks as we continue to countdown Jacksonville’s Top 10 moments of 2013-14!

#10: Men’s Basketball Dominates Dunk City
#9: Men’s Freshman/Novice 8+ Claim Dad Vail Crown
#8: Women’s Basketball Shocks Mercer on Senior Day at Swisher
#7: Women’s Golf Catches Fire to Win the Cincinnati Spring Invitational
#6: Women’s Lacrosse Makes it Three Conference Tournament Titles in a Row
#5: Baseball Downs Florida in Gainesville
#4: Coming July 7th
#3: Coming July 10th
#2: Coming July 14th
#1: Coming July 17th