Kevin Cooney is in his 18th season as head coach at Florida Atlantic
University of the Atlantic Sun Conference and 22nd overall. A former pitching
star at Montclair State, Cooney has led FAU to an average of 46 wins per season
the past six years. He as guided the Blue Wave to a 273-106 record and five NCAA
Regionals in the past six years. This is the second year he has offered his thoughts on
baseball - and other things - for CollegeBaseballInsider.com.
April 19, 2005
stuttered out the first line of that song for effect.
Tonight, I'll be
doing it out of nervous apprehension.
As we enter the
10th weekend of the season, our three starting pitchers will be different for
the first time. Our 7-8 conference record and the recent struggle for a quality
start on the weekend have necessitated the ch...ch...change. We have had a
starter go past the fifth inning just once in the past 12 weekend games. The
consequence is that our offense, which had started the season so slowly, is
seeing its recent run production wasted and a continued stress placed on our
middle relievers. If we get to our short men with a lead, we've been a lock -
but that hasn't happened enough lately.
My job is to put us
in the best position to win games. Sometimes that calls for much soul searching
and difficult decisions. When changes are made, they affect everybody, so they
are not made lightly. The player removed from the lineup or whose role is
changed has to deal with the disappointment and feelings of failure. It's our
job as coaches to get them to realize that each role is important to the success
of the team, and that they need to find a positive in such a seemingly negative
There are two sides
to every lineup change. A coach can't please everyone. The decision-making part
of my job makes someone happy at the expense of another person's feelings. It's
part of the job. It's part of life for the players. But I don't enjoy it for a
minute. All I can do is try to focus on the hand I re-dealt myself and play the
This change is a
huge one for us. We will be taking our two best relief pitchers, Mickey Storey
and Mike McBryde, and inserting them into our starting rotation. Their longest
stints thus far are five and four innings, respectively. Brandon Kloess, who has
three mid-week starts, will also now go on the weekend.
So, the logical
question would be, do I expect either McBryde or Storey to pitch beyond the
fifth, and if not, how has this change been any help? The answer is, no I don't,
but my hope is that their effectiveness will continue, and we will have a better
chance to build an early lead, while holding down our opponents.
What, then, happens
in the rest of the game? That's the kind of question that has led to several
fitful nights of sleep. Who becomes our closer? It's been a primal pleasure to
sit in the corner of the dugout and watch Mickey or Mikey just totally dominate
the last innings of games. But that's all over now.
Earlier in the
year, I wanted to make this change because I feel that these are the two most
dominant pitchers we had, and they should be used to start us on the right foot
each night. We weren't scoring much back then, and I felt it was an ill-afforded
luxury to have them in the pen.
But we had some
talented young arms in the rotation, and the prevailing sentiment was that they
would be fine and we would start scoring more often. Then the bullpen would do
its job. It was a smarter road to travel, particularly from the standpoint of
I've been on this
In 1997, we arrived
in Stetson for a crucial conference series. We were struggling at the time with
a freshman shortstop, whom we hoped would be a solid player for years to come.
But things weren't going well; he wasn't playing well in the field, and his
batting average was near the Mendoza line.
That team also had
a transfer who was projected to be a high pick in that year's draft. He was a
talented young man, blessed with great tools, but hampered by a big ego and a
stubborn attitude towards anything that wasn't his idea.
The batting order
is a study in sociology. There is a social perception to each place a player
finds himself. Centuries of baseball lore have assigned certain values and
rankings to the order in which we place hitters each game. This phenomenon is
curious when you consider that the roles and order of the hitters will change as
the game progresses. The "leadoff" hitter may only bat first at the start of the
game. It all depends on the ebb and flow that occurs as each inning unfolds. So
what does it all really matter?
This player was in
the leadoff spot because he had home run power and was the fastest runner I had
ever coached. The comparison I gave him was Rickey Henderson, a guy who could
change a game in the first inning with one swing or by causing havoc on the
basepaths. This kid had the same potential. But he never bought into my plan and
was contributing as little offensively as our freshman shortstop was
I decided to drop
the hitter to third, and bench the shortstop.
Rich Ozarowski was
a JUCO transfer playing out of position in left. He felt he was a college
shortstop, but we didn't. That night, I decided he would become one. Oz made
three plays worthy of the nickname he shared with Ozzie Smith. Our new leadoff
hitter started the game with a triple, the new third hitter homered and we won
in a walk. Oz was a 10th-round pick with the Tigers. He later changed his last
name to Romano in honor of his grandfather, who raised him. The transfer was a
third-round pick for the Blue Jays.
Sometimes change is
Tonight is riskier.
We still need the
three guys who have been moved to the bullpen. Anyone who can do simple math
would come to that conclusion. Our bullpen will be rebuilt this weekend, and a
new closer may need to emerge.
change has further complications. He is a valuable position player who plays
great defense in center, leads the team in batting average, runs and stolen
bases. What happens to that part of Mike's game? He will serve as pitcher/DH in
the game he starts. That enables him to remain in the game as a hitter when
removed as a pitcher, but if he throws the second game, will he be able to play
the outfield the next day? Should we hold him for the third game instead? That
would answer that question. We could then conceivably use him as a closer in the
first game and a starter in the third. But looking at Lipscomb's stats, I think
their pitchers in Games 1 and 2 pose the greatest challenge; the third day, runs
may be easier to come by. Mike may be of better use in the second game.
You see now why I
stutter the word ch...ch...changes?
The Deerfield Boys
coaches at Deerfield High in Florida, and in the last few years was blessed with
two outstanding players. Jordan Hafer chose to drive the 10 minutes up 95 and
play at FAU. His friendship helped Mickey Storey to make the same decision and
give Coach Tozzi the chance to see his boys develop.
Last night, they
made the big guy proud.
Mickey took the
hill with all the aforementioned pressure of getting us off to a good start on a
conference weekend. During the past week, Mckey's been chugging cans of Ensure
with every meal. The hope was to add some energy, and maybe a few extra pounds
to his less than Canseco-like physique.
The folks from
Ensure might be calling to have Storey do some commercials. Mick looked a little
bloated, but he gave us exactly what we needed. He survived back-to-back solo
home runs in the fourth, and turned in seven strong innings leaving with the
score 5-2. He scattered seven hits and struck out five Lipscomb hitters.
It's been six weeks
since Jordan Hafer pulled a back muscle against UNLV. The big guy got the
doctor's OK to practice last Tuesday, and without seeing any live pitching in
that span, laced a leadoff double in his first at-bat in the third inning, and
scored our first run of the night. A double steal by Hutton and McBryde,
followed by Fonseca's sac fly, gave us the early lead we needed.
Hafer was just
getting started. After Alex Silversmith's single, Jordan ripped a single to
center, and the lead was 3-0. In the sixth, his walk advanced Silversmith to
second to set up McBryde's two-out RBI single. The lead was five.
Now the hope was to
keep the lead and not have to use McBryde in relief.
We tacked one on in
the seventh, but the big inning was the eighth.
delivered a pinch-hit single, and McBryde beat out his sac bunt. Mascia advanced
both runners with a perfect bunt, and Fons walked to load the bases for
Widlansky. Woody delivered a sacrifice fly to score Stevens. Shapland got hit by
a pitch, and the sacs were juiced for Brian Lipman.
Lip stepped in
wearing his new Blue Wave eyeblack tattoo - for a night game! The big guy ran
the count full and ripped some long foul balls deep to left. Finally he got one
he liked and sent a towering blast over the left-field fence for a grand slam.
Chris Salberg pitched two scoreless innings and the first one was in the books.
Lpscomb threw me a
curve and didn't start the guy we expected. Now we're going to see their lefty
Zach Duncan in the pivotal second game. This one is big.
Old School Baseball
I spent some time
talking to our guys before this one. The importance of this game couldn't be
overstated. One weakness of mine is assuming that the players always understand
the weight a particular game carries. In this case, I felt our entire season
rested on how we played today.
Four straight lost
series, a rebuilt rotation and an undefined bullpen - now a tough lefty poised
to swing the momentum his team's way with a win. Then Sunday we would face a
tough reliever who also would be pressed into starting. Our guys needed to play
their best game today, and they did. Everything I asked of them they
It was like a
Brandon Kloess was
on the mound for us in his first conference start, with his dad and uncle in
from Alabama to watch. The kid gave them something to see. Brandon shut down
Lipscomb over 5.2 innings. He pitched out of two jams and struck out six
hitters, while we gave him one run to work with on doubles by Martin and
In the sixth,
Kloess walked the leadoff hitter, not a good sign. After a pop up and a
fielder's choice, Patrick O'Rourke singled, putting runners at first and second.
The next batter was hitting only .169, but Brandon's stuff had dropped off. It
was a match-up I didn't like.
Alan Knight is one
of those bullpen guys who wants to be the next closer. I felt this at-bat was as
big as a close and told him so as I handed him the ball. The big guy answered
the bell with a come-backer for the third out.
On to the seventh,
Tyler Stevens was
really struggling at the plate, but the kid is a fighter. Trying to stay alive
with two strikes, Ty slapped a changeup just softly enough, and just far enough
from the second baseman for an infield single.
Derek Hutton has
had a tough time this year, but he's a good base-runner. Pinch-running for
Stevens against the lefty Duncan, Hut gave me the sign asking for the green
light to steal. I smiled and gave him the go sign. As Meatloaf said in “Paradise
By The Dashboard Light,” “safe, safe at second base.” A good piece of
situational hitting by Chris Akins got Hutton over to third with one out.
Lipscomb brought the infielders in on the grass to choke off the runner at the
plate. Their strategy worked perfectly, as Justin Martin hit a sharp ground ball
at the second baseman. Hutton had to stay at third.
Duncan looked ready
to again pitch out of a jam. We really needed another run, and things didn't
Earlier, with Akins
at third, I clocked Duncan in the windup. He would look at the runner, turn his
head home and start his windup. From that point, I had him at 3.1 to 3.3
seconds. That might be good enough to steal home. I told third base coach George
Roig that if we got the right guy at third, we might try it.
Hutton was the
I saw George
talking to Derek as McBryde stepped into the batter's box. Mike fouled the first
pitch down the right-field line. On his way back to third base, Hutton told Mac
to be heads up for the steal. The last thing you want is the batter swinging
when you're racing toward him!
Back on third, Hut
again flashed me the go sign.
I tried to get
McByde's attention. He gave me the batter's answer for the squeeze sign. No!!!
There are two outs; you don't squeeze with two outs! McBryde, however, had heard
Hutton's warning. It would have been nice if I had known.
Duncan got the
sign, looked at Hutton, and started his windup.
Derek broke for the
plate like Jackie Robinson. I'm screaming "Don't swing!" As Meatloaf would say,
"Like a Bat out of Hell," Hutton raced down the line and slid safely home. 2-0
But this game's
tension wouldn't go away. An unearned run in the bottom half got Lipscomb back
within one run. With two outs, they had the tying run at second and their
leading RBI guy at the plate, I went to the pen for Jason Doherty. We needed a
lefty to face Ryan Mitchell and give us a shot at holding the lead. The first
pitch was a curveball that nearly hit Mitchell. But Jason was up to the
challenge and got a big inning-ending strikeout. 2-1 FAU.
The scenario we so
desperately wanted to avoid was here. We had to use McBryde to start the eighth.
We'd have to worry about tomorrow when it gets here. There was a game to win.
A flare hit by Ryan
Price and a throwing error on an attempted pickoff put the Lipscomb runner at
second. They tried to bunt him to third, but McBryde made a great play throwing
the runner out at third. Nick Bruning stole second to keep my heart firmly in my
mouth. But Mike got the next two hitters and it was on to the ninth.
Tim Mascia led off
with a double to left-center, bringing Hutton to the plate. Besides being a good
base-runner, Derek's our best bunter. He laid down a beauty, and Mascia was 90
feet from home.
Lipscomb went to
the pen for side-armer Seth Kuwik. He brought his five saves and 1.39 ERA with
him. Seth is especially tough on right-handed hitters. His ball moves a lot and
is always down, making a sac fly or a hit hard to come by.
Chris Akins went to
the plate with instructions to look for a pitch up in the zone. Chris was also
told to be ready for the squeeze sign. Kuwik through a frisbee slider for strike
one. Akins looked at me for a sign. The squeeze was on. Chris and Mascia each
gave their respective replies and I prayed Lipscomb wouldn't pitch out.
They didn't. Akins
laid down a perfect bunt, and Mascia slid safely past the catcher. The lead was
back to two.
Bottom of the
ninth, McBryde strikes out the leadoff hitter, but the next guy doubles with two
strikes on him.
Nothing hard is
Tadd Brewer grounds
out as the runner moves to third. Akins' bunt is looming larger with each
pounding of my heart. McBryde drops a hammer on the Lipscomb batter for a called
strike three! Game over. Time for Famous Dave's Barbeque!
bunts, including a squeeze, and four stolen bases, including a steal of home.
Today, they like to call that "small ball." Whatever its name, it was played
exceptionally well by both teams. I told Duncan that I was happy to win, but it
was tough to see him lose after pitching so well.
Our guys answered
every challenge that came their way. But it all starts again tomorrow.
I Can See Clearly Now
I can't remember
who sang that song back in the 70s, but today, the lead singer was Jonathan
Jon had gone
through a stretch where he seemed to just miss some real good pitches to hit.
That's a real frustrating thing for a hitter. Balls that should be crushed get
popped up, fouled back or missed entirely.
I was aware that
Jon had recently gotten contact lenses, but he wasn't wearing them in games or
practices. We talked about it and Jon said that he couldn't get them in or out,
and the ball looked different. My answer was that, just perhaps, different might
This went on for a
week or two until I sent him home from practice to "practice" putting in his
lenses. I told Jon he wouldn't get in a game without the contacts or glasses.
What he failed to tell me was that he had a slight astigmatism problem, and that
was probably the cause of the blurred vision. Thankfully, his dad and I spoke,
and we got Jon to my eye doctor on Wednesday.
Today it paid off
for Jon and us.
Seth Kuwik took the
mound for Lipscomb as expected. Righties are hitting .189 against him, so we
stacked our lineup with every lefty we could find. This meant starting freshmen
Robert Yodice and Daniel Cook. Cookie thought the guys were kidding him when
word leaked out that he was playing.
Lipscomb jumped out
to its first lead of the weekend, with two runs in the first inning. But the two
freshmen wasted no time in contributing. Alex Fonseca laced a double down the
left-field line to lead off the second. Yodice strutted to the plate with that
brash New York confidence that is such a part of his game.
The ball seems to
jump off Yodi's bat, the result of great bat speed. Kuwik tried to fool Yodice
with a changeup, but the result was a shot to deep right that moved Fons over to
third with one out. Cookie was next, and not to be outdone, he lifted a deep fly
to left and scored Fonseca on a sac fly.
The two youngsters
were at it again in the fourth. Yodi led off with a double, and Cook drove him
in with a single to left that got past the charging Bison outfielder as Cookie
sprinted all the way to third. One out later, Cook scored the go-ahead run when
Mascia reached on an error.
Crotta had relieved Jason Costello and was throwing up goose eggs. Mike was
throwing hard and showing a curveball that had been away for a few weeks. Things
looked good as we continued to chip away at Kuwik.
Our guys were
having good at-bats against a guy with a funky delivery and good stuff. The bell
was being answered each time. In the fifth, Brian Lipman started us up with a
single and trotted to second on a balk. Fonseca stayed hot and ripped a single
too hard to score Lipman, putting runners on the corners with one out as
Shapland blinked his way to the plate. Jon delivered a single to score Brian,
and the lead was 4-2.
inning for the Bisons, and it was Lipman again. After McBryde singled and stole
second, Brian launched a moon shot to the batting cages behind the left-field
fence, chasing Kuwik and giving us a four-run lead.
But the big inning
came right back to bite us. A hard shot that could have been a double play was
missed, and the Bisons wound up scoring three times, and it was now 6-5. The
pressure was back on as Lipscomb served notice they were still here.
Now we had to
somehow scratch out another run. We needed to look no further than our
neighborhood optometrist's office.
with two outs, and Jon Shapland stood in the box with that wide stance, just
looking for something to hit in a gap; maybe Fons could score from first.
Jon's contact lens
education was really in the elementary stage. The day after he first wore them,
he opened the case, eager to put them in and start the day. Jon was surprised to
find them shriveled up and hard as the old hard contacts that dinosaurs like me
wore years ago. He didn't know he was supposed to soak them.
Luckily for us, Dr.
Sider had given Jon a spare as he looked at a fastball for strike one. The next
pitch never made it past his bat. It landed behind the left-field fence, and the
lead was three! Thanks Doc.
Coaches know when
they, themselves, are having a good game. We also know when a bad decision gets
made. The bottom of the seventh made me want to shoot myself.
Lipscomb was again
fighting back. Down three, it loaded the bases with one out. We had Chris
Salberg ready in the pen, and had warmed up McBryde during our half. As I went
to the mound and summoned Chris, McBryde threw some more in the outfield with
Mike had said that
he was good for three today, but I thought it was his heart talking. Two innings
were all I wanted; Salberg would get us through this inning. The first pitch was
a sharp breaking curve ball that struck the batter in the foot, forcing in a run
and moving the tying run to second base.
Coach Fossas looked
at me and said, "McBryde."
I didn't want to
make that move. Not just being leery of using Mike then, but more in deference
to Salberg. He had thrown one pitch. This kid has a world of talent, and we need
him to find it. Tony shook his head and said the game would be won or lost here.
Sometimes you coach
with your heart and get burned.
The next pitch was
ripped down the right-field line and rolled into our bullpen. The winning run
would easily score from first. I wanted to die right there. You can't describe
the feeling that you just lost the game for your kids. They trust us to make
decisions that position them best to win.
I really believe
coaches don't win games, but we sure can lose them.
But sometimes the
baseball gods reward people who mean well. It was about to be my turn.
Mascia was digging
through the mass of tarps and sandbags at the fence in the bullpen. He raised
both hands to signal the umpire that the ball was either out of sight, behind
the fence, or lodged in something. As the umpire ran out to right, the Lipscomb
runners raced home, and my heart fluttered. The ump was bent over like he was
looking for a lost contact, but Shapland was in left. Then he turned and ran
toward the infield. "Two bases," he cried. The runner from first who had scored
was sent back to third, and the batter to second. The game was still tied!
I decided to lock
the barn door, now that the horse was gone. McBryde was summoned in from center
to try and keep the lead. When Mac got there with Justin Martin, who had
replaced Yodice behind the plate, I instructed them what to do if the runner
broke on a squeeze. They had a kid batting who was hitting below .200. The
Lipscomb coaches had been profuse in their praise for Mike's pitching the day
before. I knew they would squeeze; what pitch was the question.
The first pitch is
sometimes a good one to squeeze because most coaches won't pitch out then, in
fear of putting the pitcher behind in the count. Wynn Flecher is a good young
coach, the son of a college coach, he knows the game well. I just hoped I'd
The first pitch was
strike one; the runner held.
I had noticed
Saturday, that the Lipscomb runners at third always stood facing the pitcher in
their lead. That's standard. But their first move was a crossover step with the
left foot, and a turn of the shoulders to face home in a walking lead. We had a
good shot to pick a runner off if we execute. The pitcher has to kick up and
throw to the base as the third baseman breaks for the bag, catches the throw and
tags the runner.
The other scenario
is the pitcher kicks up, throws it away, both runners score and we're down two
runs. Was I prepared to make two bad decisions in the same inning?
This one would only
be a bad decision if it failed. Failure... with McBryde and Woody? "Give the
pick to third, George."
Sometimes you have
to be lucky to be good.
Wynn chose that
pitch to squeeze. The runner broke for the plate as McBryde stepped to third.
The rundown netted the second out, shifted momentum back to us. Mike struck out
the hitter and we entered the eighth tied at eight.
singled and stole second base; we were back in business. After two outs, Robbie
was still stuck at second; that was the bad news. The good news was that we
needed a hit, and Shapland was up. Jon's third hit of the game delivered his
fourth RBI, and we were back on top.
McBryde had not yet
given up a run all season. As we headed to the bottom of the ninth, I prayed he
could hang on for us. But Mike proved himself human, as the Bisons scratched out
a run to knot things up again.
Brian Lipman is
arguably the slowest runner in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He was our first
hitter in the 10th inning. I looked at my watch. It was nearly 5 p.m., and our
flight was at 6:45 pm. Where would I get the money to stay over if we missed it?
Lip knew the situation was drastic as he eyed the Lipscomb third baseman playing
deep to protect against a double.
Drastic times call
for drastic measures. Brian gambled and laid down a bunt, and took off for
first, traveling well below the speed limit. The surprised Lipscomb infielder
raced in and threw late and wildly to first. Lip made a beeline for second and
had just enough strength to get to the dugout as Tyler Stevens went in to run
The go-ahead run
was at second with Shapland at the plate. I told him to look for something to
pull. If he made an out pulling the ball to the right side, the runner would be
advanced to third. A bunt was not even an option.
Since Shap was
having a Reggie Jackson day, the pitcher was working him carefully. When the
count reached 3-0, Jon peeked over his shoulder, looking for the green light.
Some guys are afraid to hit 3-0, they sometimes are overanxious and pop up. But
not when you're seeing the ball the way Jon was today.
Green light? Is
there any other color?
Shap unloaded and
took his best swing of the season, launching a scud over the scoreboard in
right. Our dugout erupted into a mob scene at home plate. Shapland was getting
mugged by his teammates. I was sending someone to retrieve the ball to give to
The dugout was
still buzzing as Justin Martin drove a first-pitch fastball over the left-field
fence. Back to back jacks, and a three run lead! On to the bottom of the tenth,
and then the airport.
But Wynn's boys
McBryde was on
fumes, and with one out it was again a one-run game with the tying run at
second. I couldn't swallow. Fossas went to the mound.
Tony's been in
these situations plenty of times in all his years pitching. Sunday afternoon in
Nashville isn't the same as the playoffs at Busch Stadium, but it felt like it
On the mound, Tony
removed his sunglasses, put his hand on Mike's shoulder and said, "These are the
situations that make you a baseball player."
He walked slowly
back to the dugout and sat down.
McBryde struck out
the last two hitters. He's definitely a baseball player.
Maybe it's weekends like this that make you a baseball team.
Halfway Home (4/12/05)
Lost in the Flood (4/8/05)
Good Things Come to Him Who Waits (4/6/05)
A Long Ride Home (4/3/05)
The Working Life (3/31/05)
A Good Friday (3/28/05)
St. Patrick's Day on Wheels (3/18/05)
Beware the Ides of March (3/16/05)
Conference Sweep (3/13/05)
Madness and Soaring Eagles (3/11/05)
Viva Las Vegas (3/8/05)
The Rocket, and a Black and Blue Big Ten Weekend (3/1/05)
So You Wanted to Coach (2/21/05)
Mickey was the Story (2/15/05)
The Rocket's Red Glare (2/11/05)
It's a Dog's Life (2/3/05)
'You've Got to Learn to Live with What You Can't Rise Above' (1/31/05)
25 Years of FAU Baseball (1/16/05)
So this is Christmas (12/24/04)
The Graduate (12/8/04)
Thanksgiving in Palm Beach County (11/25/04)
An Empty Seat (11/10/04)
Fall is in the Air (10/21/04)
Hurricane Carmen (9/24/04)
(photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)