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Xavier’s Success Raises Local College Baseball Profile up a Notch

By Bill Peterson · May 27th, 2009 · Sports

A month ago, the Xavier University baseball team didn’t conjure a first thought, let alone a second. A lot of baseball happens in Cincinnati. College baseball happens very quietly.

At around noon on April 25, the Musketeers plodded into your basic season of no distinction, 21-15 overall and 8-8 in the Atlantic-10. Around noon on May 25, Xavier reached quite a unique distinction when it was officially announced as a qualifier for the NCAA baseball tournament.

The Muskies will play Friday at 3 p.m. against Kansas State at the Houston Regional, for which the host team is perennial national contender Rice.

Between April 25 and May 25, the Muskies put together a splendid run, winning 17 of 20 games with prodigious batsmanship and a knack for winning close contests when they didn’t bludgeon opponents to death. The Muskies scored 10 or more runs seven times and won seven of eight games decided by two runs or fewer.

The Musketeers are the first Cincinnati team to ever qualify for the NCAA Tournament, winning five of six games at the Atlantic-10 Tournament in Dayton last weekend to claim the league’s automatic berth. After losing in the second round against second-seeded Rhode Island, Xavier blasted back with four straight wins in 28 hours — two victories each on May 22 and May 23.

The final three wins came against the tournament’s top two seeds. The Muskies buried them by a combined score of 30-11.

On May 23, the Musketeers punished Rhode Island for that earlier loss. First, when a Rhode Island win would have clinched the tournament for the Rams, Xavier reached from behind for a 9-7 win. Catcher, lead-off hitter, Elder graduate and Indiana transfer Billy O’Connor singled through the middle with the bases loaded and two out in the seventh inning, knocking in two runs to give the Musketeers their winning lead.

Later that day, the Musketeers destroyed Rhode Island 10-1 for the championship and the automatic bid. Leading the way was Ben Thomas, a sophomore from Columbus who’s listed as a left-handed pitcher and is instead the leading slugger in school history. Thomas hit his 16th homer of the season in that deciding game, setting the single-season school record.

In Xavier’s last 20 games, Thomas has eight homers and 27 of his 64 RBI. No other Xavier player has more than seven homers for the entire season, and no other Xavier player has more than 38 RBI for the season.

The Musketeers are 38-19, their highest win total of all time. But it’s only the 10th time Xavier has finished over .500 in the last 30 years. Then again, University of Cincinnati has only nine winning seasons in the last 30 years.

Every now and then, though, a jewel distinguishes itself in the local college scene. Ten years ago, we could have watched Kevin Youkilis play every day for UC at Marge Schott Stadium. Who knew?

Youkilis, who played high school ball at Sycamore and helped his AAU team win a national championship in 1994, was a second-team All-American at UC in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, he batted .405 in 210 at-bats with an incredible .549 on-base percentage. The Boston Red Sox picked him in the eighth round of the 2001 draft.

In 2004, Youkilis debuted with the Red Sox, who later that year finally broke their long World Championship curse and repeated with another ring in 2007. It’s not entirely a coincidence. Since the Red Sox drafted Youkilis, 10 other UC players have been drafted by major league organizations.

Established in 1818, UC has produced a grand total of 17 major league players. The last to appear in the big leagues before Youkilis were the immortal Skeeter Barnes, who amassed 675 plate appearances from 1983 through 1994, and the less famous George Glinatsis, who pitched five innings for the Seattle Mariners in 1994. Xavier, established in 1831, has produced five major leaguers.

The last time a former Xavier student played in the major leagues was Sept. 3, 1971, when Jim Bunning threw his last pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies. Bunning won 224 games in the big leagues, including a perfect game. He’s a Hall of Famer. Not bad.

After baseball, Bunning served six terms in the U.S. House or Representatives as Northern Kentucky’s congressman, and he’s now in his second term in the U.S. Senate.

But UC has Xavier topped, at least in baseball history. Sandy Koufax attended UC on a basketball scholarship, made the baseball team in 1954 and pitched 31 innings with 51 strikeouts. Soon after, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him for a $14,000 signing bonus, huge in those days.

The rest is history, of which not enough can be said. In five years, 1962 through 1966, Koufax went 111-34, threw four no-hitters and a perfect game and won five ERA titles, three Cy Young Awards and an MVP.

His fastball was said to touch 100 miles per hour, and his curve ball was said to break as much as 24 inches. In Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, dissatisfied with his curve on two days of rest, the left-hander threw almost nothing but fastballs for the final final seven innings and beat a fastball hitting team, the Minnesota Twins, with a three-hit shutout. Another Hall of Famer. Maybe the greatest pitcher ever.

And we must not forget Miller Huggins, who didn’t play baseball at UC but merely graduated from UC law school in 1902. Huggins later played for the Reds, among other big league clubs.

Legend has it that Huggins picked baseball over law on the advice of a UC law professor, William Howard Taft, who later became President of the United States and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Reds fans loved Huggins. They called the 140-pound second baseman “Mighty Mite” as he played for them from 1904 through 1909. He finished his playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming player/manager in 1913.

In 1918, two years before Babe Ruth showed up, Huggins became manager of the New York Yankees. From 1921 through 1928, Huggins and the Yankees won the six American League pennants and three World Series. That 1927 Yankees team with its “Murderers Row” is still widely considered the greatest of all time.

Huggins died from erysipelas, an acute bacterial infection, on Sept. 25, 1929. The American League cancelled its games the next day out of respect. In 1932, the Yankees dedicated a monument in his honor and placed it in front of the center field flagpole at Yankee Stadium, making him the first Yankee to be so honored.

College baseball in Cincinnati can’t claim an especially glamorous history, but the high points are pretty high. Now Xavier has emerged as an NCAA tournament team, while UC fans can brag about Youkilis. Maybe the high points will start to come more often.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: letters@citybeat.com



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