Xavier earns cold dip and NCAA berth

The Xavier baseball team celebrates winning the Big East Championship.

The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brooklyn is still cold this time of year. It wasn’t cold enough to keep the Xavier University baseball players from taking a celebratory swim Sunday afternoon.

The Musketeers earned their swim and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament with a 5-0 win against Creighton in the Big East championship game at MCU Park on Coney Island. Freshman Trent Astle threw a three-hit shutout against the top-seeded Blue Jays as Xavier won three straight elimination games to claim the title in its first season in the Big East.

The Musketeers (29-27) had lost eight of 10 games to close out the regular season, including two of three games to Creighton last weekend, and had to wait out a loss by Butler in its regular season finale just to know it had would play in the four-team Big East tournament. After dropping a 9-2 decision against Creighton in the first round, the Musketeers beat No. 2 seed St. John’s 8-2 on Friday and No. 3 seed Seton Hall 5-3 on Saturday to advance to Sunday’s championship game.

This will be Xavier’s second trip to the NCAA tournament. It also appeared in 2009.

Xavier will open NCAA regional play Friday at 8 p.m. in Nashville against host Vanderbilt (41-18), the top seed in the regional bracket. Oregon (42-18) is the second seed and will play No. 3 Clemson (36-23) at 1 p.m. in the double-elimination bracket.

Astle started off the championship game with three straight pitches outside of the strike zone. He settled down, to say the least. He walked just one batter, hit another as he allowed just five base runners while throwing 128 pitches. He had started nine previous games among his 15 appearances. Astle got through as many as seven innings just twice before.

Going through those first three pitches, a post-game swim was hardly on Astle’s mind.

"I felt a little bit of a shock at first — I couldn’t breathe — but after that it was a little bit refreshing, especially after what had happened hours before," said Astle. "That first batter when I threw three straight balls that were not really close to the strike zone at all, I don’t know happened. Maybe I tried to do too much but I just realized that I needed to get the ball over the plate and let my defense work for me."

The Musketeers didn’t make an error and finally broke through with two runs in the third inning. They added another in the fourth and two more in the fifth.

Senior Mitch Elliott missed two months of the season after breaking an ankle in early March at Indiana. He returned on May 9 and went 1-for-8 with a walk and a stolen base in a three-game series at Seton Hall, a series Xavier was swept as part of a six-game losing streak.

Elliott was named MVP of the Big East tournament after going 8-for-18 with four RBI, and three runs scored in Brooklyn.

"It’s been a whirlwind but it’s been fun," said Xavier coach Scott Googins. "Our backs have been against the wall knowing the whole time that we had to win just to get in even in the conference tournament. We knew we were a good team but I told them we hadn’t reached our potential. We had been playing good baseball but hadn’t put it all together. The last three games, that what we did."

Xavier was the only team from the Big East to make the tournament. The Musketeers played games against NCAA tournament teams North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana during their non-conference schedule. While they went just 1-5 in those games, Googins said the non-conference scheduled helped them weather a rash of injuries — besides Elliott, the Musketeers also went long stretches without outfielder Pat Jones and have been without senior infielder Tres Eberhardt since the first week of April with a broken wrist.

Xavier went 1-2 in its previous NCAA appearance, beating Sam Houston State sandwiched between losses to nationally ranked Kansas State and Rice.

"I’m going to enjoy it this time," said Googins. "You don’t realize that it doesn’t happen all of the time. You can’t take it for granted but I was really uptight the last time. Not that it’s going to be loosey-goosey but we’re going to go down there and it’s another weekend. We’re going to be ready to play but I’m going to enjoy it. It is a great experience."

Xavier is one of three teams from Ohio to earn a berth in the 64-team field; Kent State (36-21) beat Akron 3-0 on Sunday to win the MAC tournament title, and Youngstown State (16-36) won the Horizon Conference. Kent State will be making its 13th appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Golden Flashes are the No. 4 seed in their regional and will face host Louisville at 6 p.m. on Friday. Youngstown State is making its second appearance in the tournament and will play at Indiana, the No. 4 national seed, Friday at 7 p.m.