Will the third time be a charm for the Judson University baseball team?
The Eagles open play in the NAIA National Championship opening round Monday at 11 a.m. against Point University (West Point, Ga.) as part of the Montgomery, Ala., bracket at Faulkner University's Harrison Field.
Judson is playing in its third-straight NAIA National Championship opening round. The Eagles advanced to an opening-round championship game last year before being derailed by York (Neb.). Opening round brackets are double-elimination and the winner of each opening round site advances to the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho later this month.
"We've worked hard to get here," said Judson junior infielder Billy Wright (Crystal Lake South). "We're not happy just being in the tournament. Our goal is to get to the World Series."
Judson is the No. 4 seed in the Montgomery bracket and will have to beat No. 5 seed Point (31-25) to earn a spot in the winner's bracket semifinals against No. 1 seed Faulkner (46-14), the defending NAIA World Series champion. Point is making its first NAIA tournament appearance. Faulkner currently is ranked No. 4 in the country.
The Eagles bring a 42-17 mark into the tournament and are fresh off winning their second CCAC tournament championship in a row. This is Judson's third 40-win season in a row and the squad also has two CCAC regular-season championships to its credit during that span.
Judson has greatly benefitted this year from a strong pitching staff, paced by ambidextrous Westminster Christian graduate Ryan Perez, who heads into the tournament 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA with 89 strikeouts in a team-high 104 innings. Perez threw 8 innings left handed in a conference tournament game and later came back in the tournament and pitched in long relief right handed.
"Our pitching has really stepped up this year," he said. "Our pitching has been consistent and hasn't let us down the whole year."
Besides Perez, junior Glenbard North product Andrew Bergmann has come up big. He's 10-5 this year with a 2.95 ERA and 10 complete games to his credit. Like Perez, he's also an innings eater with 65 strikeouts to his credit in 100 ⅔ innings. Junior Elgin native Kenny Lowden is 6-2 with a 3.86 ERA in 70 innings (12 games started), while junior Jordan Pemble (Romeoville) is 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 19 appearances. Sophomore Matt Kramer (Plainfield East) is 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA and has 3 complete games. Judson sports a team ERA of 3.40.
"We've been kind of known for our hitting here, but our pitchers are stepping up every game and giving us a chance to win," said Judson senior outfielder Josh Raymond (Mahomet-Seymour).
Raymond recently was named the CCAC player of the year. He comes to Alabama hitting .397 on the season with 3 home runs and 47 RBI. Raymond has a .577 slugging percentage and a .480 on-base percentage thanks in part to 30 walks and being hit by a pitch 10 times. He's also scored a team-high 52 runs and has 11 steals in 12 attempts.
Also contributing to Judson's .307 team batting average are senior outfielder Tony Ruggiero (Ohio native), who is hitting .362 with a team-best 8 homers and 47 RBI (he also has 18 doubles and a .439 on-base percentage). Sophomore Mark DeYoung (Plainfield Central) is hitting .336 with 6 homers and 60 RBI. He also has 18 doubles. Junior infielder Tony Rallo (St. Charles East) is hitting .320 (3 HR, 41 RBI) and junior catcher Cameron Balough (California native) is batting .317 with 5 homers and 44 RBI.
Wright, who is back playing after breaking his ankle March 2, said besides a productive offense and a talented pitching staff, the Eagles are benefiting from a healthy dose of good team chemistry.
"We play together as a team and have a lot of fun," said Wright, who is hitting .326. "This is one of the closest teams I've been on. We've had some injuries this year and we've had guys step up huge for us."
Judson coach Rich Benjamin added: "We have a lot of guys who bought into the process. They show up every day and it's a group that doesn't need a lot of motivation. Their self-motivation is pretty strong. The other major piece here is the development. Young guys are stepping up and the returners are having really good seasons."
Raymond noted the team's return trip to NAIA nationals wasn't a shock in the least bit.
"We definitely expected this," he said. "The only thing that surprised us is we lost 5 conference games, but we were able to get a bid in the tournament and that has set us up nicely here. We've been in this situation the last two years, so this is nothing new. We know we have to come out and be ready to play. This has been a team effort this year. Now we have to step up together again and get the job done at the regional."
If Judson gets by Point, it will be rematched with a Faulkner squad it played twice earlier in the season. Judson lost 8-5 and 7-6. In the first game, Judson was doomed by 6 errors. Perez took the loss, but gave up only 2 earned runs. In the second game, Bergmann took the loss.
"Our pitchers need to throw strikes and keep the ball low and have good location," said Perez of what the team needs to do to be successful in Alabama. "Our hitters have to stay within themselves and don't try to do too much. If we do those things, we can be successful and win games."
The No. 2 seed in Montgomery is LSU-Shreveport and the No. 3 seed is Mid-American Nazarene. If Judson wins Monday at 11 a.m., it faces Faulkner Monday at 7 p.m. If it loses, it will play Tuesday at 11 a.m.
"In a postseason tournament where you are in a 5-team bracket of essentially 40-win programs like ourselves you have to execute and be almost perfect," said Benjamin. "The big piece is we have to execute and be ourselves. I don't think you do anything different from you did the rest of the year with your approach at the plate and how you handle your pitching. You handle it the same way you did before you got to this moment."
Benjamin said Saturday night he's thinking of throwing Bergmann in the opener against Point and then coming back with Perez against Faulkner if Judson is victorious in the opener.