By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Maybe the players were not quite ready to say good-bye to their legendary coach. Maybe they took Notre Dame College lightly.
Whatever the reason, West Virginia State made Cal Bailey’s last day one everybody will remember.
The Yellow Jackets dropped a 7-3 afternoon decision to the Falcons, forcing a winner-take-all second game for the inaugural Mountain East Conference championship. Devin Bowles and an impromptu bullpen by committee made sure Bailey’s ending was scripted just right.
A solo home run by Cody Smith to start the bottom of the first was trumped only by another sterling State pitching performance, leading to a 4-1 championship win for the Jackets Sunday at Linda K. Epling Stadium.
The win was historic in two ways. One, it made State (34-17) the first-ever MEC baseball champion. Two, and probably most important, it was the 18th and final conference title for Bailey, who is retiring after a 36-year career as the head coach at his alma mater.
Bailey’s career record stands at 1,063-527-4. His win total is the second-best among NCAA Division II active coaches — he refuses to let go of hope that State will receive an at-large regional bid, proclaiming that his team will practice today.
The MEC does not have an automatic bid.
“I really try to keep perspective and keep the players on task,” Bailey said of the title run amid his farewell season. “The seniors have been here four years — some of them were redshirts; fifth year — and they didn’t have a championship. So it’s special.”
After the surprising loss in the first game, State turned to Bowles in the clincher. Bowles, a senior who was the winning pitcher for the Jackets in a 3-1 victory over Urbana on the first day, delivered.
The right-hander from Fairmont was perfect through the first four innings, striking out six of the first 12 Notre Dame batters.
The Falcons’ first baserunner came when Bowles’ underhand flip to first on a comebacker by Bryan Blondeaux was too low for an error leading off the fifth.
Blondeaux was stranded there, and Bowles’ day was done after five no-hit innings and only 58 pitches.
“I did it (pitched a no-hitter) in sectionals once, so I knew I could do it,” said Bowles, now 6-1. “And I just wanted to give my team the best chance possible. I pitched pretty good against these guys at their place (a 7-2 win on April 18), so I was pretty confident going into it.”
“Bowles told me when I took him out (Thursday) that he had the game on Sunday,” Bailey said.
State’s dominance continued after Bowles’ exit.
Will Ore and Steve Workman each pitched a scoreless inning, although Workman gave up the Falcons’ first hit — Danny Beaver beat out a slow roller to short with two outs in the seventh.
Josh Falbo, an All-MEC pitcher who saved State’s first two wins of the tournament, worked the final two innings. He gave up his first earned run of the weekend in the eighth, but pitched around a one-out single in the ninth to end it.
It was the third time in five games State pitching held the opponent to one run.
“Even when we scored nine runs (a 9-1 win over Concord Saturday night), six runs were unearned. It’s not like we were beating the devil out of the ball.” Bailey said. “I told the pitchers we were going to have to do our part and hope like the dickens that (the offense) can score enough runs.”
State had more than enough offense when it mattered most.
Smith launched a 1-0 pitch over the left field wall off Zach Gresh to put the Jackets ahead 1-0 in the first. A sacrifice fly by Josh Kiser scored Trenton Porter in the fifth to make it 2-0.
State chased Gresh with one out in the sixth, and Jack Hudson greeted Jeff Stover with a first-pitch two-run double to right center. The Jackets led 4-0 and were well on their way to the title.
Of course, no one expected baseball to still be played at that hour. State was expected to put Notre Dame away in one game, but the Falcons showed the determination that got them to championship Sunday to begin with.
The Falcons (27-22) were pounded 14-0 by 2013 West Virginia Conference champion Concord on the first day of the tournament. But they persevered and beat West Liberty 8-7 in 10 innings to eliminate the Hilltoppers Friday, then beat Urbana 9-8 in a back-and-forth, rain-soaked game Saturday.
Right from the start Sunday, Notre Dame showed it was a threat to Bailey’s perfect ending.
The Falcons scored five runs in the first off State starter Eric Roberts. Beaver had a two-run single and Troy Findlay tripled home two runs. Notre Dame also took advantage of an error by center fielder Trenton Porter.
That was all the Falcons would need behind the pitching of Matt Kastelic (9-5). After getting rocked in his start against Concord, Kastelic was simply a rock against the Jackets. He allowed just one hit, struck out five and walked two over five scoreless innings.
“We have a bunch of good guys here. They never give up,” said Notre Dame coach Len Barker, a former major league pitcher. “Even though they got beat 14-0, they came back and won three games in a row — tight games. We beat them earlier today and then they beat us. They’re a great team.”
Barker was happy for Bailey after the games.
“Cal’s a great guy,” Barker said. “I’ve known him for four years now and became a close friend to him. If we had to lose to somebody, it was great to lose to him and (for him) to win the championship.”
Bailey received the traditional ice water bath from two of his players after the game. He expressed the gratitude of having impacted so many lives since he became the head coach in 1978.
“We’ve had very few guys that have not lived up to their billing,” Bailey said. “It’s invigorating to know that you might have had an effect on somebody.”
“I’m glad (we) could send him out the way he deserves to be sent out,” Bowles said.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter@GaryFauber.