It may not have been the ending the Bluejays were seeking, but even a World Series loss to Oklahoma Baptist could do nothing to take away from a record-setting season for the Tabor College baseball team.
The Bluejays tallied an all-time best 54 wins on the season, and only 12 losses? making them the winningest team in school history.
The year?which coach Mark Standiford described as special?began with a number of question marks.
With the loss of 12 seniors from Tabor?s 2014 inaugural World Series team, as well as Atlanta Braves draft pick Jacob Webb, Tabor had many voids to fill. Could this year?s squad?essentially a new team?return to the national stage?
As the season progressed, question marks soon turned to exclamation marks as new recruits and returners alike settled into roles and began to find success as evidenced by Tabor?s 11 straight wins to start the season.
The Bluejays entered conference play with just two losses in 21 games, and Tabor won its first seven KCAC games in a regular season that culminated with a fourth consecutive conference title at 22-6.
Tabor won the KCAC tournament for the second year in a row, then battled through five games to win the NAIA Opening Round tournament in Bellevue, Neb.
The Bluejays entered the 2015 Avista-NAIA World Series with the most wins (53) among the 10-team field. Pitted against a talented left-handed hurler in Embry-Riddle?s Stetson Nelson, the Bluejays lost their first matchup, 9-1.
Russell Longworth then pitched a complete-game shutout over Lindsey Wilson, 2-0, to keep the Bluejays? hopes alive, but in a battle with top-seeded Oklahoma Baptist May 25, the Bluejays met their match.
The teams were not unfamiliar opponents. The Bluejays and the Bison had met in late March at Wichita State?s Eck Stadium, where Oklahoma Baptist gained a 5-4 victory.
So on the NAIA?s biggest stage, Tabor had a shot at evening the count, but missed opportunities left the Bluejays trailing, 5-1, when the final out was made.
?We knew them, so we knew what to expect,? Standiford said. ?I think we had a lot of confidence coming into the game. They?re just a very good team. We had a couple of opportunities early to kind of break that open and jump ahead?put a little more pressure on them?and we just couldn?t quite do it.?
Tabor?s best scoring opportunities presented themselves early, as Bison starter Nathan Thompson got off to a somewhat shaky start, reaching 55 pitches after just two innings.
In the first inning, Thompson threw nine pitches to Tabor?s leadoff Michael Baca, who touched him for a single. A one-out walk by Alex Couch and a single by Matthew Molbury loaded the bases, but Thompson escaped the jam with two quick outs by way of strikeout and fly out.
As in the first inning, the Bluejays loaded the bases in the second, thanks to a one-out double by Colton Flax, a walk and a hit by pitch. Still, the Bluejays couldn?t capitalize.
?More games are lost the first few innings than they are the last few innings, so you have to be ready to go,? Standiford said. ?Your time may be called early, and unfortunately we didn?t come through.?
Then Thompson began to settle in?he gave up just two hits over the next 31?3 innings after surrendering three hits in the first two innings.
Meanwhile, OBU slowly added runs to the board beginning in the second inning. After a leadoff double and a one-out single by the Bison, center fielder Brent McClure limited the damage by throwing out Joey Szczepanski attempting to score. OBU did score one run on an RBI single before the inning ended.
OBU provided more plate support for Thompson by adding a second run in the third inning and another in the fifth to stake a 3-0 lead.
In the sixth inning, Manny DeLeon coaxed a leadoff walk off Thompson, and Jerrik Sigg hit a one-out double to end Thompson?s outing at 110 pitches. Flax drew a walk off reliever Taylor Hearn to load the bases, but a double play held the Bluejays scoreless.
Kyle Fimbrez then threw two 1-2-3 innings before Brad Adams came in to close the game in the top of the ninth. By that point, OBU had extended its lead to 5-0, scoring one run in both the sixth and seventh innings.
Defensively, Gadiel Baez highlighted the bottom of the sixth inning with a diving catch that later earned the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter?s Top 10 Plays for the day.
Down to their final three outs, the Bluejays created some excitement late.
Flax reached base on a one-out walk for the second time in the game. Then McClure was hit by a pitch. Baez hit a two-out RBI single to put the Bluejays on the board, then Couch singled to load the bases. Molbury stepped to the plate representing the tying run, but a ground out to the pitcher?s mound ended the game.
?You?ve got to give the pitchers a little bit of credit, but I will say this,? Standiford said. ?It would?ve been very easy for our team to die. We?re down 5-1, last inning, but to be able to battle back and at least give us a chance, shows a little bit about the character and the heart of the team.?
Flax led the team offensively, going 2-for-2 at-bat.
Jean Acevedo (10-2) absorbed the pitching loss, giving up 13 hits and five earned runs in 61?3 innings of work. He walked three batters and struck out five. Greg Turner pitched 12?3 innings of scoreless relief without surrendering a hit.
Molbury and Longworth were named to the All-World Series Team.
Tabor concludes its World Series run with a record of 1-2, moving its all-time World Series record to 3-4.
In the past two years, Tabor has won 105 games, something Standiford said the team, and especially the seniors, should take pride in.
?That?s a lot of victories for two years,? he said. ?To win over 50 (games), two consecutive years?it?s something to be very proud of, and our seniors were a big part of that.?
The Bluejays will graduate 10 seniors, including two starting pitchers in Longworth and Acevedo, as well as Baez, Molbury, Mike Ebersole, Armando Castillo, Pete Lelich, Braden Brown, Joy Guevara and Nick Sauer.
Unlike last year, however, a number of starters will return, leaving Standiford hopeful for the future.
?We do lose some very special guys,? he said. ?But I?m excited about next year. We?ve got a good core. We?ve signed some very good players coming in. The expectations don?t change from Day 1, so hopefully these guys will come back and understand what it takes and be able to teach the new guys coming in.
?To go this far, with this many new guys, says a lot. It?s something I hope that we can build on with all these returners, and that gives us a shot to get back there next year.?