6,000 fans watch Tommies win 7-0 over Havana team

Text by Doug
Photos by Roger Rich

HAVANA –. The last time the University of St. Thomas played baseball, it was in June and for the NCAA Division III title in Salem, Va. North Carolina Wesleyan scored in the first inning and the 1-0 lead held up.

The Tommies went further south this week, to Havana, Cuba, to test themselves against a team of college all-stars from the University of Havana and several other schools. St. Thomas broke to the first-inning 1-0 lead, and as the game went deeper, coach Dennis Denning thought more than once about that tough NCAA loss.

“I wondered if we would make it hold up,” he said of the slim lead against Equipo Caribe (Team Caribbean). “Fifth inning, sixth inning, seventh inning – we kept escaping, and then we busted through in the eighth. You know, we played well enough that I almost rather would have won 1-0.”

The final score, courtesy of six runs in the top of the eighth, was 7-0 as four pitchers combined on a six-hit shutout of a highly regarded Havana team whose season began in November.

More than 6,000 fans saw the game in Estadio Latinoamericano, easily the biggest crowd to ever watch the Tommies. The teams will return to the Estadio for a 2 p.m. (EST) game on Friday, and Denning will use the three pitchers and one fielder who didn’t see action on Wednesday.

“Baseball is a game of momentum,” Denning told Havana Coach Raul Esteban Perez after the game. “We like to get the momentum in a close game, especially at the end. Your team played well – and we were lucky.”

As “lucky” as Denning’s team was, his stars came through in some clutch moments, starting in the first inning.

After second-baseman Jake Mauer (junior, Cretin-Derham Hall) walked on four pitches, he was forced at second by a Paul Rafferty (senior, Cretin-Derham Hall) grounder to Havana pitcher Mario Rodriguez. Rafferty moved to second and scored on a single by Scott Christiansen (junior, Anoka).

Havana put together back-to-back singles in its half of the first off Brian Toov (senior, Austin), who was chosen by Denning to start because of the “ice in his veins.” Toov had arm problems during his junior year and expected to pitch only three innings on Wednesday but held on for five.

Toov said his goal was just to “keep throwing the ball over the plate,” and he settled down.He gave up only one more hit, in the fifth, and he got a big boost when Christiansen caught a fly ball in left field for the second out and threw out the runner at home to end the inning.

Bryan Edstrom (sophomore, Totino Grace) relieved Toov in the sixth and gave up back-to-back walks with one out. Denning pulled Edstrom in favor of Mike Honsa (senior, Cretin-Derham), who gave up a single to load the bases before striking out a Cuban on a full count and getting a ground-ball out to end the inning.

Honsa is a lanky control pitcher but said he stayed mostly with his fast ball because “I couldn’t find the area code with my curve.” He gave up only a walk in the seventh, and by the time he got around to pitching the eighth he had a 7-0 – not 1-0 – lead.

Ten Tommies batted in the top of the eighth. Designated hitter Dan Novak (senior, Sibley) got to first on an error and Matt Buzell (freshman, Rochester Mayo) pitch-ran for him and got to second on a sacrifice by Jon Guion (senior, Cretin-Derham Hall). Christiansen, who also had singled in the fourth and was hit by a pitch in the sixth, was hit again
and Ryan Benson (junior, Armstrong) loaded the bases with a bunt.

The big blow came from rightfielder Tony Wolverton (junior, Fairmont), who launched a fly over the head of his counterpart.

“It was the biggest hit in my entire life – by far,” Wolverton said. “It was on a 1-2 count, and I watched it the whole way. I thought it might go out, but it hit the warning track and bounced into the stands. I don’t remember touching first, and when I got to second the crowd was going crazy.”

The two RBI forced Rodriguez from the game. Reliever Maykel Neninger fared little better. He hit catcher Tom Wilberg (senior, Anoka) with a pitch to reload the bases, and shortstop John Frein (senior, Austin) walked to force
in a run and make it 4-0. A wild pitch, a fielder’s choice and anothersingle made it 7-0.

Honsa shut down the Cubans in the bottom of the eighth and moved
to first base in the ninth, when southpaw Adam Iten (junior, St.
Cloud Cathedral) finished the game. Wolverton caught the final out,
on a fly ball to right, and he kept the ball.

“See this?” he said, flipping
the ball from his glove. “This is cool.”

The Rev. Dennis Dease, president
of St. Thomas, joined the team on the field after the game and congratulated everybody. He posed for photos with Denning and assistant coaches Don Roney, Huck Shields, Mike Reeder and Chris Johson. A dozen cameras
(still or video) clicked away for a couple of minutes.

“You will all get plenary indulgences for this,” Dease told the coaches.

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