WINCHESTER, Va. — Behind a gutsy pitching performance by junior Jack Braley (5-1) and a patient approach at the plate, the nationally-ranked Christopher Newport baseball team surged into the 2023 NCAA Winchester, Va. Regional Championship after a dominant 18-3 win over TCNJ (24-23) on Saturday evening. The Captains set a new program record for runs scored in an NCAA Tournament game and will return to the Regional Final for the second straight year.
Braley struck out eight, tying his career high and marking the most in a postseason game in over 20 years for the Captains. Most impressively, Braley did it over 6.1 innings of work after being forced into the game due to an injury with two outs in the bottom of the first inning.
The Captains improved to 33-9 overall this season with the win, which came through adverse conditions at Kevin Anderson Field at Bridgeforth Stadium in Winchester. The game was originally slated to start at 1:30 pm, but rain in the forecast forced first pitch back to 5:00 p.m. Once things got started, heavy rainfall impacted the early portion of the game without interruption as both teams were forced to play through the wet conditions.
TCNJ opened the scoring in the bottom of the first as CNU sophomore starter Jackson Baird ended up exiting the game with an injury. He retired two of the first three batters before giving up a single and back-to-back walks as the Lions struck first against Baird. After the second walk, the Captains' sophomore was lifted for Jack Braley, who was charged with trying to escape the bases loaded jam and take over earlier than anticipated.
The veteran reliever stood tall, however, punching out the next batter to end the threat with just the one run across. The emphatic finish to the first inning put a charge in the Captains' offense as they came to the plate in the top of the second. Steady rainfall started but the umpires let the action play on and the Captains were unfazed.
With one out, three straight walks loaded the bases for rookie Sam Benedict and the starting third baseman plated a pair with a hard shot up the middle. Alec Reilly, Jake Benedict, and Ayden Stuffel each worked walks ahead of Benedict and the first two raced home on the bouncing ball over second base. TCNJ nearly got out of it with a groundball from Justin Liakos, but the sophomore survived with an error by the shortstop that allowed Stuffel to come all the way around from second to score the third run of the inning.
The plate discipline in the top of the second inning was a preview of more to come as the Captains, one of the most patient Division III programs in the nation this season, worked 14 walks in the contest. Seven of the 14 runners who reached on walks came around to score in the game for the Captains attack.
TCNJ drew even in the bottom of the third on an RBI double by Sebastian JnoBaptiste, but Braley ended his third straight inning with a strikeout to escape any further damage. That would prove to be the last run of the game as Braley rolled through the next four frames unscathed, striking out a career-high eight batters in the impressive relief outing. The eight punchouts is the most by a CNU pitcher in an NCAA Tournament game since Eben Brower struck out 11 in 10.0 IP against Thomas More on May 18, 2003.
Meanwhile, the offense was just getting started and would put up 15 unanswered runs over the next four innings to pull away from the Lions. A six-run fourth inning busted the game open before CNU tacked on two more in the fifth and batted around in the seventh for a seven-run inning.
In the momentum-shifting fourth, the Captains did all of their damage with two outs. With one runner on, Josh Reinhold recorded one of his four walks to put two on in front of Zach Dzarnowski. The sophomore backstop hammered a shot into right center field that bounced off the top of the wall and chased in the first two runs of the inning.
Justin Bowers followed with a walk and then senior Alec Reilly added an RBI double of his own when he turned on a 1-0 pitch and blistered a shot into the right field corner. After Jake Benedict was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Ayden Stuffel worked a four-pitch walk for an RBI free pass.
With four runs already on the board in the inning, the bases were still loaded with two outs when Sam Benedict came to the plate for his second at-bat of the inning. The rookie third baseman stayed hot, smacking a two-run single through the hole in the left side of the infield on an 0-2 pitch.
When all was said and done in the fourth, the Captains had built a 9-3 advantage against the Lions and worked into their bullpen. In the fifth, Reinhold led off with another walk and raced home on a monstrous double off the left center field wall by Bowers. Jake Benedict then singled home Bowers two batters later as CNU took an 11-3 lead.
Seven more came across in the seventh when Bowers kicked off the inning with an RBI triple and then beat the throw home to score on a fielder's choice by Reilly. Stuffel picked up an RBI single through the right side and Justin Liakos singled into right field for another RBI base knock.
Scott Crosson delivered his first hit of the game to push across another run with a single into left. Finally, two more scored on a bases loaded walk by Dzarnowski and a bases loaded hit by pitch from Bowers.
The 18 runs is the most in an NCAA Tournament game in program history, breaking a 21-year old record set on May 17, 2002 when the Captains defeated York (Pa.) in a 17-1 final during the Winston-Salem, N.C. Regionals.
On the mound, Christian Williams made just his second relief appearance of the season for the Captains and first showing since April 4. He was dominant against TCNJ, tossing two scoreless innings while facing just six batters, striking out four.
Bowers led the offense, going 2-for-4 with 3 RBI and 3 runs scored. He also walked once and was hit-by-pitch once, reaching base in four of his six plate appearances. Sam Benedict had a team-high 4 RBI with a 2-for-5 showing at the plate.
Christopher Newport will return to action on Sunday afternoon as the Captains take on the host and third-ranked Shenandoah University Hornets (40-8). It will be the 61st all-time meeting between the two former conference foes with first pitch being thrown at 1:00 p.m. If Shenandoah wins, they would force a winner-take-all second game; if the Captains win, they will capture the regional title and advance to next week's Super Regional.