This wasn’t Marty Slimak’s first rodeo.
The longtime head baseball coach had been to the NCAA Division III College World Series five times before and had helped lead teams to the national championship game twice.
None of it had ended well. Slimak was an assistant coach in 1992, and the head coach in 1996, when CLU let late-inning leads slip away in championship games, both times to William Paterson College of New Jersey.
Here were the Kingsmen again, at the College World Series in Appleton, Wisconsin, but this year they would pull through to the very end. On May 30, they defeated Washington & Jefferson College (Pennsylvania) in the best-of-three series and earned the program’s first national championship.
It is the second Division III title won by a Cal Lutheran team, joining the 2015 women’s volleyball squad. The football team won the NAIA Division II championship in 1971.
At 40-11, the baseball team finished at the 40-win level for only the second time in school history. The Kingsmen began slowly with a 3-4 record and Slimak certainly had no thoughts of an NCAA title at that point. “Not in my wildest dreams,” he said.
But after an early period of experimenting with different lineups, the Kingsmen won 37 of their last 44, including a three-game sweep in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament and four games in the NCAA West Regional at Tyler, Texas. CLU served notice it was the team to beat in the regional, ending its first game against Concordia (Texas) by turning a triple play.
CATCH AND RELEASE
The Kingsmen went into the World Series determined not only to win, but to enjoy the experience.
“Five of us took fishing rods to Appleton,” senior center fielder Brad Fullerton said. “It was fun catching some smallmouth bass in the river. It was super fun.”
Knowing his team, Slimak simply went with it.
“Normally, I would say, ‘Guys, we’re here for one reason,’ but they’d been fishing the whole season,” the coach said. “Win or lose, they’d go night fishing, they’d go early-morning fishing, or they’d go surfing, one of the two. So I said, ‘Why change it now?’…
“My wife and I, we drove one time by and I see three of our guys. I see Fullerton, I see [Cortez] Espinoza and I see Nick Cohan, and they’re out there on a bridge at a little inlet that they found and all of a sudden, you see Cortez pulling up a big black drum, like a big bass, and he’s looking at us. ... I just looked at my wife and I said, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’”
Fullerton said fishing was the perfect pregame ritual.
“You don’t want to be sitting in your hotel room before a huge game thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is the biggest game of my life,’” he said. “Obviously, it’s good to focus up, but if you do too much of that, you’re going to be getting anxious and all that stuff. I think that it’s therapeutic in a way. It helps us stay loose, stay relaxed and have fun in as many ways as we can.”
The Kingsmen started off strong in the World Series, beating Wheaton (Massachusetts) 4-2 and taking 14-5 and 10-8 decisions over North Central (Illinois). That put CLU into the best-of-three championship series against Washington & Jefferson.
But the second game against North Central went nearly 3½ hours, not ending until 12:35 a.m., and CLU was sluggish in Game 1 on Memorial Day in the series against W&J.
“We didn’t get from that field back to the hotel till probably close to 2 o’clock,” Slimak recalled. “We got to bed about 3. There was no food, there was nothing open, so our guys went to bed without dinner or anything. It was tough. It was really, really tough. Then the next morning ... I think half our guys were still sleeping.”
Washington & Jefferson’s Presidents took advantage and won 12-2. Suddenly, Slimak was having flashbacks to the missed opportunities of the ’90s.
“It took me a whole year the first time in ’92 to get over it,” the coach said. “It took me, gosh, two, three years in ’96 to get over it. It’s just something that will always be with you. We were so close and if you get there, you’ve got to win it. Then when we lost that first game in the World Series this year, I started going, ‘Oh, my God, are we going to do this all over again?’ But you know what? This was the first year I felt very confident, even though we lost the first game, I had a very good peace about it.”
Slimak decided his players needed a pep talk after Game 1 – and his players decided he needed one, too.
“I had them all out in center field,” the coach said, “and I just said, ‘Look, they don’t crown the national champion today. They crown the national champion tomorrow and you’ve still got to win two games.’
“And I’ve got to tell you something. Our guys were so confident. They kept on saying, ‘No worries, Slim. We’ve got this.’ They were probably less stressed and way looser than the coaching staff was.”
Attitude, as much as ability, was key for the Kingsmen.
“Our team, collectively, we’re just a bunch of jokers,” Fullerton said. “Slim called us ‘jackwagons.’ We actually just kind of balance out that nervousness from the coaching staff.”
As senior relief pitcher Miguel Salud would say of the opening loss: “It was a minor setback to a major comeback.”
CLU came out the next day and won Game 2 by a score of 12-4 with junior right-hander Nate Wehner (10-3) pitching a complete game and striking out eight. The Kingsmen racked up 22 hits against the Presidents, including a 3-for-5 performance by sophomore first baseman Weston Clark with two doubles and three runs batted in, and a 4-for-5 showing by Fullerton.
Fullerton had a team-leading .478 batting average (11 for 23) in the College World Series with six runs and six RBIs.
SEALING THE DEAL
The pitching start for Game 3 would be given to a freshman, right-hander Scott Roberts. Roberts (6-1) pitched strong six innings, striking out four and allowing two runs and five hits. When he left with a 3-2 lead, the ball was given to Salud, who was looking to earn a school-record 14th save and his third of the Series.
“I was nervous because the score was very close,” Salud said. “Usually I pitch better with a lot of cushion from our offense. But when my name was called, this was the World Series, seventh inning, 3-2, you’ve got to embrace that. You want the ball at that point. So I just made sure I came in, didn’t change anything, stuck with my same approach, hit my spots and knew everything was going to work out.”
Salud, the SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, is a transfer from Glendale Community College. He was born in the Philippines and played one year of college ball there.
“He came out of the blue. He’s still learning how to pitch. He is a hero back
in Manila right now. He’s almost like a little [Manny] Pacquiao, man,” said Slimak, comparing him to the Philippines’ famous boxer.
Salud has been celebrated by media in the Philippines. No Filipino has ever been drafted by Major League Baseball.
“I guess you could say that for baseball, definitely, I’m a star for the baseball community out here,” Salud said by phone from the Philippines. “I came back with so much love and so much support from everyone and it was the craziest thing. It makes me so proud to be a Filipino.” (See Page 35.)
Salud pitched the final three innings, striking out three while allowing four hits, two walks and one ninth-inning run. In the meantime, his CLU teammates were making things easier for him, scoring one run in the seventh inning and three more in the eighth.
With the Kingsmen leading 7-3 in the ninth and two runners on base, Salud got the last batter to pop out to junior second baseman Max Weinstein and the postgame celebration was on.
FOR TEAMS PAST
“I never had a team like this, ever,” Slimak said. “Never once were they tight, never really once did they not believe they were going to win the national championship.”
Salud was named the Series’ Most Outstanding Player with a 1.23 earned run average, nine strikeouts and just one earned run in four appearances and 7⅓ innings.
“Honestly, when they were announcing the awards at the end of the game,” Salud said, “I was talking to someone and I couldn’t even hear what the announcer was saying, so when they first called my name, I was the last one called and didn’t even hear that they gave me the Most Outstanding Player award.... I really couldn’t believe it.”
With the title safely in hand, Slimak could rest.
“The night that we won it,” he said, “it was the first time that I went to bed with a big smile on my face regarding the national championship.”
Especially gratifying, the coach said, was the support the Kingsmen got from every segment of the campus and from those who made the trip to root them on.
“We had alumni fly in there just to see the games,” Slimak said. “We were getting alumni from the area who were driving in to Appleton, Wisconsin, who lived out in that area. I don’t know what the distance was, a hundred miles, 200 miles, whatever it was. They would come and see the games and introduce themselves to us and say, ‘I’m an old alum and just coming out to support you guys.’ That was very meaningful in a lot of ways.”
It is also clear that this national championship belongs to more than just the 2017 team.
“We did this for all the teams that came before us that bled the purple and gold,” Slimak said. “They paved the way to make it possible.”
Jim Carlisle is a former sports columnist and reporter for the Ventura County Star. He has been the public address announcer for Cal Lutheran football since 2001 and lives in Simi Valley.