2002 SECOND ROUND
This is the second of a seven-part series recapping classic games in NAIA World Series history.
Since the NAIA World Series returned to Lewiston in 2000, the second day of play, weather permitting, usually starts with two elimination games. Some of the best games in the tournament are played by teams fighting to keep their dreams alive. Many pre-tournament pitching rotations are trashed when it comes down to do-or-die games, and coaches take more risks to move on in the bracket.
In the first elimination game in 2002, Embry-Riddle trailed Indiana Tech by seven runs in the bottom of the seventh, and 12-10 with one out in the ninth. But the Eagles rallied and won the game 13-12 on a walk-off single to advance.
Watching and warming up on the sideline were the Bellevue Bruins and Olivet Nazarene Tigers. Their scheduled noon game had been pushed back an hour because of the length of the first game. The Bruins had lost their opener to eventual champion Lewis-Clark State 13-0, and Olivet fell to Oklahoma City, who would finish runner-up, 14-6.
Bellevue, the 1995 NAIA World Series champ, was making its seventh appearance, and fifth straight, while the Tigers were in their initial series. The Bruins, coached by the clipboard-carrying Mike Evans, had experienced playing in the series previously in Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida and the previous two tournaments in Lewiston. The Nebraska team made their 14th series appearance in 2019, going 2-2, and is still seeking its second title.
In the second elimination game, Bellevue was trailing 4-3 in the sixth inning, when Olivet coach Elliot Johnson sensed his starting pitcher had tired and motioned his shortstop, Ben Zobrist, to the mound. Johnson, the brother of former Seattle Mariner manager Darrell Johnson, used Zobrist as his closer all season in the last inning, but was in a win-or-go-home situation, so he called in the reliever early.
Apparently eight warmup pitches were not enough for Zobrist, as his first pitch was lined to right-center to tie the score at 4. Zobrist would atone for the mistake himself with a solo home run in the eighth, putting the Tigers back on top 5-4.
Then in the ninth, the Bruins got the tying run at third base with left fielder Chad Keefer at the plate. Keefer, a junior from Coeur d’Alene, fell behind 0-2 before fouling off six consecutive pitches. Johnson took a trip to the mound to give Zobrist a break, but the plan backfired on the next pitch as Keefer produced a game-tying single.
An inning later, Olivet’s Tony Sykes’ two-out walk-off home run sent the Bruins home, and the Tigers to another elimination game. For Olivet, it would be its last NAIA World Series victory, as the Tigers were eliminated by Ohio Dominican in their next game, then went 0-2 in the 2003 series, their last appearance to date.
Bellevue second baseman T.J. Bohn was drafted after the series, and made his major league debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2006. Zobrist returned to Lewiston with Olivet in 2003, and was named to the NAIA All-American team. After transferring to Dallas Baptist for his senior year, Zobrist was drafted by the Houston Astros. Although he never won an NAIA World Series title, Zobrist achieved the feat in the major leagues. After playing for the World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, he became a two-time World Series champion in 2015 (Kansas City) and 2016 (Chicago Cubs).
There have been nine former major league players that have been head coaches of NAIA World Series teams.
Chris Bando was the last former major leaguer to coach in the Series, bringing San Diego Christian to Lewiston in 2014. Bando had a nine-year professional career with the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and ending with the Oakland Athletics in 1989. Bando’s brother, third baseman Sal, spent 16 years in the majors. Chris, whose Hawks went 0-2 in their only series appearance, currently is the manager of the Texas AirHogs of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
The only NAIA World Series that had two former major leaguers coaching at the same time took place in 1965. That season, Anderson College made its first-ever appearance and were coached by former Dodger Carl Erskine. Erskine played his entire career for Brooklyn and Los Angeles from 1948-59, and pitched two no-hitters. His roommate for 10 years was Dodger great Duke Snider. Snider himself had a connection with the NAIA World Series. In 1971, his son, Kevin, became the only player in the history of the series to lead off a game with an inside-the-park home run. The Grand Canyon right fielder hit the second pitch of the game off a Linfield College pitcher into deep center.
Another former Dodger pitcher, Ray Benge, was the head coach of Sam Houston State in the 1965 series, held in St. Joseph, Mo. Benge won 101 games in the majors in the 1930s. He and his Bearkats were making their sixth consecutive series appearance. Benge’s team was the 1963 NAIA World Series champs, and he was named the NAIA coach of the year in 1964.
The two ex-Dodger pitchers did not get the chance to meet each other in the series. Erskine’s Ravens went 0-2, losing to Western Washington and Wisconsin-Whitewater. Benge’s Sam Houston team went 2-2, finishing in fourth place.