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Ronnebaum’s gem lifts Army to 6th straight Patriot League crown

Photo by Lynn Fern/Black Knight Nation

Just a few days ago, Matthew Ronnebaum’s status had Army baseball coach Chris Tracz concerned. Tracz wasn’t sure if he would have his first-team, all-Patriot League starting pitcher available for the championship series against archrival Navy.

Ronnebaum was suffering from a chest cold that caused him to miss some team practices during the week. 

On Monday, the entire Navy team probably wished that Ronnebaum stayed in bed. The junior from Overland Park, Kansas notched a sparkling two-hit performance through eight innings, striking out nine batters and walking just one, to lead the Black Knights to a 3-0 victory over the Midshipmen. The victory, along with Army’s 11-8 win on Sunday in the first game of the series, clinched the Black Knights’ sixth-straight Patriot League postseason title and the automatic bid into the upcoming NCAA tournament that starts in less than two weeks.

There is little doubt that Army needed Ronnebaum and ninth-inning reliever Tanner Gresham, to step up to gain the victory, which was played at Johnson Stadium at Doubleday Field at West Point. Like Navy, the Black Knights managed just two hits all day—a two-run single by sophomore second baseman Chris Barr in the third inning and a double by Barr in the eighth inning.

“The story of the day was Matt Ronnebaum,” said Tracz, now in his second year as the Army skipper. “What a day. He did not feel well all week and he went out there and just controlled the game.”

Yes, Ronnebaum (6-3) was dominant and, yes, the Army team had as tough a day trying to figure out the three Navy pitchers they faced, who also combined for nine strikeouts, but gave up five walks, including two crucial ones in the third inning, where Army scored all three of its runs.  

“Before the game, our coaches, me and (senior catcher) Derek Berg got together and came up with a plan,” said Ronnebaum, who was also named the tournament’s most valuable player. “I just did my job, stuck to the plan and it worked.

“Everything was kind of working, we mixed well today. I had a lively fastball on both sides of the plate and the slider was there too. Just sticking to the plan was biggest part.”

Army scored its runs in the third inning on those two walks, a hit batsman, which loaded the bases and a wild pitch that allowed the first run to score. Barr then lined a single to right centerfield to drive in two runs and put the Black Knights up 3-0. After another walk to Sam Ruta, Army almost added more runs to their tally, but Navy centerfielder Hudson Lehnertz ran down a long flyball at the wall and doubled up Barr, who was inexplicably running the bases with just one out. 

Navy had its only real shot at scoring in the sixth inning. A walk and a double down the left field line put runners on second and third with just one out. But Ronnebaum, who has exhausted his eligibility after this season, got Eduardo Diaz to ground to third where Ruta threw home to Berg to cut down the runner and Brock Murtha to hit a groundball to short to end the inning.  

Army, now 31-21 on the season, will now wait one week (Memorial Day, Monday 27 at noon) for the selection show to see where they play next in the 64-team national tournament. Teams are placed in 16, four-team double-elimination pods, with the winner of each pod advancing to the next round of 16 teams. The winners of the second round advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. 

After a season that featured some ups and downs, the Army players and coaches seem quite happy with their current situation.  “It was all about this moment right here,” said Barr, a sophomore from Sarasota, Fla. “Everything leads to this. We had some low moments during the season, but we stuck with it. We kept working hard and doing our thing. This has been our goal since day one and it feels great to accomplish it again.”

Tracz echoed those comments. “It is interesting when the program has been so successful expectations become a little skewed,” he said. “It was up and down, but we won a regular season title. It was up and down and we won another tournament championship. We had some lulls like every program has. We were the ones that had to get through it and, hopefully, we are playing our best baseball right now.”

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