CARY, N.C. — One of the worst starts of Braydon Nelson’s University of Tampa career has turned out to be one of the best things to happen to the Spartans this postseason.
The junior right-hander was torched for six runs in just over an inning of work in a South Regional game against Lee last week.
Although his team rallied to win 12-7, Nelson wasn’t satisfied. He went to coach Joe Urso and asked for another chance on the mound, this time out of the bullpen.
And he has responded.
He was the winning pitcher in a victory against West Florida that earned UT another trip to the Division II College World Series.
Saturday, in the opening game of the double-elimination national championship tournament, Nelson came to the rescue again. His 4⅔ innings of shutout relief bought time for the Spartans’ offense to come alive and rally for a 7-6, 10-inning victory against Trevecca Nazarene.
The win sends UT into a winner’s bracket matchup with top-seeded Central Missouri at the USA Baseball Training Complex at 6 p.m. on Monday.
“Nelson had a bad start in Game 2, then said, ‘Let me have the ball in relief, Coach’ and he was lights out,” Urso said. “I think we found where he’s really comfortable. We wouldn’t be in this situation in the winner’s bracket if he didn’t do what he did.”
Nelson, a transfer who played his first two seasons at St. Bonaventure, replaced starter Eric Linder in the third inning Saturday. With his team already trailing 6-3, his job was simple — don’t allow things to get any worse.
He accomplished that goal by striking out four and scattering five hits over 4⅔ innings before handing the ball over to closer Jordan Leasure.
“Essentially, it was just put up zeroes and quickly, preferably, and get the ball back to the offense,” Nelson said. “I wanted to give them that spark to get them going to make the comeback I think we all knew they were going to make.”
The Spartans (21-4) tied the score on a three-run homer by Wharton High alum Drew Ehrhard in the seventh, then won it in the 10th when Ehrhard doubled and scored on an infield grounder by cleanup hitter Dan Sullivan.
While the rally helped get the Spartans off to a winning start in Cary, their task became a little more difficult because of the strain the effort put on a thin pitching staff.
In addition to Nelson, Urso was forced to use Leasure for 3⅓ innings against Trevecca Nazarene — making it unlikely the Riverview High grad will be available Monday.
“We had to use him a lot more than we like, but you’ve got to win Game 1,” Urso said of Leasure, a junior right-hander who struck out eight of the 10 Trojan hitters he retired in picking up the win. “Now we’ll hopefully get some rest and see what we can do in that winner’s bracket game on Monday.”
Urso is counting on ace Michael Paul (Clearwater Central Catholic) to go deeper into the game than Linder did Saturday. If and when he has to go to the bullpen, his best option could be an even more unlikely arm than Nelson.
Junior right-hander Alex Passarella pitched in only one game during the regular season. But pressed into service during last week’s regional, the transfer from New York Tech didn’t allow a run in effective outings in wins against Delta State and West Florida.
“I went to Leasure in 12 of our 20 regular-season games, so I didn’t get to develop much of a bullpen going into the regional tournament. And then here comes Passarella, who gives us innings in the regional,” Urso said. “You’re happy to get Win One, but you’re trying to manage the whole tournament. Somebody new is going to have to step up for us on Monday.”