They had the feel-good factor, for sure. They drew inspiration from the brave young boy who is their biggest fan and the gregarious coach who had found his way back to their helm.
But let’s get down to brass tacks: In the national title game, the Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs had the pitching.
With ace starter Cole Bellair and a rested bullpen ready to go, the top-seeded club from Athens, Tenn., aggressively went about its business Friday night. The Bulldogs pounced early and kept the pressure on all evening as they charged to a 6-2 triumph over St. Thomas of Florida in the Avista NAIA World Series championship game in front of a Harris Field crowd of 2,390.
Tennessee Wesleyan (56-10) claimed its second title in program history — the other one came in 2012 — and became just the second No. 1 seed to rise to the top since the current format was instituted in 2003.
During their postgame celebration, the Bulldogs hoisted Neyland Pickel to their shoulders, the 8-year-old who has battled cancer three times and was welcomed into the team’s fold this season. They also performed the celebratory water-bucket dousing of coach Billy Berry, who coached TWU to the title in ’12 and then unexpectedly returned to the Bulldogs after a few years at a prep institution.
“I’m just a blessed guy, man,” Berry said. “I’m lucky enough to be the guy that gets to stand in the front and make sure it doesn’t go too much to the left or too much to the right.”
TWU was in command pretty much from the start. Its first three batters swung at the first pitch they saw, and the fourth man up, Braden Mosley, slapped an RBI single to center.
Back-to-back St. Thomas fielding errors in the third led to another Bulldog run, then in the fourth, courtesy runner Adrian Marquez made a thrilling dash from first to home when STU pitcher Ian Exposito misfired on a pickoff throw that trickled into the foul territory in right.
Marquez set a blazing pace as he motored around the bases.
“My dad was fast — he went by the nickname ‘Jaguar,’ ” Marquez said. “I’m sure I got it from him.”
The Bulldogs added another first-to-home run when Al Cruz chugged home on Jhosmel Rodriguez’s double. That made it 4-0 through four innings — which seemed like a larger margin than it actually was.
That’s probably because Bellair was cruising on the mound. After five rest days, he pitched into the seventh in the title game and allowed two solo home runs — and not much else. He was followed by relievers Jerry Ochoa and Irving Martin, who kept the Bobcats pinned down.
“We had a horse going in the front end and we had enough horses going in the back end that somebody was going to have to do a whole lot to score,” Berry said.