It was Josh Davis’ turn to pitch but this start had Nate Woods’ name written all over it.
In the final regular-season game on Saturday, Belmont was faced with a win-or-go-home situation. A victory over nationally ranked Stetson would have guaranteed the Bruins the sixth and final spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. A loss, on the other hand, would have put them on the outside looking in, hoping for help from the rest of the league.
Bruins head coach Dave Jarvis wasn’t about to let it get to that point.
So he turned to Woods, a hard-throwing senior right-hander. Woods hadn’t started a conference game in seven weeks after his record fell to 2-5 with a 3.2-inning performance during which he allowed nine runs against Jacksonville on April 2.
But Woods, a captain, slowly built back up his confidence and velocity during short outings in non-conference, midweek starts. He had won three straight, including a 6-3 victory over Tennessee last week in which he allowed just one hit while striking out four in two innings of work.
So it seemed fitting that a guy who passed on professional baseball just four years ago to pursue a college degree would get that chance to extend his collegiate career and Belmont’s season.
“I think everyone on the team, including Josh, [would agree] there is nobody else we would rather have on the mound but Nate on Saturday, facing elimination,” Belmont outfielder Derek Hamblen said. “Regardless of previous conference stats or the past, we want the guy that is hot. And Nate has been hot at the plate and he has been hot on the mound too. ... Baseball is a game of confidence. You get somebody confident out there and there is no telling what can happen.”
And Woods didn’t disappoint. He allowed just two runs — one earned — on four hits and struck out four in five innings to guide the Bruins to an 11-5 victory over Stetson as they clinched a spot in the A-Sun tournament. On Monday he was named the conference’s pitcher of the week.
Sixth-seeded Belmont (32-24, 17-13) will open the double-elimination, six-team tournament — which will be held at Lipscomb through Saturday — at 11 a.m. on Wednesday against top-seeded Stetson (40-16, 23-7), which was the league’s regular-season champion and was ranked 27th in last week’s National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s poll. In fact, the Hatters hadn’t lost a three-game series all season before Belmont took two of three last weekend.
For Woods, Saturday’s start was one of the high points in what he described as a “roller coaster” season.
He also plays first base and bats third in the lineup. He leads the team with a .359 batting average and 57 RBIs to go along with 11 home runs.
Woods began the season as one of Belmont’s weekend starters — he usually got the nod for the second the three-game series'. But the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder struggled early — not with control but with getting outs — and lost his spot.
His record is now 6-5 but even with the recent success, his ERA is 6.75 and he has allowed 66 hits, a team-high 39 earned runs but just 16 walks in 52 innings pitched.
“I really don’t have an answer for that,” Woods said of his pitching woes. “When I was struggling, I really didn’t have much confidence. I have had the right people around me, the right coaches and right teammates that encourage you and keep you up. So when that time does come, like last weekend, you get pumped up enough and encouraged enough from your teammates and coaches that you can go out and do it. I’m fortunate enough to have the people around me that I do.”
Woods’ career slowed when he suffered a season-ending injury in 2009 — he dislocated his right foot on a slide into second base. That was in his first game back after a broken wrist. The foot injury required surgery and kept him from exercising or throwing for nearly nine months.
Though Woods, who also plays first base and bats third, set school single-season records with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs in 2010, he wasn’t the same on the mound. Having led the team in ERA the past two seasons, his ERA ballooned to 6.65 last year.
“I was still getting stronger, stronger and stronger but I was never 100 percent, especially on the mound,” Woods said.
That carried over this season as Jarvis believes the recovery from the injury took longer than expected.
"We had a long process in trying to rebuild him,” Jarvis said. “I felt like it was a matter or rebuilding endurance and allowing his velocities to get back to where they are capable of and it gives him a good mix of pitches that way. ... To his credit, he never lost his drive or motivation to resolve those issues and obviously he has done so. He is a strong-minded, strong-willed young man and that has carried through.”
Woods graduated earlier this month with a degree in information systems management but hopes his dream of playing professional baseball will come true.
He had his chance four years ago when he was drafted in the 28th round of the 2007 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Xavier High in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He wasn’t ready to start that part of his life — and he and his teammates are glad he didn’t.
“I thought a degree was more important than just being another number in a farm system, especially where I was drafted,” Woods said. “Looking back four years ago, this is exactly where I saw myself, with a degree in hand, still playing in May, playing to go to the tournament, with hopes to play professionally. That is all I could hope for. I wouldn’t trade Belmont for anything.”