Mike McRae allowed himself to dream for a few days, and why not after an NCAA baseball tournament official emailed him last Wednesday for more information about Canisius? He was asked to outline their credentials just in case the Griffs ended up losing their conference tourney.
McRae started thinking Canisius would receive an at-large invitation if the unexpected happened over the weekend. The Griffs had two of their better starting pitchers ready and bullpen arms rested for two games against Siena to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tourney title.
They only needed one win against Siena for an automatic berth in the NCAAs, a task well within reach for the best team in the conference. But even if they failed, they still had a strong argument for the national tournament.
“You get that email and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ That’s not common. That’s unheard of. That’s exciting,” McRae said Tuesday afternoon. “We weren’t hanging our hopes on that by any means, but it’s dangled in front of you.”
McRae kept that carrot to himself. He decided to not tell his team about the email before the conference tourney. The Griffs had enough on their minds. They won their final 18 games of the regular season, but the players still assumed they needed to win the MAAC tourney to reach the NCAAs.
Still, there was no disputing the facts.
Canisius had 40 wins in its pocket. It finished 20-4 in conference play. It shut out N.C. State on the road early in the season, when the Wolfpack was ranked fifth in the country. The Griffs beat UNC-Charlotte and swept East Tennessee State, two teams that reached the regionals last year.
They took two of three games against an Indiana State team that was ranked 19th at the time. Four winnable games against lowly St. Bonaventure and Cornell were rained out, so it was easy to conclude their record could have been even better. And their winning streak was the longest in the country.
McRae was still searching for answers Tuesday after it slipped away with one bad day in New Jersey. Canisius twice lost to Siena, including the opener after building a 5-1 lead going into the eighth inning. The Griffs and their 40 victories were overlooked Monday by the selection committee.
“I still haven’t made peace with it,” McRae said. “This will take me a while. I take these things very hard. I take them personally. This will eat at me for a while. We’re the only 40-win team not in the tournament. That’s tough to take.”
Canisius, ranked 29th last week in the Collegiate Baseball Top 30 poll, likely was left out after its RPI plummeted from 59th to 70th with the losses to Siena. The RPI is an immovable obstacle mid-major programs face, especially teams from our region, when trying to show that they can play with the big boys.
You can’t help but believe Northeast bias also played a role in the decision to leave out Canisius, a little old private school in Buffalo. For years, there’s been a preconception that kids from around here can’t play ball, much the same way we’re convinced good hockey players don’t come out of the South.
It’s understandable to a degree. Southern schools need not travel far to find strong programs. Canisius was a good team that suffered from its own conference and an inability to reschedule good non-conference games within a reasonable driving distance. It can’t gain respect by beating St. Bonaventure, for example.
Evidently, the selection committee wasn’t overly impressed with 40 victories, including 18 in a row. Six teams in the tournament had fewer than 30 wins during the regular season. Most were given automatic bids, including a Youngstown State team that finished 16-36 but won its conference tourney.
Siena was 26-31, but it did beat Canisius four times in five meetings. MAAC teams beating one another, when all of them have a tough time scheduling quality non-conference games, winds up hurting their overall strength of schedule and, thus, their RPI and, thus, their chances for an at-large bid.
“Our league is going to hurt us,” McRae said. “It’s not disrespect to those teams and those coaches, but if their RPI is low, we can’t do anything about that. We’re at the mercy there. It’s a penalty we didn’t choose but gets imposed on us.”
McRae has done a terrific job turning around a program that struggled before he arrived in 2004. He has a 257-148 record over the past seven seasons after rebuilding in his first three. He has won 38 games or more four times over that span, including 42 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament last season.
For all the success he’s had, he needs respect on paper. It will only grow more difficult because teams respect them between the lines. He’s going to have a tougher time scheduling non-conference games because good teams aren’t going to be willing to play them.
Virginia Tech was a top 25 team that bailed out of a scheduled meeting a few years ago. Why? It had too much to lose. McRae once had a coach call him, after losing, wondering if they had inside knowledge and insinuating the Griffs cheated. Basically, he insulted and complimented Canisius at the same time.
Do you think N.C. State and Indiana State want to play the Griffs after losing to them this season? They paid Canisius a fee to play them with the idea it would be a guaranteed win. Pretty soon, the only way Canisius will play high-caliber teams is by meeting them in the NCAAs.
“It’s a gamble for them to play us,” McRae said. “When they’re paying you to come down, they’re paying to beat you. They do not like that when it doesn’t happen.”