When junior second baseman Reyn Sugai bounced into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play, the crowd at Campbell’s Field rose to its feet and roared as Temple walked off the field on Saturday afternoon.
They weren’t cheering the result, a 7-5 defeat to No. 16 Houston, rather celebrating and congratulating the Owls in their final home game – and regular season game – in program history. It was also Senior Day for 13 Owls.
With hundreds of alumni there to support and celebrate 87 years of baseball tradition, this year’s Owls went down fighting, like they’ve been all season.
After winning game one of the series on Thursday behind another strong performance from senior Matt Hockenberry, Temple battled through much of Saturday’s tilt, taking the lead twice before eventually losing.
“I’ve tried not to think about this day,” coach Ryan Wheeler said of Saturday. “I’ve thought about it a lot for the last six months and was hoping that it would never come. But it’s here. I don’t know if I could put it into words, I really don’t.”
Senior pitcher Ryan Kuehn, one of seven Owls to take the mound, got the start for Temple and went 3.1 innings, surrendering three runs – one earned – while striking out a pair.
“It was so tough for all of us, the seniors especially just knowing that this is the last time we’re playing at home and the last time that any Temple baseball team was playing at home,” Kuehn said. “That was the toughest thing about today, trying to keep your emotions in check and just have fun. Today was probably the only day where winning is not the most important thing.”
Kuehn left in a 3-3 game after getting the first batter in the top of the fourth to pop out to first base. The early hook was was expected from Kuehn, who was emotional when he walked off the field for the final time.
“The coaches told me early on that I wasn’t going very long,” Kuehn said. “It was tough going out for that last hitter, this is the last time my parents are going to watch me pitch. All that stuff is running through your mind.”
Another senior, catcher Andrew Nist, got Temple on the board in the bottom of the first inning with a two-run blast down the left field line after fellow senior Derek Peterson reached base with a two-out single. Nist, a native of Chandler, Ariz., put the Owls ahead 2-1.
“I can’t really describe it,” Nist said of the home run. “I haven’t hit a home run since high school. It was pretty special and my mom got to come and see that.”
With the score 3-3 in the bottom of the fourth, senior left fielder Bobby Heitzman again gave the Owls a lead with a single that drove in sophomore third baseman Frank D’Agostino.
Temple’s bats went cold after that. The Owls only registered two of their 10 hits on the day after the fourth inning.
Houston (41-14, 14-8 American), meanwhile, scored a pair of runs in in the fifth inning before scoring a run in both the sixth and eighth innings to lead 7-4.
Senior first baseman Robert Amaro knocked in his team-leading 38th RBI of the season to get Temple to within 7-5 in the eighth inning.
Game two of the scheduled double header was cancelled due to inclement weather on Friday that caused poor playing conditions for a second game Saturday. Houston also had travel arrangements for Saturday evening.
Nist finished the day 3-4 from the plate, scoring a pair of runs while also driving in two.
“It was really cool to see everyone picking each other up when we made mistakes,” Nist said. “It was a really good team effort today and, although we came up short, we’re definitely taking some momentum down to Clearwater with us.”
Next week’s American Conference Tournament will be at Bright House Field, the spring training home to the Philadelphia Phillies as well as the club’s Single-A affiliate, the Clearwater Threshers.
Temple (14-30, 9-14 The American) will be the sixth seed in the tournament and will begin pool-play against Houston, Central Florida and Connecticut.
The conference tournament will be the first time that Temple plays in the postseason since the 2008 Atlantic 10 playoffs, which were played at Campbell’s Field.
Considering the season isn’t over, this year’s Senior Day was different than in prior seasons.
“It’s not sad like it has been in recent years,” Hockenberry said. “The past three years that I’ve been here, we may have fought in conference [games], but Senior Day always marked the end of the season until the next year. Since we made the playoffs this year I don’t feel that at all. We still have games to play, we’re not done yet.”
Jeff Neiburg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.