By: Alexis Brudnicki
What a way to go.
The season ended for the University of Houston long before the team wanted it to, losing in the regional round on the road to Omaha, but the Cougars can – at the very least – take solace in the fact that they left everything on the field and laid it all out between the lines.
Before the host team closed their season at Cougar Field with a heartbreaking 20-innings loss to in-state rival Rice that lasted into the early hours of the morning after it started, they gave the Houston faithful something that had been a long time coming.
“It means a lot,” infielder and native of Mississauga, Ont., Robert Grilli said of what his team accomplished. “That was the first time Houston’s hosted a regional at home since 2000. Anytime you can host a regional at home the chances of you getting to Omaha go up.
“Having the fans out there and all the support that they showed us, it was pretty special not just for us players but the whole Houston baseball community. We as a team gave them something they haven’t seen in 15 years.”
The support in the stands was a major factor in keeping the Cougars in the six-hour game, many of them remaining in their seats after an earlier matchup and staying right to the end. Despite the less-than-ideal outcome, the encouragement received will not be soon forgotten.
“One of the main things for us is that we just keep playing no matter what’s going on,” Grilli said. “We keep playing and trying to win each pitch. And the fans, you can’t say enough about them…it was pretty special.
“Throughout the whole 20 innings – a bunch of us were talking about it – I couldn’t believe how many fans stayed from the first game to the second game and throughout the full 20-inning experience. They were there through thick and thin. We as players appreciate that and that’s all we can ask for. We do our job and they come out and support us.”
The 21-year-old junior had some added support for the weekend. Though he was disappointed that his mom Carol and younger brother Thomas were unable to make it to Houston, Grilli was ecstatic to welcome his father John to his first regional event and share his excitement with his baseball-loving dad.
“That was an amazing experience,” he said. “As soon as I found out we were hosting a regional I knew I really wanted my dad to experience that. As a Canadian, we’re not exposed to the Division-I experience that we got to have, and then being on home turf.
“I know all the sacrifices he and my mom have made, and unfortunately she wasn’t able to make it, along with Thomas my little brother, but…I was fortunate that my dad was able to come down and soak it all in and experience something that he’s made a lot of sacrifices for me for.”
After two seasons at Salt Lake Community College, Grilli is just coming off of his first year in Cougar red. He couldn’t be happier for the knowledge and opportunity he was given as a part of a team that won an American Athletic Conference title and took it as far as they did.
“Anytime you can surround yourself with the coaching staff that we have here and the high-calibre players we have, it makes you elevate your game,” Grilli said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot. I’ve gotten a lot better as a player. The weather [in Texas] is exactly what every Canadian wants when he looks to go south on a paid baseball scholarship, and then the opportunity to play for an extremely good team and one of the nationally-ranked teams where you have a chance to go to Omaha…
“I know we ultimately came up a little bit short but we as a team came together throughout the year. It’s really been injury-plagued with a couple of our key cogs going out – our closer and our Saturday guy, a Team USA guy, both out for the year – and a couple position players who would have played a big role on our team this year. We came together as a team and rallied around that. At the end of the day we can’t say we didn’t leave it all out on the field, as everyone saw in the 20-inning loss to Rice.”
Another Canadian at school in Texas knows very well what that game was like for the Cougars and Owls. Last year, Calgary, Alta.’s Jeremie Fagnan was a part of the TCU squad that went 22 innings in the regional round, eventually coming out on top and advancing. Though the finish was different, Fagnan felt for both teams when he saw what had happened in the matchup.
“I woke up in the morning and saw that they went 20 innings, so that was pretty crazy,” the Horned Frogs first baseman said. “It reminded us of the 22-inning game last year. It’s definitely the best feeling in the world to win and it’s the worst feeling in the world to lose in those really tight games, especially when you go 20 innings.
“It’s really a grind on your body, just mind over matter. Your legs are shot, you start to cramp, you’re really dehydrated; so you just kind of find a way to get it done.”
Grilli’s entire season was about finding ways to get the job done when he had his chances. The left-handed-hitting infielder got into 21 games with six starts, primarily used as a designated hitter or pinch runner. He went 8-for-25 with a double, five walks and two RBI, and kept the same mindset throughout the year, helping him each time he got into games.
“Everyone expects to play and that was my mentality the whole way through,” Grilli said. “Molly Tissenbaum – Maxx Tissenbaum of the Tampa Bay Rays [organization], his little sister who goes to Harvard – she and I are extremely good friends and we have this little saying between us, ‘Hard work works.’
“And our strength coach here, Lee Fiocchi, he touched upon it briefly in one of our pre-workout group huddles – he said, ‘Work in faith as opposed to sight,’ so I felt that really reflected the situation I was in…If I went by sight, the outcome when I had an opportunity would have been a lot different.
“I tried to be the best teammate I could and be positive and help to shed some knowledge on the younger kids and do everything I could to be a good teammate and it was a fun ride. It really was. There were a lot of walkoff wins, winning the Silver Glove [Series] against Rice was amazing – anytime you have that crosstown rivalry the pride factor definitely kicks in – it was an extremely cool experience this year.”
Now out of the playoffs and playing in the Coastal Plains League for the Forest City Owls, Grilli is rooting for, “any team with Canadians on it” in the College World Series.
Four Canadian players and one coach advanced from regionals, with Virginia’s Danny Pinero (Toronto, Ont.), Missouri State’s Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.), Illinois’ Kelly Norris-Jones (Victoria, BC), TCU’s Fagnan, and Florida Gators volunteer assistant coach Lars Davis (Grand Prairie, Alta.) heading to super regionals, and Grilli is keeping an eye on them all.
“Baseball Canada and the Canadian baseball community – I wouldn’t say there’s anything quite like it, for the fact that everyone knows each other,” Grilli said. “My teammates are always joking around with me because we’ll be watching TV and a Canadian comes to bat or is on the mound, like Brett Lawrie on the A’s or James Paxton for the Mariners, and I would say, ‘He’s Canadian.’
“Social media plays a large part into following them and we’re at the age where information is extremely easily accessible where it keeps us up to date. Growing up playing with and against the likes of Daniel Pinero at Virginia, going to school with him, and Joey Hawkins at Missouri State, and they’re still in it.
“I talked to [Canisius College junior and Windsor, Ont., native] Brett Siddall a bunch throughout the whole season and they had a great run over there with Canisius. The Canadian baseball community – we all root for each other…we all keep tabs on each other and really it just reflects on how tight-knit a community the Canadian baseball community is.”