Chatham Pitcher Goossens Has A Fighter’s Spirit

Chatham Pitcher Goossens Has A Fighter’s Spirit

by Eric Adler

CHATHAM – As the losses piled up, each more humbling, humiliating and heartbreaking than the last, the members of the Siena men’s baseball team began to reach their breaking point.

Sighs replaced smiles, banter was benched, and tension, instead of talk, filled the air on the Saints’ once chatty chartered bus that ferried the crew from one futile outing to the next. The only words heard were among players planning their summer ball schedules and assistant coaches calling contacts to land a job somewhere else next year.

An acute case of Murphy’s Law had taken over sorry Siena, which started this spring by losing its first 17 games, a downward spiral from which there seemed to be no recovery.

Chin-up speeches by the coaches began to fall on deaf ears as the shameful Saints – looking less like a Division One team than a modern day version of the Bad News Bears – shuffled from state to state and lost their first six series, falling to non-conference foes Central Florida, Charleston Southern, Radford, Stetson, Georgia State and Ohio State.

Adding to Siena’s winless frustration was the fact they held the lead in 11 of those 17 contests, and suffered seven losses by three or fewer runs.

It was an unforeseen fall from grace for a club that reached the Metro Athletic Association Conference championship game the year before, and began the season ranked a respectable fourth in the 11-team MAAC pre-season poll.

Players began to question each other’s character, as well as their own, and it was difficult for them to take a look in the mirror without wanting to mask their faces with their mitts. It was a non-stop nightmare that caused collective despair.

Sophomore pitcher Bryan Goossens, however, never lost hope.

Goossens, a six-foot-three right-handed starter who’s shining as a reliever for the Chatham A’s this summer, was as much to blame for Siena’s submarine act as anyone. His walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and his ERA was in a state of disarray. But he sensed there was a light beyond the storm clouds that hovered over his troubled team – although he did have to squint to see it.

“There was a lot of talk that this wouldn’t be our year and some guys began to pack it in, but I knew we couldn’t give up because we still had two months and so many games left,” he said. “It was a long season already, but if we quit, it would have been even longer.”

Defibrillating the dying club was former Chatham pitcher Matt Gage. In Siena’s MAAC opener against Niagara on March 21, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and finished with 14 strikeouts, giving the Saints – at long last – their first victory with a 9-3 triumph.

It had taken the small New York school exactly five weeks to get a win under its belt, but by the end of the weekend they notched three, as the Saints swept the Purple Eagles, restoring some sense of order and preventing the team from falling further into a black hole of oblivion.

“We weren’t a laughing stock, it was just that no one talked about us,” said Goossens when asked how bad things got. “No one showed up at our games, no one watched us or followed us on Twitter. We were an afterthought to everyone.”

Soon enough, though, they would become destiny’s darlings and all the rage in Loudenville, a hamlet five miles north of Albany. The sweep of Niagara kick-started a Hollywood-style comeback as the resurgent Saints won 26 of their next 40 games, not necessarily by playing better baseball, but by believing they could.

“It was disappointing not to come up with any wins at the start of the season, and a lot of it we put on ourselves by making errors at critical points in games and blowing leads,” said Goossens. “We had good starters,but not a super deep bullpen. We also had a lot of young guys and it took them some time to fit into their roles. But we knew we had the potential to be a good team, and after we beat Niagara, we got our confidence back. From there, we got on a roll.”

The Saints, who played their first 34 games either on the road or at neutral sites (due to unplayable conditions at their snow-covered home field), won every series against MAAC opponents save for one against Manhattan College.

They began the MAAC post-season tournament with an extra-inning loss to Fairfield, but having been down this bumpy road before, were once again able to overcome the odds.

Siena won three straight one-run games while facing elimination before knocking off top-ranked Canisius, 5-1, to capture the conference crown in late May, capping an incredible comeback and earning the squad only its second trip to the NCAA tournament and first since 1999.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Goossens. “We did a dogpile on the mound, and it was after the game, while we were holding the trophy, getting awards and taking pictures, when we realized what we had done. There was no one who didn’t have tears in their eyes.”

The clock struck midnight on Siena’s Cinderella season in the NCAA regionals. The Saints (27-33) split a pair of one-run games (losing to TCU and beating Dallas-Baptist) before being eliminated by Sam Houston State. Taking the loss that day was Goossens, who allowed six hits and five runs in an inning and a third. He finished the season with a 3-5 record and 6.28 ERA.

It would be easy for Goossens to dwell on his sub par performances, especially the final one in a green and gold uniform. But playing for Siena taught him how to soldier through his struggles, and the Hampden, Mass. native has certainly brought his can-do attitude to the Cape this summer.

Goossens has worked tirelessly with Chatham pitching coach Jake McCarter to better himself and it’s paying off. In seven games (six out of the bullpen), he’s logged a 2.70 ERA and has recorded 18 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, an upgraded ratio from his school season when he fanned 38 batters in 81.2 innings.

Continued on Page 35

Chatham pitcher Bryan Goossens (left) helped lead Siena back from the brink after an 0-17 start this spring. The Saints won 26 of their next 40 games, culminating with a 5-1 win over Canisius to capture the MAAC crown in late May that resulted in a dogpile on the infield. COURTESY PHOTO

Goossens, who’s logged a 2.70 in seven games for the Anglers this summer, signs an autograph for a young fan. ERIC ADLER PHOTO

Chatham Pitcher Armed With A Fighter’s Spirit

Continued from Page 33

For starters, Goossens’velocity is way up. His fastball, clocked between 86 to 88 MPH at Siena, has reached the 90 to 93 MPH range.

“I’m keeping my back leg on the rubber longer and then exploding off it,” he said. “During the school year, I was falling forward and using only my arm to generate speed. Now, I’m using my lower body by driving off the mound.”

He’s also experimented with different grips to shore up his secondary stuff, a change-up and slider, while keeping both those pitches low in the zone. That’s made the biggest difference.

“This spring, everybody knew my fastball was coming just because I didn’t have those off-speed pitches to go to, but now, I’m keeping batters guessing and off-balance and I’m getting more strikeouts,” said Goossens.

No one’s happier with Goossens’ night-and-day difference than Chatham Field Manager John Schiffner.

“Bryan will be the first to tell you this past school year wasn’t the best for him and I definitely had concerns,” said Schiffner. “There were some phone calls made but his head coach, Tony Rossi, reassured me that Bryan was going to be OK, and he’s been everything Tony told me he was going to be. He’s got good velocity, his secondary stuff needs to get better, and it is, and he’s working on making himself a better pitcher.”

A naturally competitive person, Goossens has an athletic gene. His father played football and wrestled at Albany and his mother played tennis and ran track and field at Elms College. But he knows it takes more than heredity to get ahead. It requires a limitless supply of confidence and a strong mental make-up, and he doesn’t lack for either of those traits.

“Playing against these guys every day really feels like you’re playing minor league ball,” said Goossens. “It really is a job out here and if you don’t look at it that way, you’re not going to succeed. But it’s the best job out there. I’ve never had more fun in my whole life.”

Part of the fun has been upstaging foes from bigger schools. During a recent outing, Goossens handcuffed Hyannis over two scoreless innings, retiring batters from Houston, Michigan State and Virginia, the runner-up in this year’s College World Series.

“In every outing he’s had so far, he’s improved, not just in terms of the outcome or results, but his stuff has gotten better,” McCarter said. “His velocity has increased, his slider, which was flat at first, has more depth to it, and his change-up has been his best pitch. He’s been a good asset for us because he can eat up a lot of innings out of the bullpen. He’s an awesome kid and I wish we had more like him.”

An accounting major with a 3.7 GPA, Goossens has aspirations of playing pro ball. Working against him to some degree is a lack of exposure at school.

Since 1996, there have been 13 Siena players drafted by MLB teams, inducing Gage, a 10th round pick by the San Francisco Giants this year, and former Chatham slugger Dan Paolini, who was taken in the 10th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2011. Still, the school isn’t exactly a baseball factory in the same vein as USC, Texas and newly-minted CWS champ Vanderbilt.

“Matt told me if you’re going to get drafted, it has to come from this summer because it’s not like we have tons of scouts pouring into our games at school,” said Goossens. “This is the place you have to get their attention. It’s motivated me to throw harder and do better in front of them because I know I have to.”

Even when he isn’t trying to perfect his pitches and impress the men in dark slacks and Polo shirts, Goossens is still thinking about baseball.

An avid card collector, Goossens has accumulated roughly 10,000 baseball cards, including some rather valuable ones that could bode well for his financial future after he hangs up his cleats. He’s the owner of mint condition Cal Ripken, Jr., Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout rookie cards, which he keeps hermetically sealed in binders that sit in the basement of his family’s home.

“I have a lot of guys who are going to be Hall of Famers one day, so I’m going to hold onto them and wait for their value to go up,” said Goossens, who indulges in his hobby whenever he stops at a gas station by picking up a pack or two. “It’s always fun to open them up and see who’s inside.”

Goossens hopes that one day, one of the cards will be his own.

There, on the front, will be a picture of him reaching back to deliver a pitch. The flip side will show a brief bio that lists his year-by-year stats. To be immortalized by Topps or Upper Deck would be something special, but a little limiting as well. After all, Bryan Goossens is more than a face and a name tied to a set of numbers on a piece of paper. He’s a fighter with a strong spirit and one remarkable story of resiliency to tell.

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