Two former UNA Lions facing off in the World Series

San Francisco Giant’s player Sergio Romo played at UNA in 2004 and is trying to win his third World Series.

This is a special World Series for UNA fans, as a pair of former Lions compete head-to-head in the World Series.

Kansas City Royal’s outfielder and designated hitter Josh Willingham played for UNA from 1998-2000, and San Francisco Giant’s relief pitcher Sergio Romo suited up for the Lions 2004 season.

This is Willingham’s first trip to the World Series and Romo’s third in the last five seasons.

“Having two former players (playing in the World Series) is really pretty remarkable,” said head baseball coach Mike Keehn, who was an assistant coach when Willingham was at UNA. “That’s a rarity for any program and especially at the D-II level.”

Willingham is a Florence native and graduated from Mars Hill Bible School.

“It’s not only nice to see someone to represent UNA but to also represent the Florence community as well,” said assistant coach Matt Hancock. “He’s just a great baseball player and a better person.”

While at UNA, Willingham earned All-American and Academic All-American honors, and helped the Lions reach the NCAA D-II World Series in 1999.

During the 1999 season he set the UNA record for most doubles in a season (26), grand slams (3), total bases (164), on base percentage (.585) and slugging percentage (.863).

“He was just so dangerous, especially offensively,” Keehn said. “He’s the best mistake hitter we’ve had, so if you made a mistake (on a pitch) he was going to make you pay. He really became such a complete player.”

Keehn said Willingham was not a vocal leader but leads by example on and off the field.

“Young guys can learn a lot about hitting by just watching him up at bat,” he said. “ He’s a guy that understands the strike zone and knows how to work the count.”

Willingham left UNA after his junior season when the Florida Marlins drafted him in the 2000 MLB draft.

Willingham played shortstop with the Lions but was not projected to play the position at the next level.

“I thought he projected as a third baseman but they already had Miguel Cabrera,” Keehn said. “But he was such a good hitter, they had to find a way for him to be on the field.”

Willingham made the move to catcher and then eventually found himself as the starting left fielder for the Marlins in 2006.

In 11 MLB seasons Willingham has played for five different teams, hit 195 home runs and 632 RBIs. His highlight season was in 2012 when he hit .260 with 35 home runs and 110 RBIs with the Minnesota Twins.

“If he’s healthy he’s going to put up at least 20 home runs,” Keehn said.

Willingham has hit at least 20 home runs in five seasons.

One of the biggest contributions Willingham made in his career came in the American wild-card game this year when he got a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth to help the Royals send the game to extra innings. The Royals eventually won in 12 innings against the Oakland Athletics 9-8.

“We’ve had a lot of great players come through here, but he’s been the most successful one,” Keehn said. “He just studies the game, and teams love having him in the clubhouse.”

In Romo’s lone season at UNA he was named first-team All-Gulf Coast Conference after putting up a 10-3 record with a 3.69 ERA.

“He played well for us and at the beginning of the season, his numbers were off the charts,” Keehn said. “When we got in conference play, he got hit a little.”

Hancock pitched with Romo for the Lions.

“He was really talented and had great velocity with his fastball,” he said. “He was our No. 1 pitcher that year and dominated really early in the season.”

Romo was drafted by the Giants in 2005 and made his MLB debut in 2008.

In seven seasons, Romo has won two World Series, posted a 2.51 ERA and 78 saves. In 2013 he recorded 38 saves, which ranked third in the National League.

In the 2012 World Series, Romo had three saves with five strikeouts in three perfect innings, and pitched the final inning of game four.

The Giants would swept the Detroit Tigers 4-0 for Romo’s second World Series win.

Rumors circulated saying Willingham will retire at the end of the season, but he has yet to make any decision.

“I’m going to enjoy watching this series, and if Josh does retire I would like to see if he can go out on top,” Hancock said.

Lions’ fans can catch the Willingham and Romo play games three and four Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 at 6 p.m.

If necessary games five, six and seven will be Oct. 26, Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, all at 6 p.m.

All games will be televised on FOX Network.