EUGENE, Ore.—What it lacked in grace—and it lacked anything resembling grace—Saturday's super regional opener between Kent State and Oregon made up for with ninth-inning drama.
The Ducks cut Kent State's three-run lead down to one in the ninth and had the bases loaded with two outs for J.J. Altobelli. With a raucous crowd of 4,177 in a frenzy, Altobelli drove a Josh Pierce offering into the right-center-field gap, and Kent State junior center fielder Evan Campbell raced backward, reached up and made a full-extension catch over his left shoulder, then tumbled to the ground. The crowd held its collective breath for an anxious second, waiting to see if Campbell held onto the ball, but when he held up his glove, it contained the final out in Kent State's 7-6 win.
"Right off the bat, I thought it was just a routine play, honestly, because the ball wasn't traveling too well tonight," Campbell said. "As I kept running, it kept carrying, and it was pretty close. Right at the tail end, it was close—50/50."
Oregon's ninth-inning surge started with a leadoff walk to Aaron Jones and reached a crescendo with back-to-back walks later in the frame, forcing in the Ducks' final run. Kent State pitchers combined to issue 11 walks in the game, including seven by ace David Starn, who minimized the damage and allowed just four runs in 6 1/3 innings of work.
"We've watched him for four years now, and when David Starn has a bad outing, that's what he's done: He gives you six innings and four runs," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "I can't remember an outing in his career where he didn't give us a chance to win."
Stricklin paused a moment, looked at Starn and said, "Can I say it? As bad as he was today, he still got the win. He's competitive, and he just gets it done."
Starn is a senior who has pitched in big game after big game during his brilliant career, which has included four straight trips to regionals. But with the game on the line, the Golden Flashes called upon a freshman—Pierce—to wriggle out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the ninth.
And Pierce delivered what Stricklin described as a momentum-changing strikeout of Kyle Garlick to record the first out, then got Ryan Hambright to hit a sacrifice fly one batter later for out No. 2. But then he walked the next two batters, setting up Campbell's heroic catch on Altobelli's drive.
It was the farthest thing from a pretty victory for Kent State, which has had its share of crisp, clinical wins as well as a smattering of fortunate breaks during its current 21-game winning streak. As Stricklin pointed out, his team hasn't lost since April 25, and it takes plenty of resolve as well as plenty of luck to go unbeaten that long.
"I think it just shows how tough our kids are—that's a great win for us," Stricklin said. "It was certainly a hard-fought win. If you'd have told me before the game that we were going to walk them 11 times and win, I wouldn't believe you. But we made pitches when we needed to, we made plays when we needed to, and Evan Campbell made an unbelievable play at the end.
"The funny thing is, we played sloppy today. It was a sloppy game, I think both teams would agree."
He certainly wouldn't get any argument on that point from Oregon coach George Horton. The Ducks have won 45 games this season largely because of their stellar defense, but their defense let them down Saturday.
Kent State took the lead with two runs in the third inning, with the second run scoring on ace Alex Keudell's two-base throwing error on a bunt. In the fifth, Oregon center fielder Vernell Warren dropped a fairly routine fly ball off Campbell's bat, sparking another two-run rally. And Kent State added crucial insurance runs in the eighth, when an Alex Miklos line drive into right field got past Aaron Jones for a three-base error, scoring two baserunners.
"Our inability to do something we've done an extremely good job of doing this year—getting outs on out balls—came back to haunt us," Horton said.
"We didn't play real well. I'm not taking anything away from the Golden Flashes; they outplayed us and outcoached us for the bulk of the game. But as you can tell, my guys didn't disappear. Even when it looked very bleak, we had the winning run at second base, and our guy had an excellent at-bat, and their center fielder turned it into an out."
So Kent State finds itself one win away from its first trip to the College World Series. As Stricklin pointed out, every win from here on out is the biggest in school history. But the Ducks made it clear Saturday that they aren't likely to go down quietly.
"I'll tell you what: If Kent State is able to hold us off, we'll tip our cap to them, because we're going to give them everything we've got," Horton said.
"If I know my team, we'll be back to play extremely hard tomorrow and play better tomorrow."
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