OMAHA—When it was over, the question hung in the air like a line drive to the gap in TD Ameritrade Park, suspended in place by the relentless wind howling in from center field: Was that a 15-inning classic, or was it a snoozefest?
It should have been a classic. Virginia and Texas Christian have two of the nation’s premier pitching staffs, and they ran quality arm after quality arm onto the mound Tuesday night in Omaha. It was fun to watch Brandon Finnegan and Nick Howard and Riley Ferrell and Artie Lewicki light up the radar guns and make hitters look silly with vicious sliders.
But from the 10th inning until the 15th, one thing was missing: action. Virginia finally broke through in the bottom of the 15th, when Nate Irving led off with a ground-rule double over the left fielder’s head, and Virginia scored on Daniel Pinero’s walk-off sacrifice fly to beat TCU 3-2.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Nate Irving’s ground-rule double into the left-field bullpen leading off the 15th snapped Virginia out of the offensive doldrums that reigned for most of the game against these two elite pitching staffs. Branden Cogswell, who doubled twice and scored Virginia’s first two runs early in the game, followed Irving’s double by bunting pinch-runner Thomas Woodruff to third, setting up a game-winning sac fly by Daniel Pinero after two failed attempts to get a squeeze bunt down.
“I think that was our break,” Cogswell said of Irving’s double. “We’ve been battling for six innings after the ninth inning, and for Irving to get a ball over the left-fielder’s head, we knew we had to take advantage of that. So all our approaches kind of changed at that split second, and we knew we had to execute and get the job done for the team.”
The Hero: There were plenty of pitching heroes on both sides, but if not for Irving’s double, the Cavaliers and Frogs might still be muddling through 1-2-3 innings. The catcher has provided an invaluable spark out of the No. 9 hole.
You Might Have Missed: The 15-inning game was tied for the longest in College World Series history. It was the fourth 15-inning game at the CWS, but the first since 1970. TCU first baseman Kevin Cron set a CWS single-game record with 23 putouts.
Until that point, both offenses were frustrated by the huge arms—and by the sheer difficulty of generating offense in a beautiful ballpark that faces the wrong direction, with impotent bats in their hands.
“Premium arms—it’s hard to get upset at your offense when you’re facing that kind of pitching,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “I’ve got to be careful here before I say some things about this ballpark that I’ll regret. It’s just a travesty what we’ve done to college baseball.
“But it’s very impressive by Howard. Very impressive by Ferrell. Very impressive by (Trey) Teakell. Very impressive by Lewicki.”
That laudably honest statement captured a sentiment shared by so many people who watched the game, and so many others who love college baseball but were probably too tired of seeing the same kind of game played on repeat over and over in Omaha to watch Tuesday. The brand of baseball played at the College World Series is dreadfully out of balance.
Given their arms, these two teams might have stifled each other’s offenses for 15 innings in any park, with any bats. But it would have meant a lot more in 2010 at Rosenblatt Stadium than it did in 2014 at TDAP. And it would have been more compelling, instead of being just another game with very little action.
Ferrell and Howard were masterful after both took over in the eighth inning. They combined to work eight innings of shutout ball, allowing two combined hits and two walks while striking out 10. Ferrell worked at 95-97 and touched 98, mixing in a devastating 84-87 slider. Howard sat at 95-97 with a dastardly 81-84 slider.
After the Cavaliers tied the game at 2-2 on an RBI groundout in the fifth against first-round pick Brandon Finnegan, neither team scored for the next 10 innings. Just three baserunners reached second base during that stretch, before Irving’s double.
“You know, there was kind of a little bit of a lull in the game there from about the ninth until the 15th, but I don’t know,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “I mean, you’ve got to string hits together. You’ve got to find a break in this World Series these days, and it’s just they’re tough to win, and I’m really proud of our guys that we found a way.”
Irving, who sparked Virginia’s walk-off win Sunday against Mississippi with a leadoff walk in the ninth, shocked everyone by drilling that double to left against Teakell in the 15th. It was the first ball to clear an outfield fence in eight CWS games this year—but it did so on a bounce. Too often at TD Ameritrade Park, the team that makes a defensive blunder at the wrong time loses—it’s hard to score without a little help. So it was refreshing that the Cavaliers won the game by earning it with legitimate offense, just as they did Sunday, when Mike Papi ripped a walk-off double.
“When you’re in an extra-inning game and you’re facing the pitching like we’re facing, it’s great to see Nate clutch up. He’s gotten so many big hits in his three years here,” O’Connor said. “For him to drive a ball over the left fielder’s head, I didn’t know if anybody was going to be able to do that on either ballclub tonight. But fortunately he got it up enough, and he must have squared it up really, really good to hit it out there.”
That comment prompted the Virginia players sitting next to O’Connor to grin and shake their heads. It’s a shame that Omaha’s beautiful $131 million ballpark has become the punch line to a cruel joke at the expense of hitters, and at the expense of bored fans who shelled out good money to watch a product with no variety. How much longer will they be willing to do so? Attendance is down this year.
The ballpark and the bats shouldn’t overshadow brilliant pitching by supremely talented arms. But it did on Tuesday.
And that is a travesty.