CARY, N.C. — Minnesota State-Mankato righthander Jason Hoppe started on short rest Thursday, but he didn't use that as an excuse after the game. He said rest wasn't an issue in the slightest. He simply had difficulty locating his pitches and spotting his changeup.
Sitting to Hoppe's left in the post-game press conference, head coach Matt Magers couldn't resist interrupting.
"He just threw 52 scoreless innings," said Magers, laughing. "We'll give him a break tonight."
Actually, Hoppe had just thrown 55 1/3 scoreless, tacking on 3 1/3 more Thursday night to break the NCAA Division II record of 54 set by SIU Edwardsville pitcher Kyle Jones in 2006.
In the process, the Mavericks knocked off St. Edward's (Texas) 6-5, claiming a spot in Saturday's NCAA Division II World Series championship game.
As the final score suggests, Hoppe's scoreless streak eventually also came to an end, as the junior surrendered four runs (three earned) on eight hits in five innings.
Not only did Hoppe have to battle the aggressive Hilltopper hitters, but he also had to deal with the weight of the scoreless streak hanging over him.
"It was big time today," Hoppe said of his nerves. "I wanted to end my season getting the complete game and finishing the job.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do that tonight. Give credit to their hitters. They battled up there. They were putting my balls in play that other teams haven't in this tournament."
Even in his first three scoreless innings, Hoppe lived dangerously, pitching in and out of trouble each inning. The play that tied the Division II record could've easily ended it: First baseman Nate Bobrowski was thrown out at home plate on a St. Edward's double steal attempt.
Eventually, the relentless Hilltoppers broke through.
In the fourth inning, with runners on the corners and one out, St. Edward's third baseman Dylan Watts ripped a single through the middle, knocking in the first run Hoppe had allowed since April 7. St. Edward's then scored again on a throwing error in the next inning, and in the sixth, they loaded bases with no one out to force Hoppe out of the game.
Though senior reliever Nick Sutherland allowed two of Hoppe's runners to score — tying the game at 4-4 — he was crucial in providing a three-inning segue between Hoppe and closer Mahlon Zimmerman.
"That's what our staff is about — picking each other up," Hoppe said. "When I gave the ball to Southerland, I knew he could get out of that situation."
Southerland allowed one run and struck out four in his three innings of work. And Minnesota State-Mankato's offense helped provide a lift as well, as two, three and four batters Lucas Skjefte, Connor McCallum and Nolan Johnson combined to go 9 for 11 and drive in five of MSU's six runs.
With the way Hoppe has pitched of late, McCallum said it was important for the team to repay him the favor.
"He's carried us through the last two months of the season," McCallum said. "Just to get him out of some jams and give him some run support, it felt really good."
The Mavericks won't know who they'll face in the championship game until Friday's Tampa-Grand Valley State game concludes. The Spartans had a chance to earn a spot in the game Thursday, but the high-octane offense sputtered against Lakers ace Kyle Teague, who pitched a complete-game shutout in a 4-0 Grand Valley State win.
With Magers starting Hoppe on short rest, the plan was for the righthander to provide a similar performance Thursday.
It didn't work out that way, but Magers certainly couldn't complain with the result afterward.
"If every game I coached was played the way I drew it up," Magers said, again joking, "I'd be making a lot more money than I am now."