RALEIGH, N.C.—When you've waited 45 years for something, what are a few extra hours?
In the longest super regional game ever, North Carolina State earned its first trip to the College World Series since 1968 by outlasting Rice 5-4 in 17 innings. Along the way, the Wolfpack had its back to the wall multiple times, went six innings between hits and waited out a 77-minute rain delay in the 12th inning.
"You've gotta stick with things," N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. "That's what this club does."
For most of the afternoon, it looked like the Wolfpack and Owls would be sticking around for a Game 3. Rice second baseman Christian Stringer continued his unlikely power barrage with two solo homers, giving him three for the series after having hit only one in 61 games all year, and the Owls carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth, the game seemingly under control.
But as much as Stringer’s weekend was a dream, it was equally a nightmare for teammate Zech Lemond, the Owls' closer. The anchor of the Rice bullpen gave up two runs in the ninth inning to lose in walkoff fashion in Game 1. While any closer will say he wants to get right back out there the next day, the Owls asked Lemond for an eight-out save on Sunday, a tall task for the righthander who'd already thrown 6 2/3 innings in Oregon on Monday to deliver the Owls to supers.
"(Lemond's) a great pitcher, one of the best out there," Wolfpack catcher Brett Austin said. "To be able to come out and do what we did against him the night before, I think it gave us a lot of confidence coming into the ninth."
Lemond had escaped an inherited two-on, one-out situation in the seventh and registered two strikeouts in the 8th, but the Wolfpack got to him in the ninth again. Lemond nemesis Jake Fincher, who hit the walkoff single against him Sunday, was the lynchpin again, smacking a double down the right-field line that caromed off the angled fence in front of the Rice bullpen and past right fielder Michael Ratterree, allowing two runs to score. Two batters later, Tarran Senay roped a double to right to score Fincher and tie the game.
The Owls had their own golden chance to put an end to matters in the bottom of the inning, putting men on second and third with one out, but Wolfpack senior lefthander Grant Sasser got out of the jam, eventually ending the inning when Keenan Cook popped up a two-out bunt attempt—failed bunts were another theme on both sides—as the Owls tried to take advantage of how deep the right side of the Wolfpack infield was playing.
From there, the game settled into a lengthy stalemate. Rice finally relieved Lemond with one out in the 10th, replacing him with usual No. 3 starter John Simms. Logan Ratledge greeted Simms with a single that put men on the corners, but that rally was snuffed out moments later when Trea Turner lined into a double play. Simms got into a groove quickly from there, carving up the Wolfpack for the next six innings. After Ratledge's single greeted Simms in the 10th, the Wolfpack's next hit against him didn't come until Senay singled to lead off the 17th.
With Simms silencing the Wolfpack offense, NCSU needed to match him zero for zero. Enter Ethan Ogburn. The senior righthander has been a weekend starter for much of the season, but consistency has been elusive. He hadn't lasted four innings in any of his last three starts, but Avent summoned him to the mound to start the 13th.
"This last half of the season," Avent said, "it hasn't always gone his way … (but) Ethan's never acted any different."
In other words, Ogburn has stuck with it, and he pitched what Avent called the game of his life Sunday. N.C. State was the designated visiting team, which meant in the first four innings Ogburn took the mound, one mistake could mean the end of the line. But the senior was the right man for the moment, retiring the first 10 Rice hitters he faced and matching his season high with six strikeouts over five scoreless innings in all.
The Wolfpack has been down this marathon road before. Just two weeks ago, it played an 18-inning classic against North Carolina in the ACC tournament, a game that saw it squander one scoring chance after another before eventually losing 2-1. Heartbreaking as that night was, the hard lessons from it served the Wolfpack well on Sunday.
"During the Carolina game, we were pressing too much," Wolfpack center fielder Brett Williams said. "Everybody wanted to walk off or hit a home run or something like that. We've come up with a really good saying: ’90 feet,’ which is how far it is to first base. That's what you need in times like that. You need baserunners. That's really what we were just focused on, just one base at a time."
Baserunners weren't easy to come by against Simms, but the Wolfpack finally cracked his armor when Senay pulled a single through the right side to lead off the 17th. Two hitters later, Williams lined a full-count pitch into the right-center field gap with Senay on the move. When Ratterree momentarily misplayed the ball in the outfield, Senay was able to race all the way around to score.
The Owls, who themselves didn't get a hit from the 10th through the 16th, mounted a threat in the bottom half of the inning, putting runners on the corners with two away. None other than Stringer came to the plate, but by now the Wolfpack had learned what not to do against him—namely throw fastballs—and Ogburn got him to lift his first pitch for a harmless fly to left field, where 45 years and 17 innings of waiting ended when the ball settled into the glove of Bryan Adametz.
The Wolfpack made a point not to dogpile after winning its regional last week, but there was no holding back this time, as 45 years were washed away.
"We wanted to accomplish something," Ogburn said. "For us, that wasn't the regional. We wanted to return this program back to Omaha."
1968. The Wolfpack's players have had signs on their lockers bearing that year, the year of the program's first and last—until now—trip to Omaha. The code to the door to get into that locker room? 1968. (That code will now be changed, by the way.)
Like parting clouds, such daily reminders of the Wolfpack's Omaha drought won't hang over future teams. But there's another detail not to be overlooked. This Wolfpack team has more baseball to play.
"We're not done yet," Senay said.