CWS Game Nine: TCU 11, Florida State 7

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The eighth inning was chock full of little turning points on the way to Matt Curry’s go-ahead grand slam. There was Brance Rivera’s hustle up the line to break up an inning-ending double play. There was Bryan Holaday’s acrobatic slide around the tag at second base on his RBI double. And there was Jason Coats’ intense walk to load the bases for Curry.

Curry’s grand slam over the center-field batter’s eye was the biggest swing of the bat in TCU history.

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Neither starting pitcher reached the fourth inning, but Florida State got four sterling innings of relief from sidearmer Daniel Bennett to put itself in position to win, before the wheels came off in the eighth inning. Bennett allowed just one run on three hits and two walks while striking out five, tying his career high.

OMAHA—It was the kind of moment that will go down in Rosenblatt Stadium lore. It was exactly the kind of moment the 2010 College World Series was lacking until Wednesday night.

Most of the first eight games of this Series followed a similar pattern: One team takes control with an early lead, the other team keeps fighting and has a chance to get back into the game in the late innings but fails to convert. There had been no comebacks, very little real drama. Fans and reporters were starting to grumble that the final CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium was doomed to be a dud.

And for seven innings, Wednesday night’s Texas Christian-Florida State game seemed to be following the same pattern. The Seminoles built a five-run lead, the Horned Frogs had a chance to get back into the game in the seventh but left two runners on base. Florida State was in control.

And then Matt Curry provided that long-awaited signature moment.

Curry’s electrifying grand slam over the center-field batter’s eye turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead in the eighth inning, propelling TCU to a thrilling 11-7 win. The Seminoles became the third team eliminated from the CWS, while the Horned Frogs survived to earn a rematch against UCLA on Friday.

“You sit and watch the great games in this place over the course of my life, and you just keep waiting for something like this to happen, whether it’s in one of our games or when you’re here,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “This is what it’s all about.”

TCU (53-13) trailed 7-3 heading into the crazy eighth inning, during which the Frogs looked fried several times. With runners on first and second and one out, FSU reliever Geoff Parker felt something pop in his elbow, so FSU coach Mike Martin went to the mound along with a trainer to check on Parker, then pointed to left field, summoning first-team All-America two-way star Mike McGee to close the game. McGee entered the game 4-0, 1.33 with 13 saves and zero blown saves all season.

“When McGee came into the game—certainly he’s one of the great players in college baseball—you had to wonder about our chances,” Schlossnagle said.

And it looked like McGee had rescued the Seminoles (48-20) from the jam, just as he did so many times in 2010. The first batter he faced, Brance Rivera, hit a chopper to shortstop that looked like a tailor-made double play ball. But Rivera beat out the relay to first, prolonging the inning. After a walk loaded the bases, TCU captain Bryan Holaday hit a laser off the left-field wall to score a run. The throw from left field was cut off, and the relay to second base arrived well before Holaday did.

But Holaday made an impossible slide around second baseman Devon Travis’ tag, so once again, TCU’s inning stayed alive.

Next came No. 3 hitter Jason Coats with runners on second and third, and the Horned Frogs still trailing by two runs. Coats worked the count full, then managed to lay off a tight McGee breaking ball just below the zone, loading the bases.

“He’s a pretty free-swinger,” Schlossnagle said of Coats, “and for him to lay off a great pitch to get Curry to the plate was just outstanding.”

Curry fell behind in the count 1-and-2, then battled the count full himself.

“I knew it could be my last college at-bat, and I was definitely going to go up there and battle,” said Curry, a senior. “I got a curveball earlier in the count, and I just missed it, fouled it back. He just happened to throw another one full count, and I didn’t miss that one at all. And that’s the ball I hit out.”

Rosenblatt Stadium erupted as Curry’s blast soared toward center field. The sound of the crowd by itself made it clear the ball was going out.

And then FSU center fielder Tyler Holt appeared to camp under the ball just in front of the warning track. He looked up, waiting for the ball to find his glove. The roaring crowd faltered for an instant.

“To be honest with you, Holt had me fooled,” Schlossnagle said. “I almost dropped to my knees in tears when I saw him camped under that ball. But he’s a great player, he obviously was hoping it would hit the fence and he could keep somebody from scoring.”

Well, not exactly. Curry, TCU’s first baseman, clarified:

“The next inning, Holt got on first base, I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, did you mean to do that? Were you meaning to scare me like that or did you just  not see it?’ He said, ‘Man, I never saw it off the bat. The twilight got me. So I was just camping, hoping I could hold some runs.’ I guess he just never saw it.

“When I hit it, I knew it was gone, because I’ve hit some home runs and I usually know when I get them. I look and I’m all fired up. And I looked back out there and he’s camped underneath it. My heart sank in my stomach. I’m like, ‘There’s no way this ball’s not leaving.’ I just happened to look up, and that’s when I got fired up again.”

Curry’s home run electrified the TCU dugout, which had drawn energy earlier in the inning from its “rally turtle”—a figure scratched in the dirt in front of the dugout with a bat. They watered it, they fed it with sunflower seeds—and they credited it with helping kickstart the rally.

Whatever works.

TCU’s rally didn’t stop with Curry’s grand slam. Pinch-hitter Josh Elander followed with a sharp single to chase McGee, and Jantzen Witte—the 10th batter of the inning— brought him home with a massive two-run homer to left, punctuating the eight-run outburst. Just like that, Florida State’s four-run lead had turned into a four-run deficit.

“I think we were up 7-3 or 7-4,” FSU third baseman Sherman Johnson said. “Being up that much with six outs, five outs left, you’re definitely expecting to win the game. And when that happens, it felt like we just couldn’t get out of that inning. It felt like we were just stuck on the field. Not a good feeling.”

McGee’s final line was one-third of an inning, three hits, five runs. He had a shot at redemption in the bottom of the eighth, as Florida State loaded the bases with one out against hard-throwing TCU reliever Kaleb Merck. But Johnson struck out, and McGee followed with a soft flare that was caught by second baseman Jerome Pena, ending the inning.

It was an unfair end for McGee, Florida State’s de facto MVP.

“Michael is the reason we’re here,” Martin said. “And you can’t—you can’t go through a season without experiencing some problems, so to speak. We ran into a hot-hitting ball club that did an outstanding job of getting themselves back in the game. Michael made some very good pitches that were hit. The 3-2 pitch that the guy hit out of the ballpark was a slider. Michael has pitched great baseball for us all year. And I’ll say it again, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Mike McGee.”

Unfortunately for McGee, he was on the wrong end of TCU’s storybook victory. It was the kind of comeback win that can propel a team all the way to a national title, and TCU is deep enough on the mound to make the run all the way through the loser’s bracket.

Schlossnagle said ace lefty Matt Purke will “probably” make the start on five days’ rest Friday against UCLA, which is rested and will throw its third ace, Rob Rasmussen.

“We talked about it the other night—if we could just get through tonight and maybe get back to Matt, that gives us a chance for a one-game deal,” Schlossnagle said. “We’re going to have to play really well. And the great thing about baseball is the best team doesn’t win. It’s the team that plays the best, and so we have to play well. And if we play well, I like our chances.”