Frantic Comeback Helps Columbia Stun New Mexico

FULLERTON, Calif.—It looked grim for Columbia with one out and the bases empty in the eighth inning. The Lions trailed New Mexico 5-0, they were five outs away from elimination, and Sam Wolff was cruising, having retired the last seven Columbia hitters, four via strikeouts.

But Jordan Serena doubled to left-center on Wolff’s 120th pitch of the game, so the Lobos went to the bullpen. And that was a welcome sight to the Lions, who rallied for five runs in the eighth to tie it, then scored a run in the 13th to earn a 6-5 win Saturday—their first-ever NCAA tournament victory.

“I feel so happy for the guys on this team,” Columbia coach Brett Boretti said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work to see it all come through for us to get an opportunity and get that win that we’ve been so wanting and talking about. It means a lot for them, and I’m elated for them, that they have the first ‘W’ in Columbia baseball history in the NCAA tournament.”

After Serena’s one-out double chased Wolff, Columbia two-way star Alex Black greeted sidewinder Hobie McClain with a two-run homer to left-center, giving the Lions some life.

But they still trailed by three runs with the bases empty in the eighth inning, so they needed to restart their rally. Cleanup man Joey Falcone, the Marine Corps veteran who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed Black’s homer with a walk, and two more walks loaded the bases with two outs. Sidewinding lefthander Gabe Aguilar issued that third walk after taking over for McClain, and he battled Nick Crucet for 10 pitches before Crucet delivered a flare to shallow right that scored two more runs, making it 5-4. The next hitter, Mike Fischer, delivered a game-tying RBI single through a drawn-in infield.

The two sidewinders presented a dramatically different look after Wolff, a power righty who touched 94 as late as the seventh inning and had a solid 72-75 curveball going.

“Their starter pitched well, we couldn’t get any runs on the board,” Crucet said. “Our goal was to get into their bullpen, and that’s what we did. We just put good at-bats together, got timely hits, and the rest is history.”

The Lobos, conversely, did not get timely hits from the seventh inning on against Columbia righthander Joey Donino, the No. 3 starter/swingman who took over in the sixth inning. Donino had success getting the Lobos to chase his 77-78 power curveball out of the zone, or roll it over for groundball outs. New Mexico, perhaps the best offensive team in college baseball this season, rapped out 14 hits Saturday but also struck out 13 times and left 13 men on base.

“We were trying to let it go deep and go the other way,” New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said of his team’s offensive approach. “But the last couple days it’s been emotional for these kids, and trying to keep them from getting emotional was the hard part this weekend. They wanted to win in the worst way . . . It’s over. And it hurts.”

In the top of the 13th, Nick Ferraresi led off with a single to left, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, then scored on Crucet’s RBI single through the right side.

“I can’t describe it, honestly,” Crucet said of his final at-bat. “I was looking for a pitch in the zone, took it the other way, and it’s all a blur from there, really.”

The Lions weren’t out of the woods yet. Give the Lobos credit for not rolling over after Columbia stormed back in the eighth—they continued to fight, right to the bitter end, as they always do. Jared Holley drew a leadoff walk in the 13th and moved to third with two outs for D.J. Peterson, one of the nation’s most dangerous hitters. Rather than walk Peterson and put the winning run on base for Mitch Garver, Boretti allowed his closer—Black—to challenge Peterson, with the tying run just 90 feet away.

Black threw a first-pitch slider, then a 93 mph fastball, then another slider, making the count 1-and-2. He went back to 93 mph heat up in the zone for his next pitch, blowing it right by Peterson for a game-ending strikeout.

“The save, that’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” Black said. “I love coming into games late and just throwing the crap out of the ball—it’s so much fun. The adrenaline rush is incredible. To strike out their best hitter to finish it was icing on the cake.”

Black said he was thrilled when Boretti elected to let him pitch to Peterson.

“I was pumped,” he said. “All that was running through my mind was that Major League II scene with Charlie Sheen and (fictional character) Jack Parkman. That’s one of my favorite movies, and Charlie Sheen ends up striking out Jack Parkman to win the pennant. That was really what was going through my mind, to be honest.”

Columbia’s postgame press conference was chock full of colorful answers like that. When a reporter asked Falcone about Saturday being his birthday, Falcone chuckled, then replied in his thick Brooklyn accent, “Thanks for reminding me. I’m 27 years young today—how you guys doin’? Yeah, it was our first NCAA win, that’s right. That’s one of the best birthday presents I could have ever asked for. I’m not interested in having any other kind of birthday present—what do I care? That’s what I want right there.”