OMAHA—The first time Eric Gutierrez played in T.D. Ameritrade Park Omaha, he was nervous. Tight. He was just a sophomore on the first-ever College World Series Texas Tech team in 2014, and he told himself that he had to be the lead Raider, that he had to continue to shoulder the offensive load he had carried for most of the season.
He went 0-for-8, and the Red Raiders went 0-2.
The second time Gutierrez stepped on the T.D. Ameritrade Park field, he was a little more confident. It was a couple of weeks after the Red Raiders were eliminated, in the College Home Run Derby in July. He hit a derby-record 52 home runs—52 reasons to be proud.
Gutierrez’ third time in Omaha came yet again in the College Home Run Derby in 2015, and he watched 17 more balls fly out of the park’s Yellowstone-sized dimensions. His confidence only grew.
|GAME AT A GLANCE
|Turning Point: Florida had its best opportunity to change the game when it loaded the bases with one out in the sixth inning for cleanup hitter J.J. Schwarz. Down 2-0 at the time, the Gators had a chance to tie or even take the lead. Instead, Schwarz grounded into 1-2-3 double play and was called out for interference as he ran to first. That play ended the rally, ended the inning, and took the air out of the Gators’ sails.
The Hero: Freshman Davis Martin—in conjunction with the tremendous defense behind him—earns hero honors for blanking Florida for seven innings and holding the scuffling Gators offense to just three hits. Martin was efficient, throwing just 82 pitches and matching a career high with his seven frames.
You Might Have Missed: Peter Alonso hit his 14th home run of the season—and fifth home run in eight NCAA tournament games—with his two-run home run in the ninth inning. The homer came in what was likely Alonso’s final collegiate at-bat. The Mets drafted him 64th overall.
Those derby homers, those eight at-bats in 2014 and the pain of defeat have all run through Gutierrez’ mind in the Texas Tech senior’s fourth trip to Omaha this June. And all of those memories have added up to a sense of relief, a sense of familiarity and an idea what it takes to actually drive the ball in college baseball’s postseason cathedral.
Gutierrez could visualize all of those balls going over the fence as he stepped to the plate against Florida in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s elimination game. Then he turned on an 0-1 fastball by Gators righthander Alex Faedo and saw it happen in real-time.
Did he know it would go over the fence?
“Absolutely,” Gutierrez laughed afterward. Of course he did. He knows all too well what a home run in that ballpark looks like.
The two-run home run gave the Red Raiders an early lead against Florida. And though the Gators would rally late, Texas Tech’s lead held. The Red Raiders earned their first College World Series win in program history, 3-2, and fittingly, it was Gutierrez, the four-year starter and four-time Omaha visitor, who delivered the key offensive blow.
“I wasn’t trying to aim it, to be honest,” Gutierrez said. “I got a good pitch to hit. But it gives a little bit of relief at the plate that you’ve been here for four years . . . ‘Hey, relax, you’ve been here four times.’ No matter if it was a home run derby or a World Series, it gives me a little calm at the plate.”
It calms Gutierrez, too, to know that he doesn’t have to be the hero for this Texas Tech team. He doesn’t need to put that kind of pressure on himself anymore. He said that’s the most important lesson he learned from Texas Tech’s 0-2 showing in the College World Series two years ago.
“Now I’m here and we have a lineup that’s stacked with a lot of guys who can hit the ball out—play big ball, hit doubles and everything,” Gutierrez said. “So now it’s just like, ‘All right, I just have to get on base. If it’s out, it’s out.”
Tuesday’s win against the No. 1 national seed and Series favorite Florida was far from a singular effort. The Red Raiders had contributions from every inch of the roster, starting with freshman righthander Davis Martin, who allowed no runs on three hits and three walks in seven innings, moving to 10-1 on the year. Behind Martin, the Red Raiders displayed the kind of flashy defense winning CWS teams have shown all week.
In the first, center fielder Tanner Gardner slammed into the wall in left center with the ball in his glove, robbing Florida DH J.J. Schwarz of an extra-base hit and an RBI. In the third, shortstop Orland Garcia dove in shallow left field near the third-base line to end the inning. In the sixth, with the bases loaded and one out, the Red Raiders turned a 1-2-3 double play to stymie what could’ve been a game-changing rally.
And, most imperative of all, in the ninth inning—after Peter Alonso had hit a two-run homer to bring the Gators to within one—left fielder Tyler Neslony raced to track down a ball struck by Jonathan India and ended the game when he fired the ball to second base in time to catch India trying to advance. The whole time, Gutierrez was yelling, “Let it go! Let it go!” to Neslony from first base.
“(Texas Tech’s defense) gives you more confidence to throw it in there, throw it in the strike zone, pound the strike zone,” Martin said. “Coming into this, watching games in Omaha . . . I noticed that if you don’t walk people . . . the place is kind of a graveyard.”
Clearly, though, the park isn’t a graveyard for Gutierrez, who perhaps has figured out the secret to lifting the ball over the wall. Certainly, he’s comfortable at T.D. Ameritrade Park now, and he said he’s tried to pass that along to his younger teammates, encouraging them to have fun and stay loose.
To earn the Texas Tech program’s first-ever College World Series win was undoubtedly special, Gutierrez said, but he also echoed the sentiments of his head coach Tim Tadlock—the Red Raiders didn’t come to Omaha to win one game.
“Every win means a lot no matter College World Series, (regular) season, doesn’t matter,” Gutierrez said. “But it helps us as a team, the momentum. From here, everything’s possible.
“It’s like saying, ‘Hey, we can do this, you know?’ It’s not just like, ‘Oh, we’re here, let’s have fun and go home.’ We can do this, it’s possible.”
Gutierrez has been saying the exact same to himself each trip Omaha. Maybe the fourth time could be his best time.