— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 10, 2017
COLLEGE STATION, Texas—For as loud and as exuberant as the bus ride to Blue Bell Park was, the ride back to the hotel was equally, devastatingly silent.
Playing in its first-ever super regional, in its first-ever NCAA Tournament, in its 115th year of existence, Davidson participated in yet another first—the longest Game 1 in super-regional history.
The Wildcats and the Texas A&M Aggies battled for 15 innings and five hours and 12 minutes on an overcast, upper-80 degree day in College Station. Both teams had multiple opportunities to gain an advantage, but the war of attrition ultimately was won with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 15th, when Texas A&M third baseman George Janca sent a single up the middle and sent the Aggies spilling from the first-base dugout onto the field.
The Aggies won, 7-6, moving them one win closer to Omaha. The Wildcats, meanwhile, find themselves on the brink of elimination.
Then again, they’ve found themselves there before. Quite often, actually.
“I am getting a little tired of saying throughout this run, ‘What a great baseball game; it is a shame someone had to lose that one,'” Davidson head coach Dick Cooke said. “It was just a good baseball game. I am tired, and I didn’t even play.”
Friday’s matchup was the kind of game that can drain the life force from both sides, a game that demanded every ounce of energy from its players, coaches and spectators. Friday’s game produced 33 combined hits and 498 combined pitches. At one point, Texas A&M held a 6-0 lead and Aggies starter Brigham Hill was working on 5.1 no-hit innings. The Wildcats looked overmatched. They looked like what many had expected them to look like as the No. 4 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional.
But they didn’t look that way for long. They would surprise yet again. With a one-run, one-out double, leadoff hitter Cam Johnson broke up both the no-hitter and the shutout, and that opened the scoring floodgates. A double by second-team All-American Will Robertson tacked on another run, and Brian Fortier added yet another with a sacrifice fly. That momentum shift continued. Two more runs in the next inning. In the ninth, Johnson struck again for his third RBI, a game-tying single that would push the game to extras.
“It was a heavyweight fight,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “It was two really good teams going at each other.”
The game, as is often the case in the postseason, came down to endurance. For Davidson, redshirt senior righthander Durin O’Linger continued his now legendary heavy-lifting on the mound. His fastball command was lacking early, and the Aggies took advantage, with leadoff hitter Nick Choruby driving in three runs and catcher Hunter Coleman hitting a two-run homer to establish a six-run lead by the fifth.
But O’Linger regrouped, found his command, and as he’s done throughout the postseason, worked deep into Friday’s game. He finished with 138 pitches and 7.2 innings pitched in what could be his final collegiate outing—an outing that was appropriately gutsy.
The Aggies received an equally gutsy outing from righthanded reliever Mitchell Kilkenny, whom they extended longer than he’s ever been extended in his career.
The sophomore said he might’ve thrown the worst bullpen he’s ever thrown before entering the game (“I’m glad I didn’t know that,” Childress quipped). Was he mentally prepared to throw 102 pitches?
“Absolutely not,” Kilkenny said with a matter-of-fact smile, as his teammates held back their laughter.
But the righthander found a way to make it work anyway, striking out a career-high nine in a career-high 5.2 innings while quelling several Davidson rallies in extra innings.
“He was dominating their guys,” said Coleman, his catcher. “He was throwing a fastball, and they weren’t hitting it. Then, once they thought a fastball was coming, he would break them off with a breaking ball. He gave us a chance when we weren’t scoring runs late in the game.”
Davidson senior righthander Westin Whitmire worked out of several jams of his own in his four innings, and nearly worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the 15th, coaxing back-to-back pop-ups, but Janca was able to break through with a single up the middle to end Friday’s marathon.
“It was all about moving the line along,” Janca said. “I knew a ball in play was going to move the runner and we had been kind of struggling in the later part of the game, driving people in. We were always setting them up and we were always right there, on base, moving them over. I just happened to be up in the situation and the ball got through.”
While the Aggies were understandably fired up, Childress was quick to warn them after the game that they still have more work to do.
Conversely, even though the bus ride home wasn’t a celebratory one, the Wildcats can take some encouragement away from they way they went toe-to-toe with the Aggies in a rowdy road environment.
“This was our first super regional, so we saw it as an opportunity. We just wanted to have fun with it,” said Johnson.“We played a great game. Really, we just need to go out and do the same thing tomorrow. We just need to try to get the bats going a little earlier. That’s really it. It was a good game, and it could have gone either way.”