Regionals Roundup: Rhode Island, Utah Upset No. 1 Seeds

Strike One: Rhode to Omaha

Rhode Island head coach Raphael Cerrato watched his ace lefthander Tyler Wilson give up two home runs in the first inning to South Carolina on Friday night. He saw the Gamecocks jump out to a quick 3-0 lead, and he heard the crowd at Founders Park in Columbia reach deafening levels—and he was worried. As a head coach of a No. 4 seed playing a No. 1 seed in a regional, Cerrato realized that these sorts of games tend to snowball quickly.

But that wasn’t the case for Rhode Island. Wilson went to the dugout after the first, made an adjustment and fired seven strong, gutsy innings, striking out 11 and yielding just one more run in the third. The Rams batters scratched and clawed, knocking out South Carolina ace Clarke Schmidt after just four innings. Freshman first baseman Brett McManus paved the way for a comeback, homering in the fourth and driving in the tying and go-ahead run in the fifth on a booming drive that South Carolina center fielder Dom Thompson-Williams nearly caught in heroic diving fashion but couldn’t hold onto.

All of that added up to a 5-4 Rhode Island upset win over the Gamecocks—the first major upset of the NCAA tournament. The Rams will face No. 2 seed UNC-Wilmington, who defeated No. 3 seed Duke, 11-1, in the winner’s bracket game today.

“That’s honestly, just being honest, probably our biggest win in program history,” Cerrato said in the post-game press conference. “It’s our first NCAA tournament win. We’ve only been in it twice, and we showed a lot of toughness in this game, especially (Wilson), and really the whole team.

“I think there are a lot of four seeds out there that you get down 3-0 in the first inning, two home runs, and it’s pretty much over, but I think we showed a lot of toughness. And a gritty team that just kept playing, and we beat a very, very good team.”

After allowing a leadoff home run to Gene Cone on his second pitch of the game and a two-run home run to Alex Destino later in the first, Wilson returned to the dugout between innings and talked with his coaches.

“We realized that everything was up, my fastballs, my offspeed, that’s why I was getting hit,” Wilson said. “And after that I made an adjustment and started to live down in the zone, and everything started to click.”

Wilson struck out the side twice in the contest, scattered six hits and five walks and held South Carolina to just one run after the rocky first inning. He started the eighth inning, pitching to the lefthanded-hiting Destino, with 119 pitches. But after Wilson led off the inning with a six-pitch walk, Cerrato went to his bullpen, which fired two hitless, scoreless innings.

“(I) just thought to myself, ‘just keep making pitches, just keep battling,’” Wilson said of his outing. “I’m not really one to give up while I’m out there. I’m out there for a reason.”

The reason, on Friday, was to deliver the Rams their best win in program history.

Strike Two: Upset City 

Utah has made a habit of upsetting teams.

After all, the Utes essentially upset the entire Pac-12 this season. Picked to finish last, the Utes instead finished in first, with a 19-11 conference record and a 25-27 overall record.

On Friday night, they continued doing what they do best, upsetting No. 1 seed Mississippi, 6-5, in 10 innings at the Oxford Regional in what was the second major upset of the evening.

Utah righthander Jayson Rose allowed five runs in six innings—though he set a new single-season Utes strikeout record with his 106th—and put Utah in a 5-2 deficit. But Rose got a lift from his brother, Josh Rose, in the top of the sixth, as he hit the game-tying two-run double.

Both teams battled until the 10th, when first baseman Hunter Simmons hit a double into the gap to give Utah a 6-5 lead, and closer Dylan Drachler pitched around two singles in the bottom of the 10th to seal the upset.

As it would turn out, Ole Miss and South Carolina weren’t the only No. 1 seeds around the country to feel pressure on Friday.

No. 4 seed Southeast Missouri State knocked out Mississippi State ace righthander Dakota Hudson in the Starkville Regional after just 3 1/3 innings and jumped out to a 4-1 lead before the Bulldogs rallied back to win, 9-5. No. 1 seed Louisiana-Lafayette trailed No. 4 Princeton, 3-2, in the seventh inning, struggling to hit righthander Chad Powers, but the Ragin’ Cajuns scored late to take a 5-3 win. Though surprising looking at the final 24-10 score, No. 4 seed Western Carolina at one point had a 6-0 lead over No. 1 Clemson in the Clemson Regional. Even Binghamton, with a No. 107 RPI, played Texas A&M close, losing, 4-2, in the College Station Regional.

The first day of regional action produced tight, edge-of-your-seat baseball, regardless of seeding.

Strike Three: Bush Does It Again

Despite his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame and his equally immense raw power, UC Santa Barbara DH Austin Bush has just eight home runs this season. Still, he’s picked just the right time to hit them.

There was the walk-off home run he hit against Connecticut on a Friday night game on March 18. There was the game-tying grand slam he hit in the eighth inning against UC Irvine on May 22. And then there was the 14th inning Friday, with the No. 2 seed Gauchos and No. 3 seed Washington locked in a low-scoring, extra-inning struggle in the Nashville Regional—the longest game of the day across the country.

After battling for nearly five hours, Bush hit a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the 14th, and the Gauchos walked off, 3-2, over the Huskies.

“He’s got massive power,” UC Santa Barbara head coach Andrew Checketts said. “He’s a strong kid, so it’s just a matter of getting ahold of one, so I think every time he’s up in the dugout everybody thinks it has the chance to happen.”

The Bush homer put a bow on a crisply played, pitching-dominated West Coast style of game. Washington ace righthander Noah Bremer (9 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K) and Gauchos ace righthander Shane Bieber (7.1 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) matched each other pitch for pitch. The difference in the game, however, came from the bullpens.

While the Gauchos were able to ride top reliever Kyle Nelson for 74 pitches and four innings out of the ‘pen, the Huskies were without closer Troy Rallings—the Pac-12 pitcher of the year with 16 saves and a 0.89 ERA—due to an elbow injury.

When the Huskies managed to grab a 2-1 lead in the top of the 12th, the Gauchos came right back, with Devon Gradford hitting his first career home run off of reliever Greg Minier to tie.

Then Bush followed suit two innings later off of reliever Alex Nesbitt, adding another clutch home run to his resume.

“This one in regionals was definitely—definitely—the best one I had,” Bush said. 

His teammates, who move onto the winner’s bracket against the winner of Vanderbilt-Xavier today, would probably agree.

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