Texas A&M Beats Tennessee In Opening Game Of 2024 College World Series Finals


Texas A&M on Saturday defeated Tennessee, 9-5, in game 1 of the College World Series finals. The Aggies’ started hot, getting a leadoff home run from Gavin Grahovac, and never looked back. They opened a six-run lead in the third inning and got a solid start from All-American Ryan Prager, who was pitching on short rest. He threw four good innings before handing the ball over to the bullpen, which held off the Volunteers’ comeback bid.

Texas A&M is now one win away from its first ever national championship. Game 2 is scheduled for Sunday at 2 ET.

Here are six takeaways from Saturday’s opener.

Kaeden Kent Flourishes

When All-American outfielder Braden Montgomery was lost for the season due to a broken ankle he suffered during game 1 of the College Station Super Regional against Oregon, Texas A&M called on sophomore Kaeden Kent to step into the lineup. At the time, he hadn’t started a game since May 10 and had just 77 at-bats on the season.

But Kent was ready for his opportunity. He went 1-for-4 off the bench that day and has only grown further into his role in the Aggies’ lineup. In game 1 of the championship series on Saturday, he went 3-for-5 and hit a two-run, seventh-inning home run that was the icing on the cake of A&M’s victory.

Kent, the son of former major leaguer Jeff Kent, said the support of his friends and family has been key to his success in his new role.

“I think it’s attributed to the support that I get and the people that believe in me, the people that have my back and I can count on, like my parents or my brother” he said. “I can look to the stands, and they can give me, they can pound their chest, like you got this. That puts a lot of relaxation on my mind, kind of to ease down.”

Kent is 12-for-25 with two doubles and two home runs since moving into the lineup on June 8.

Lefthander Ryan Prager, the Aggies’ All-American ace, said Kent is just the latest example of the Aggies’ next-man-up mentality, which has helped push them to this point.

“Those guys might not have the most experience on the field but they’re constantly getting reps in the dugout or in practice,” he said. “When they can go out and have the success that they’re having it’s just a testament to the amount of work they put in aside from the games.”

A&M Rises To The Occasion… Again

A&M, as it has done throughout the CWS, rose to the occasion on Saturday. The Aggies played clean baseball throughout the game, staying disciplined in their game plan, both on the mound and at the plate.

A&M did play five seniors Saturday, but also used four first- or second-year players, who delivered on the big stage as well.

Coach Jim Schlossnagle said that was no accident.

“Mental skills are something we practice,” he said. “We invest a lot of time, effort and money in mental skills. Mental skills can be practiced just like physical skills can be practiced. It’s the very first thing we do when we take our hitters to the batting cage the first day of the fall is talk about their routine and the ability to handle moments and the ability to play the game pitch to pitch.

“That’s why, when you play in the SEC and you play in Olsen Field in front of the 12th Man—yes, it’s the College World Series, it’s the championship series—but if you’re in our dugout it literally doesn’t feel any different. And I think that is intentional.”

Evan Aschenbeck Delivers

As a closer, lefthander Evan Aschenbeck is used to coming into games in tight spots. He did that again Saturday when Schlossnagle called him out of the bullpen with one out in the seventh inning. A&M held a 9-5 lead but Tennessee had just plated three runs on a walk and back-to-back home runs from Dylan Dreiling and Hunter Ensley.

Aschenbeck snuffed out the rally, striking out the next two hitters to end the inning. He threw a 1-2-3 eighth before running into a bit of trouble in the ninth when Billy Amick and Dreiling hit back-to-back singles with one out. Again, however, the All-American buckled down and struck out the next two hitters. He threw 2.2 scoreless innings and struck out six batters.

Aschenbeck enjoyed getting to pitch in such a big spot in front of a sold out crowd in Omaha.

“(Pitching coach Max Weiner) tells us all the time, if some guy comes in doesn’t have a good outing the next guy can’t do that,” Aschenbeck said. “Our job as a relief picture is to come in and pick up the guys in front of us. To come into that opportunity, it was awesome because the atmosphere was crazy. It’s the College World Series. Everything’s cool about it.”

Tennessee’s Opener Approach Struggles Once Again

Tennessee has used the strategy of lefthander Chris Stamos serving as an opener for righthander AJ Causey since mid April. It’s an approach that has served it well for two months. Tennessee is 9-2 in Stamos starts and before Saturday hadn’t lost one since April 19 at Kentucky. But the duo has hit rockier times in the NCAA Tournament and especially in Omaha, where the Volunteers have fallen behind early in both of the times they turned to the pair.

Last Friday, in Tennessee’s opening game against Florida State, Stamos got just one out before Causey relieved him. The Seminoles scored seven runs in the first three innings, leaving the Volunteers to dig out of a big, early hole.

On Saturday, Stamos gave up a leadoff home run. He got the next hitter out, but after a double and an error, Tennessee made the move to the bullpen for Causey. A second run came home on a two-out single, but Tennessee avoided further damage in the first inning.

A&M got to Causey for five runs (four earned) in the third inning on a walk, four singles and an error. The junior battled through the inning and got through the middle of the order one more time in the fourth before finishing his night after 3.2 innings.

While the Stamos/Causey piggyback has not been as successful in Omaha, Tennessee has stayed committed to this plan and throughout the regular season they were routinely soaking up seven or eight innings in series openers. So, while it’s unusual and opens coach Tony Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson to criticism when it doesn’t work, it’s also understandable why Tennessee stuck with the plan in its biggest games of the season.

Tennessee Has An Ace In Its Back Pocket

The pitching matchup Sunday in Game 2 favors Tennessee. The Volunteers will turn to righthander Drew Beam, who has spent three years in their rotation and is 9-2, 4.30 this season. They also have righthanders Nate Snead and Aaron Combs, the team’s two best relievers fresh after not using them Saturday.

A&M, meanwhile, is in an uncertain position on the mound. Schlossnagle said he has “no idea” who the Aggies will start. They’re down a starter after lefthander Shane Sdao was injured in super regionals and have only started Prager and lefthander Justin Lamkin, who threw five innings Wednesday, in Omaha.

A&M is likely to lean on righthander Chris Cortez (10-3, 2.98), who is its best reliever after Aschenbeck. He started the Aggies’ first three midweek games of the season before moving into the bullpen and he threw 5.2 innings out of the bullpen in super regionals, so he’s stretched out to go deep in games.

You can expect to see a heavy dose of Cortez on Sunday. Aschenbeck said he would be available after throwing 46 pitches over 2.2 innings Saturday. He’s thrown back-to-back days four times this season, but never after such an extended outing. How early A&M will be able to call on him is a bit of an unknown, as is whether it would be willing to use him in a game it isn’t leading, knowing that a potential game 3 looms Monday. The Aggies will likely need someone else to step up on the mound and carry at least an inning or two.

Game 1 Win Isn’t A Guarantee

Winning game 1 of the championship series is an advantage, but not a massive one. historically.

The CWS format changed in 2003 from a winner-take-all championship game to a best-of-three series. In the 20 finals since the change, the Game 1 winner has gone on to win the national championship 13 times, including each of the last two years.

That means seven times the Game 1 loser has bounced back to win consecutive games. That is now Tennessee’s task and it isn’t an easy one. A&M has not trailed in Omaha, hasn’t lost a game in the NCAA Tournament and last lost consecutive games to the same opponent May 10-11 at Mississippi.

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