Dispatches From Dallas: VCU, OSU Win
DALLAS — After getting swept at Saint Louis in the first weekend of May, VCU was lost. The preseason favorites to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Rams were just 8-10 in the league with two weekends to play, and time was running out fast on their season.
But the players refused to accept that storyline.
“I kind of felt after the Saint Louis series, after we lost the second game to Saint Louis, a lot of guys were hanging their heads — saw a lot of doubt in a lot of guys’ eyes,” said redshirt freshman DH Brett Hileman. “You could tell the whole team just wanted to get out of St. Louis and restart. And that’s what we did. We flew home, a couple guys sat down at one point, looked at each other in the eyes, and just said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ We had to win four of six just to get into our conference tournament. Guys knew what we had to do, and guys just grinded through practice and games.”
The Rams swept both of those last two series, and they kept on winning straight through the A-10 tournament, going 4-0 to clinch a spot in regionals. Riding an 11-game winning streak, VCU was brimming with confidence heading into the Dallas Regional, and the Rams outplayed top-seeded Dallas Baptist in every phase in Friday’s 7-2 win.
“We don’t feel like that’s an upset. We went out and played our game,” VCU coach Shawn Stiffler said. “If you look at our scores, that’s how we pitch, that’s how we play defense.”
It was a matchup between two teams trending in opposite directions. DBU’s offense has gone cold over the last three weeks, and the Patriots couldn’t get anything going Friday against VCU funky lefthander JoJo Howie.
The pitching matchup between Howie and DBU righthander Joseph Shaw made for a striking contrast in styles. Shaw pumped 91-94 mph heat and a 79-82 slider on Friday, and for three innings he was in complete control, allowing just one baserunner. But then he allowed the first three batters of the fourth inning to reach base, and the inning quickly snowballed out of control. Hileman delivered the big blow with a two-run single through the right side, and Jimmy Kerrigan followed with an RBI double, helping VCU break the game open with a five-run outburst.
Howie’s fastball was about as firm as Shaw’s slider, coming in at 81-83 mph. He messed with the timing of the DBU hitters by mixing in a tumbling 72-73 changeup and breaking stuff in the 73-77 range. His deceptive delivery adds to the challenge, as he raises his front arm high above his head, then fires straight over the top.
“I would say we didn’t do a great job with the slower lefty, we didn’t make a great adjustment with our approach or our timing,” DBU coach Dan Heefner said.
“I definitely think they were a little out on their front foot early, helped me get some early outs against them,” Howie said. “They definitely settled in and started taking some good swings against me. I had to make good pitches. If I didn’t make good pitches, they hit it. I was able to locate a little bit.”
The Patriots had their best chance to get something going in the fourth, when Trooper Reynolds delivered an RBI double to put DBU on the board and put runners on second and third with two outs. But Howie got Tagg Duce to pop up in foul ground to end the threat, then bounded off the mound with a primal scream and an emphatic fist pump.
“I’m a big adrenaline guy after I get an out. I’m a very emotional pitcher, I like to say,” Howie said. “But I’ve always sad, aggressive mind, relaxed body. I don’t throw hard, and I know that. I’m not trying to gas anyone up in a big situation. I’m going to be as aggressive and mad to a glove as I can with my mind, but with my body I’m going to take a deep breath and be as relaxed as possible with every pitch. So I would say after the pitch, yeah, I had a little adrenaline, I was screaming a little bit.”
Stiffler said the Rams feed off Howie’s energy, but his ability to rein in his emotions and make big pitches really makes him tough. On Friday, he held DBU’s explosive offense to just two runs on six hits and no walks over 6 2/3 innings. It was his fourth straight strong outing, following a five-hit shutout in the conference tournament and a complete game in his final regular-season start. Howie kickstarted VCU’s winning streak with six strong innings against Fordham on May 7, and the team hasn’t lost since. His surge mirror’s the team’s surge — and is a big reason for the team’s surge, too.
“We had the right guy on the mound, he slows the game back down and takes the wind out of their sails quickly,” Stiffler said. “He throws one changeup (in that crucial fourth inning), the guy swings over it, all of a sudden you could hear the wind being taken out of the stadium. That’s how he is. That’s what’s great about JoJO, and he was the perfect matchup tonight. I’m very glad he’s on our side.”
Young Beavers Prove Resilient
The postseason experience has a completely different feel for Oregon State this time around. Each of the last two years, the Beavers were a veteran bunch that entered the NCAA tournament as a national title favorite — the No. 3 national seed in 2013, the No. 1 national seed in 2014. They handled the pressure and reached Omaha two years ago, but last year they were upset in their home regional by UC Irvine.
It would be too strong to say Oregon State is playing with house money this weekend, but the fact of the matter is this year’s Beavers are loaded with freshmen getting their first taste of the postseason, and nobody is expecting them to win the national title this year.
So Oregon State coach Pat Casey was eager to see how his team would handle a regional environment against a Texas team well-stocked with College World Series veterans. The Beavers built a 4-1 lead in the middle innings, then watched Texas storm back to tie the game, but they did not wilt. Instead, OSU answered UT’s two-run seventh with a run of its own in the eighth to win 5-4. It was an entertaining back-and-forth contest played at a high level, and Oregon State looked very comfortable and loose.
“If you’re a baseball fan, that was two and a half hours of entertainment, because that was a hell of a game,” Casey said. “Every time they punched us, I felt like we responded … That’s a good baseball team we beat, and to come out with that many young kids that have never been in this environment, that’s a good win for us.”
Oregon State had its most seasoned, reliable veteran — junior righty Andrew Moore — on the mound against fellow CWS vet Parker French, a senior righty for Texas. It ranked as one of the top pitching matchups of the first day of regionals, and both pitchers came out of the gates strong, both running their fastballs up to 94 mph early on and locating well. But the Beavers settled in against French starting around the third inning and started rapping out singles. They did a good job laying off his 83-85 slider out of the zone and put good swings on his 91-94 power sinker.
“We started to be a little more aggressive,” said OSU sophomore outfielder Kyle Nobach, who led the offense with two hits and two RBIs. “When somebody got a hit, somebody else got a hit. We were just looking over the plate and swinging at better pitches, I guess.”
The Beavers tagged French for 11 hits over six-plus innings —all of them singles. In fact, they didn’t get their first extra-base hit until Nobach’s tie-breaking RBI double to the right-center gap in the eighth against Jake McKenzie. Oregon State took its first lead with two runs in the fourth on a hit batsman and three sharply hit groundball singles. They added another run in the fifth on three more singles, then another in the sixth on two more singles. All but one of their hits in those three innings came on the ground.
“I think that they’re very well coached. I say that because of the two-strike adjustments they made —they hit with confidence with two strikes, they hit with confidence with runners in scoring position,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “And they’re satisfied to be themselves. They’re not a power baseball team, they’re an efficient baseball team, based on quality at-bats and just pecking away at you until they score runs. That’s their game, but they play it well.”
Moore, for his part, breezed through the first three innings, striking out five and allowing just one baserunner, on a third-inning walk. He mixed his 90-92 mph fastball with a good changeup and adequate curveball and slider, keeping Texas off balance. Garrido thought his hitters still produced a lot of quality at-bats, but they failed to maximize a crucial scoring opportunity in the forth inning. Texas got a run in that frame on a Tres Barrera RBI single, but with two outs and the bases loaded, Moore struck out Kacy Clemens on a nice changeup to strand three.
But to UT’s credit, it did not roll over once it fell behind by three runs after six innings. Texas pushed across a run in the top of the seventh, then grabbed the momentum when center fielder Zane Gurwitz made a leaping catch to steal a home run away from Caleb Hamilton in the bottom of the seventh. Then came Brooks Marlow’s game-tying two-run homer against Moore in the eighth on Moore’s 117th pitch (Casey admitted he left Moore out there a little too long). At that point, the heavily burnt-orange-clad crowd seemed to sniff victory.
“(Gurwitz’s catch) definitely turned it around a little bit for us. Saved a run, you know?” Marlow said. “That’s probably one of the best I’ve seen, and just the momentum changed toward us in the dugout, we kind of got hyped up a little bit. Then the next inning we hit the home run, all the momentum’s going toward us. But that’s baseball, then we got punched in the face.”
In a hostile environment, after their ace had just surrendered the lead late in the game, the young Beavers showed admirable poise and resilience. Their counterpunch came immediately, and it proved decisive.
“When you’re running some people out there that maybe it’s their third trip to a regional or won a World Series, obviously you’ve got leadership that’s been in that situation, but very few guys have ever played in this,” Casey said. “These guys probably don’t know what to think of me because I’ve been as loose as you can be for the last three days, so they think I’ve lost my mind. But really, it’s their time of year. We’re not going to get any better as a team, we’re not going to do anything other than just play the game, and it’s their opportunity. They’ve put in the work, it’s about them. They get to showcase what they’ve done.
“Ultimately it comes down to players playing the game. That part’s fun for me, because I get to sit back and watch it a little bit, watch some energy, and watch guys grow. I’ve seen these kids grow up right before my eyes. Sometimes you’ve got to pat them on the tail, sometimes you’ve got to kick them on the tail. They’ve just got to go get it.”
And they did.