Walk-Off Wonders Win Another ClassicCollege World Series
OMAHA — As North Carolina and Oregon State slogged through a four-hour, 24-minute war of attrition — the longest nine-inning game in College World Series history — in 100-degree heat on Saturday afternoon, the cast of the evening performance tried to keep busy backstage.
“I think we were so excited. And the first game went so long, we were stuck in the waiting area, and we got a little bit fidgety,” said Washington coach Lindsay Meggs. “And I told one of my assistant coaches, ‘God, I’m like a substitute teacher in a third grade class,’ because our guys were bouncing off the walls and doing everything you probably don’t want to do as you’re trying to settle down and get ready to play.”
In the other waiting room, Mississippi State starter Ethan Small was enjoying a little extra chill-out time.
“Before the game all I was doing was working on hydrating. These chairs are extremely comfortable. So I had a good time doing that,” Small said. “We were watching the game. It wasn’t really anything different. We’ve gone through this situation before. We played some long games, too. And it was just finding the rhythm early was the big key for me.”
Once the curtain finally dropped, Small and Washington counterpart Joe DeMers had no trouble finding their rhythm right from the onset. The two strike-throwers matched zeroes for seven innings, and the two defenses played flawlessly, as the Bulldogs and Huskies gave TD Ameritrade Park fans the antidote to the action-packed but long and sloppy early game. It ended in a 1-0 Mississippi State victory on Luke Alexander’s walk-off single in the ninth.
“Outstanding game to watch. I guess if you’re a fan you watched both you’re probably appreciative of the effort out there at 2:44, considerably less than the first game today,” MSU coach Gary Henderson said. “Also tremendous rarity in college baseball — 1-0. A lot of really, really good performances. Hats off to Joe DeMers and (UW shortstop) Levi Jordan, two, obviously, extremely talented kids that played really well tonight for the Huskies.
“Really proud of our guys. [Hunter Stovall] did a really good job all the way around, three hits. And obviously Luke Alexander had a tremendous night, tremendous at short and obviously with the three hits and coming up when it mattered.”
Indeed, this was a night that featured plenty of standout performances from both sides. DeMers and Jordan were very special for Washington, but what else is new? DeMers, who threw an 84-pitch perfect game earlier this year and threw just 51 pitches over the first six perfect innings last week against Cal State Fullerton, was at his efficient best. He needed just 72 pitches (55 strikes) to get through 7.1 shutout innings against MSU, pitching to contact with his heavy sinker and excellent changeup, racking up 14 groundball outs. And Jordan, known for his defensive brilliance, made one incredible play after another behind him, showing off sterling range to both sides and impeccable footwork.
It was neat for fans in Omaha to get to see what Washington fans have seen DeMers and Jordan do for their entire careers.
“I mean, what you saw tonight, honestly, is what he’s been doing for four years. He’s an elite defender,” Meggs said. “The thing about Levi is he makes it look like it’s routine. He makes the routine play look routine, but he also makes the extraordinary play look routine. The footwork is off the charts. It’s always a good throw. There are no wasted steps. We’ve kind of joked that it’s like watching ‘Dancing With The Stars’ because he never takes a false step.”
And it was more of the same from DeMers, too.
“I know [Jason Kelly], our pitching coach, loves when Joe’s out there because we get into negative counts on purpose,” Meggs said, offering insight into DeMers’ exceptionally rare feel for pitching. “They’ll wave a fastball purposely so he can throw a 1-0 change. You can’t do that with a lot of people. That’s a big league feel for three different pitches. And people sometimes don’t give him the credit that he’s due because he’s not throwing 96 miles an hour. But he can make any pitch at any time under any circumstances.”
Mississippi State hit some balls hard, and the Bulldogs finished the game with 10 hits — seven against DeMers, who was able to get out of trouble with a couple of double plays and some great defense behind him. MSU left runners in scoring position in the third, fourth, fifth and eighth — but Washington failed to cash in with the bases loaded in the third, and also left men in scoring position in the second, sixth and ninth. Credit Small for making plenty of big pitches over his seven scoreless frames, none bigger than the double play he induced to get out of that bases-loaded jam in the third. The lefthander also got a huge strikeout of Joe Wainhouse to strand a runner at third base in the sixth.
Meggs suggested Washington’s antsiness may also have been a factor in its struggles with men on base.
“With runners in scoring position we didn’t take the kind of at-bats that we have for the last few weeks,” Meggs said. “We just got a bit jumpy and chased some pitches.”
But neither team got discouraged by their missed opportunities — this was just a special night, when pitching and defense took center stage. In fact, it was the first CWS game to be scoreless through eight innings since a 1985 contest between South Carolina and Arkansas — which was also the last 1-0 game at the CWS.
Mississippi State was right in its element in this kind of game, having already won multiple games this postseason on walk-off home runs, and survived a wild back-and-forth super regional clincher in extra innings. So leaving a few men on base over those first eight innings was nothing.
“Coaches know that at times it can take the air out of you or get sidetracked, you can feel sorry, self pity, all those types of things. But we just don’t go there at this point,” Henderson said. “It makes you feel really good to be with a group of people that are like that. So we’re really pleased to win the game, really proud of our kids.”
Stovall sparked that ninth-inning rally with his third single of the game, then advanced to second on an Elijah MacNamee single. After Justin Foscue popped up a bunt for the first out of the inning, Alexander came up and fell behind in the count 0-2. Given that count, he said he expected UW closer Alex Hardy to come back with a slider, and that’s what he got. Alexander went the other way with it, hitting a line drive that went over the head of right fielder Kaiser Weiss, who was playing shallow on a night with the wind howling in from center field. Stovall raced around third and scored easily, setting off a familiar post-walkoff celebration for Mississippi State.
The final hero was also familiar — Alexander entered the game hitting just .213, but he has saved his big swings for when they matter most, including a pair of walk-offs against Ole Miss.
“Growing up as a baseball fan, loving baseball, you always want to get here,” Alexander said. “And to do it here at Omaha, I think it trumps the two walk-offs against Ole Miss.”
But all those walk-offs add up to give Mississippi State incredible confidence in these tight spots.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Stovall said. “When situations like that come up, we as a staff, I mean as a whole team, have full confidence in whoever is at the plate that it’s going to happen just because Coach Henderson has made us be dogs, be grinders. So we get in the box and we have absolutely full confidence that we’re going to get this done.”
Those plucky Bulldogs found a way to get it done again. What else is new?