Sorenson: Remembering Great CWS Comebacks, And MoreColumns
Okay StitchHeads, here we go. The calendar says it is June 23. But in our hearts we know that this is actually the second day of the College World Series Finals best-of-three between the two bracket winners. Out of 300-odd teams, this is the day when there are only two teams left standing. Mano-a-mano time for our sport.
Last year it was Michigan and Vanderbilt. And if you recall, the Northern-based Wolverines jumped out to the 1-game-to-nothing lead as they beat the Commodores 7-4 and stood 27 outs away from the first national title for a Big Ten team since Ohio State won the big brass ring in 1966. Yes, it’s been that long since one of the Monsters of the Midway has won it all. But Vandy dominated the next two games with great pitching to win its second title of the decade. I digress.
As I write this, it’s Sunday. Normally at this time I am returning from my Walkabout — that’s where I find someplace to go during the break between bracket play and the championship series and hang out and do nothing. Last year there was a two-day break (Saturday and Sunday), and I decided to drive all the way to Mt. Rushmore. It was a wee-bit of a far drive for that sort of time limit, to be honest. But either way I can now say that I have officially been to Mt. Rushmore… along with the roadside tribute to the native Americans killed at Wounded Knee.
Anyway, I digress again. Sorry.
So I got to thinking, in our collective experiences we’ve all seen some great comebacks at the College World Series. There are so many examples of come-from-behind wins it can make your head spin just thinking about it. I mean, Warren Morris, for example. Or Coastal Carolina coming back from losing game one to Arizona. Or Fresno State overcoming Georgia’s win in game one. Or Arkansas and the misplayed pop fly in foul ground leading to Oregon State’s title (sorry Razorback fans, I didn’t mean to pile on there). No matter what, we can all rewind to a time where we saw our favorite teams (or our worst enemies) overcome a deep deficit. They usually make the most memorable games.
With that in mind, I formulated the top five greatest comebacks in CWS history. See if you agree, or more likely, disagree with me.
THE BIGGEST COMEBACKS IN CWS HISTORY
I probably could’ve done a top 10 or a top 100 of these. But I chose to keep it to the top five. Here we go…
5- Baylor vs. Tulane, 2005
Biggest Deficit: Bears trailed Tulane 7-0 in the 7th inning
Final Score: Baylor 8, Tulane 7
This game was part of what I called one of the most dramatic days in CWS history. Earlier in the day Nebraska and Arizona State had a back-and-forth battle that saw the Sun Devils eliminate the Cornhuskers by the same 8-7 score. In that game Jeff Larish slammed three home runs for the Devils, including the game-tying bomb in the ninth inning which led to their winning run scoring in the 11th inning. By the by, the Big Red had gained a 7-5 lead on Andy Gerch’s three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, sending the Cornhusker-heavy crowd into a frenzy when it appeared that would be the game-winning home run. Anyway, back to the Bears and Wave…
The Bears stumbled early and allowed the Green Wave to notch six runs in the second inning and another run in the fifth to account for their seven runs. Tulane head coach Rick Jones would say afterward, “Up 7-0 and with J.R. Crowell pitching well, I felt pretty good about things.”
But the Bears kept scratching, posting three runs in the seventh and two runs in the eighth to pull within 7-5. In the bottom of the ninth, Baylor’s winning run scored when Tulane second baseman Joe Holland attempted to make the game-ending double play but his throw to first sailed wide which allowed the winning run to score.
Prior to that, Tulane was 45-0 on the season when leading going into the ninth inning.
Here is a pretty good write-up of that day from the Associated Press.
4- Arizona vs Maine, 1986
Biggest Deficit: Wildcats trailed Maine 7-0 in the 7th inning.
Final Score: Arizona 8, Maine 7
This was the first game on the Wildcats road to winning their third national title in program history. Maine jumped out to a big lead in this opening round contest and had starting pitcher Scott Morse cruising, putting the Black Bears in position to get a great jump-start in Omaha. The Wildcats plated a harmless single run in the seventh inning to make it 7-1. Morse was pulled in the eighth inning and the Cats scored four runs off the Bears bullpen. Then, in the ninth inning, they got another run on the board to pull within one but were down to their last out and facing a 7-6 deficit.
Ironically with two outs, Arizona head coach Jerry Kindall found himself down to the ninth batter in the order and nobody left to pinch-hit. His last resort was to put in seldom-used Dave Shermet, who had badly bruised his right thumb in pregame warmups and never even took batting practice before the game.
After getting down to a 3-2 count, Shermet pulled off the stunner of stunners, parking a full-count, two-out yard call over the left field wall to give the Desert Cats an unlikely 8-7 win. It turned out to be Shermet’s only at-bat that entire College World Series.
Kindall, who won a national championship as a player with Minnesota and also played eight years for the Chicago Cubs, said “It was the most excited I have ever been on a baseball field. It was the greatest single thrill I had in my coaching career.”
Here is a write-up on Shermet from the venerable Steve Pivovar from his book “Rosenblatt Stadium. Omaha’s Diamond On The Hill.”
3- USC vs. Texas, 1970
Biggest Deficit: Trojans trailed 7-1 in the 7th inning.
Final Score: USC 8, Texas 7 (14 innings)
The Trojans 1970 squad is noted for being the first of five straight USC national title teams, winning the hardware in 1970, 1971, 1972. 1973 and 1974. After an opening round loss to Ohio, 4-1, the Trojans rebounded to beat Delaware, 7-1, and Dartmouth, 6-1. This showdown with Texas didn’t look good for the Men of Troy as the Horns raced out to a six-run lead going into the seventh inning. But in the top of that frame, the Trojans plated six runs of their own to tie the game at seven each. The key blow came on a bases-clearing triple from catcher Craig Perkins.
Trojan reliever Jim Barr came into the game in the sixth inning and shut out Texas for eight innings, holding them to just three hits along the way. In the 14th inning, a leadoff single by Jeff Pedersen was followed by an RBI triple from Cal Meier to plate USC’s go-ahead run. Barr would blank the Longhorns in the bottom of the frame to secure the win and vault the Trojans into the championship game. Two nights later against Florida State, the Trojans would earn the national title with a 15-inning, 2-1 win. Barr would throw another eight innings in that game to earn his 14th win of the season.
Texas second baseman Lou Bagwell would say about Rod Dedeaux’s charges afterward, “Those guys didn’t think they were going to lose. Everything bad began to happen, and you could see they believed they were going to win no matter what.”
This win also spawned this great pic of coach Dedeaux leading his boys in singing the school fight song in the locker room afterward…
2- Minnesota vs. USC, 1960
Biggest Deficit: Gophers trailed USC 11-2 in the 7th inning.
Final Score: Minnesota 12, USC 11 (10 innings)
This game is one of the more controversial games in the history of the College World Series. It also contained one of the most stunning comebacks our sport has seen. The Trojans roared out to a huge 11-2 lead and appeared to have things well in hand as the game went into the seventh inning. But just after that same time the stadium started to get swamped by a rain storm. But for some reason the umpires did not call the game and ordered the continuation.
The Trojans had not committed a single error in the seven games prior to this one vs. Minnesota. But in the quagmire that ensued, the Trojans committed five errors in the final three innings, resulting in three runs in the seventh, five runs in the eighth and one run in the ninth to tie the game at 11 each.
“There was never a game played in worse conditions than that,” coach Dedeaux would say. “The game turned into a travesty. There has never been a game played in a rainstorm like that in the history of the College World Series.”
With the rain still falling, Barry Effress delivered an RBI single to cap the unlikely comeback in the bottom of the 10th inning. Amazingly, the Gophers and Trojans would face each other two more times in that same 1960 College World Series and each game went into extra innings, with USC winning 4-3 in 11 innings and then Minnesota winning the national title game 2-1 in 10 innings.
1- USC vs. Minnesota, 1973
Biggest Deficit: Trojans trailed 7-0 going into the 9th inning.
Final Score: USC 8, Minnesota 7
This is without a doubt the most popular, well-known comeback in College World Series history. Famously, the Gophers headed into the last frame of the game with a gaudy 7-0 lead. All American Dave Winfield was on the mound and was dominating the Trojans, striking out 15 batters and giving up just one infield hit through eight innings. In the ninth, Winfield finally became human and gave up two singles and then had an error allowed three runs to score. He was pulled and put out in left field after that.
Oh, I should also mention that Gopher head coach Dick “Chief” Siebert got ejected from the game for arguing what he thought was a completed 6-4-3 double play. Assistant George Thomas took over the coaching duties. After the Trojans had pulled within 7-6, Thomas realized he had no pitching left. During a mound visit, he motioned to Winfield out in left field to ask if he could come back to the pitch, but Winfield, pointing at his arm, shook his head to show had nothing left in the tank. According to interviews, Winfield claims to have thrown over 140 pitches that night before going to the outfield.
In all, the Trojans posted eight hits in the game-winning inning and got the help of three Gopher errors and one wild pitch as well. Relievers Bob Turnbull and Gordon Peterson could not stem the tide and history was made in the Trojan bottom of the ninth.
SPEAKING OF COMEBACKS, THE WEST COASTERS ARE THE EXPERTS
After going through my College World Series record book and looking for some of the great comebacks that I wrote about above, I noticed something very peculiar. In the 70 years of tournament-type play in the CWS (the first two were just a best-of-three between two teams), 11 times a team has lost its opening game of the tournament and still came back to win the national title. Here are the teams that have pulled the trick.
– USC in 1958
– USC in 1963
– Arizona State in 1969
– USC in 1970
– Arizona in 1976
– Cal State Fullerton in 1979
– Arizona in 1980
– USC in 1998
– Oregon State in 2006
– South Carolina in 2010
– Oregon State in 2018
Notice a pattern here? Yes, 10 of the 11 teams to lose game one and still win the national title are from West Coast locations. USC has won 12 national titles and four of those came with their backs against the wall. Of course, Oregon State and South Carolina won their titles by having to go through the best-of-three championship series, which means the Beavers are the only national champions to win it all after losing its first game and losing a second game in Omaha.
NEW FOR 2021.
Assuming we are having a college baseball season in 2021 (pause to laugh nervously), there are going to be four new baseball programs joining Division I in February. Here is a quick look at each…
– Dixie State University
Location: St. George, UT
As recently as 2007 the oddly-named Dixie State was a junior college. Since then the Trailblazers have been playing at Division II level and doing it quite well too. Eight of the last nine seasons have seen the Blazers win 30-plus games and they have yet to have a losing season since joining the NCAA. On top of that, they’ve also got a pretty good sized stadium. Here is a shot of it I took when I drove through St. George last fall during one of their scrimmages…
– Bellarmine University
Location: Louisville, KY
Conference: Atlantic Sun
The Knights are nothing to sneeze at, having earned three-straight 30-plus win seasons in 2017-18-and-19 at the D2 level. In fact, their 38-19 record for 2018 was the best in program history.
– Tarleton State University
Location: Stephenville, TX
The Texans have had an up-and-down history since reinstating their program in 1988. As a former Dallas resident I do remember TSU playing at Dallas Baptist in two straight Regional showdowns in the mid-90s, so I do know there is a semblance of success to the program there. But they’ve also only had one winning season in the last five years, so there is work to be done by coach Aaron Meade and his staff. But they definitely have a lot of talent to pull from in the state of Texas.
– UC San Diego
Location: San Diego
Conference: Big West
Unlike the three newbies above UCSD is a wicked huge school, sporting an enrollment of 39,000. And the Tritons are no stranger to success. Under former Nebraska assistant coach Eric Newman the Tritons have won 40-plus games in three straight seasons. In fact, the 2017 squad won the West Regional and went to the D2 College World Series. Here is coach Newman getting doused after his team beat Azusa Pacific for the Regional crown…