CARY, N.C. -- The stakes for Friday's games are easy enough to understand.
The two teams that come out on top will meet the next day to play for a NCAA Division II Baseball national championship, and the two that lose will go home. It's as simple as that.Colorado Mesa and Tampa square off at 1 p.m. EST, with Minnesota State-Mankato and Southern Indiana to follow at 5 p.m. EST. Both games are repeats of Thursday's matchups, which Tampa and Minnesota State-Mankato had to win to stay alive in the double-elimination tournament.
That's exactly what they did. Tampa bested Colorado Mesa 3-1, while Minnesota State-Mankato took down Southern Indiana 5-1.
After dropping their respective openers last weekend, playing under pressure is nothing new for Tampa and Minnesota State-Mankato this week. The losses stunned the favorites, which met in last year's Division II championship finale.
Coming into the tournament as defending national champions and with a stellar 51-2 record in 2014, losing to Southern Indiana right out of the box woke up the Spartans. This was no early spring exhibition. It was the real deal, with everything on the line.
One more loss and that was it. There would be no more tomorrows.
"Our guys have stayed focused since that loss," said Tampa head coach Joe Urso. "Their practice has had a little bit more intensity to it, and it's showing on the field. You've got two teams for what we've talked about all year - a chance at that championship."
In Friday's game against the Mavericks, it'll be all hands on deck for Tampa.
"We feel like we'll have good starting pitchers, but [Friday's game] is everything," Urso said. "If we have to, we'll use those out of the bullpen. We're going to throw everything out there tomorrow to give us a chance to get to that final game."
Colorado Mesa was undefeated in this year's Division II national championship coming into Thursday's game, yet as disappointing as the loss to Tampa must have been, head coach Chris Hanks appeared relatively relaxed during the post-game press conference. Asked what he might say to his team to keep it from getting down, Hanks smiled.
"I follow my gut and I scratch where it itches," he said. "I might be mean to them. I might be nice to them. I haven't decided, but we'll see what the wind blows in. These guys will respond. We said a long time ago that this is their team now. It's not the coaches' team. It's their team.
"They've been through a lot. We had the ups and downs of the season. You have your battles, and they battled hard. I don't know what'll happen tomorrow, but I know they'll battle hard. I do know that. They will compete. That'll allow me to sleep well tonight."
The comfort of knowing it could lose and still play tomorrow worked through Thursday, but that's just not the case now. Relax for even a moment and that's it. Season over.
"We do a pretty good job as teammates to see each game as important, regardless of the fact that we could lose one and still play," said star right fielder Austin Kaiser. "We never want to lose. Tomorrow, you've just got to come back out and fight. We played today, and we kind of got worked a bit.
"That's frustrating for us, because we do pride ourselves on making adjustments and figuring guys out. We didn't do that today. I hope I'm speaking for the whole team, but I can't wait to play tomorrow and come back out and show these guys what we really have."
Minnesota State-Mankato head coach Matt Magers has looked for more out of his players all week, win or lose. He hopes to get it come Friday's contest with Southern Indiana, and for good reason.
"I still think we're going to play our best game in the tournament yet," Magers said. "We're in a situation where our backs were up against the wall. They're still there, and it's going to take a better effort than what we had today to beat that team. They're a better team, I think, than what they played today."
Magers' assessment of Southern Indiana is not one with which Screaming Eagles coach Tracy Archuleta would necessarily disagree. After the loss Thursday, he gathered the team in shallow right field to give both a critique of that day's performance and a pep talk for the following day.
"The first thing we talked about after the game was understanding what we need to improve on," Archuleta said. "That was the first thing. Two is that we've got to flush it away and understand that we work all year in order to play for a national championship. We've done a really good job at it, and not to let one game effect what we're going to do tomorrow."
So that's it. Four teams go into Friday, and only two will be left standing afterward. It's going to be fun to watch.