OMAHA, Neb. -- Facing elimination in the College World Series can get some teams to play their best. For others, it can lead to uncharacteristic mistakes and sloppy play.
In Monday’s first elimination game at the 2014 CWS, Texas played a flawless game to see another day. As for Louisville, the Cardinals were far from it in helping Texas to its’ CWS-record 83rd win in a 4-1 defeat.
Louisville had reason to believe it could advance to Wednesday’s second elimination game with starter Anthony Kidston on the mound. Kidston came in at 9-0 this season and 14-0 in his two-year career with the Cards. As a team, they were 12-1 this year when he started and 17-2 in his career.
“When you don’t play clean, obviously it gets magnified out here,” Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said. “You do your best to try and not give up a run and unfortunately we gave them a few too many opportunities early. We had a two-inning stretch there where we made it a little too easy for them.”
The Cards had come in with a relatively good defense with a .971 fielding percentage. They’d only committed five errors in six postseason games. Already trailing 2-0 in the fifth inning, a two-batter stretch in which UofL failed to turn a double play on either sealed the Cardinals' postseason fate.
Tres Barrera hit a ground ball to second that Zach Lucas couldn’t corral with one out, which moved Mark Payton to second base. C.J Hinojosa followed with another chopper back to the mound that Kidston nabbed. Surely this time, this was the double play that would get the Cards back in the dugout only trailing by two. Maybe it was the momentum they’d need to come back against Texas starter Parker French and the Longhorns. He turned to second and fired to Lucas who stepped on the bag for one. But instead of an inning-ending double play, his throw to first sailed past the glove of Grant Kay. Payton easily scored and Texas extended its lead to 3-0 without the benefit of a hit.
“We had kicked the ball around a little bit, we made a couple of errors,” McDonnell said. “I think that third run was the double-play error, it just really hurt. [I was] really frustrated, there's no way we were going to get back in the game the way the offensive flow was going.”
Lucas hadn’t committed an error all postseason in his 23 chances entering Monday. In two plays, he had two costly errors. But it wasn’t just the defense. Errors on the basepaths killed the Cards, too.
French allowed one of his four hits -- all singles -- to lead off the game to Kyle Gibson. On the next pitch to Cole Sturgeon, Hinojosa caught a liner at shortstop and fired back to first to double-up Gibson. Just like that, the threat was extinguished. Then again in the seventh inning, trailing 3-0, pinch hitter Colin Lyman hit a looper toward second baseman Brooks Marlow with Alex Chittenden on first base. Marlow caught it and Chittenden was halfway between first and second. Marlow easily doubled him off. Once again, a Louisville threat was put to bed.
“We hit the ball hard -- it didn’t work out,” Sturgeon said. “I don't think that really set any kind of tone for the game. I thought we had some good at‑bats throughout the game, that middle stretch, but it just didn't go our way [Monday].”
Meanwhile, Texas played an error-free game at the perfect time. Hinojosa made play after play at shortstop behind French, ranging up the middle to snare multiple balls that looked like sure hits. Ben Johnson in left field made catch after catch on another not-so-easy day in the outfield with the wind howling in from the south.
“Go around the infield, plays made defensively by C.J -- teammates were getting the outs on time and Parker is a ground-ball pitcher, with a sinker that you saw working very well [Monday]," Texas head coach Augie Garrido said. "And he is dependent on trusting the infielders to get the outs on time and make the plays for him.”
French appreciated the guys behind him, helping him go 7.1 innings while allowing just one run to improve to 7-5 in 2014.
“I think when I step out there every day, every game, this is probably the best defense in the country,” French said. “I can say that with confidence -- up the middle, everywhere. I come in confident every game.”
And when the other team is playing defense like Texas was, and you’re playing in a ballpark where a home run hasn’t been hit in the first four CWS games for the first time in the aluminum bat era (since 1974), a three-run deficit in the late innings feels more like 30.
Because of that, McDonnell felt the need to have Gibson bunt after getting the first two batters aboard in the eighth inning to put a runner past second base for the first time all day. You can’t play for the game-tying three-run bomb like you’re used to throughout the season. McDonnell hasn’t quite figured out the best way to play at TD Ameritrade Park, where UofL has allowed the first run all four times in going 0-4 the past two seasons.
“I haven't figured that one out yet,” McDonnell said of playing at TD Ameritrade Park. “We're down three and it's first and second, nobody out, and I'm sac-bunting. I think that says it all.”
The Cardinals managed just one run in the inning, on an RBI groundout by Sturgeon. The button McDonnell pressed didn’t work. For the second year in a row, Louisville goes home from Omaha without a victory.
Some teams are built to play in this cavernous park. Others, are not.