OMAHA, Neb. — Now, instead of a goal and a dream, the College World Series becomes a baseball tournament. And here are four teams with four reasons why Saturday’s opening day should be something to see.
Watch Arkansas return to the scene of the crime! . . .
Call up the replay of the Nightmare of 2018. First thing you see is reliever Matt Cronin throwing a pitch to Oregon State’s Cadyn Grenier, getting a pop-up and pointing into the air, directing his fielders to the ball. Two outs in the ninth, with a 3-2 lead. Someone make the catch, and the Razorbacks dogpile may begin.
As the ball begins to come down in foul territory beyond first base, right fielder Eric Cole races in, first baseman Jared Gates races out, and second baseman Carson Shaddy rushes over. They have it more surrounded than Custer’s 7th cavalry -- but no one catches it. Plop. The ball hits the turf, and 12 months later, anyone who even remotely follows Arkansas baseball does not need reminding about what happened next.
Grenier RBI single to tie. Trevor Larnach two-run homer to win for Oregon State for force game 3, then a shutout by the Beavers’ Kevin Abel next night. An Arkansas national championship, that suddenly wasn’t.
“I’ve seen it one time,” Razorbacks shortstop Casey Martin was saying Friday about the fatal moment. “I guess it was right before this season started. It just kind of popped up. It was tough to watch. I haven’t watched it since, and I probably never will again.”
Saturday night, when Arkansas meets Florida State, brings into focus one of the main questions of this College World Series: Are the Razorbacks driven by that memory, or here because the players have forgotten it? Or a little of both? Other coaches here have their thoughts.
Mississippi State’s Chris Lemonis: “We’ve played that team, and they are motivated. In our world, one of the reasons our kids have so much success when they leave is they have the ability to take a punch, and what I think in baseball is different than any other sport is our failure rate is so high.”
Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin: “No one is immune from those moments. It happens to everyone. Yeah, that equipped them for this.”
The Arkansas camp is not so eager to address the subject, but it is impossible not to ask, with the Razorbacks here again. The three fielders involved in that play are gone, but Cronin is back and has not allowed a run in his last seven relief appearances.
“We get asked about that all the time and the answer’s always the same, this is a whole new team. We have only eight guys who played on this team last year,” he said. “It’s not something that’s on our mind, it’s on to the next one. I’ve put it in the past. That’s part of being a ballplayer, you forget about the past.”
Martin: “At the end of the day, you have to turn the page a little bit. Baseball, you can’t dwell on things, or they just won’t go right for you. For me personally it was hard to let go, but what a ride (the season) was. I’m just happy we were able to get back. Once we hit that first scrimmage last fall, we just said forget about it, it’s a new season . . . I think letting go of it is probably one of the biggest things for us to get back here.”
Coach Dave Van Horn: “It is what it is. Baseball, 27 outs. You’ve got to get 27 . . . But you know, you’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to go out and recruit. You start fall baseball and never talked to this team one time about that play. I’ve only watched it two or three times. Once was enough, obviously.”
Pitcher Isaiah Campbell, who will start Saturday: “I think some guys feel like we have some unfinished business up here. We have new kids who weren’t even here last year, they were playing summer ball. We want to make our own history and write our own story this year.
“We got back to Fayetteville after we lost game 3, and texted our strength coach and said let’s get back to the weight room, let’s get ready for next year. So it’s just short memory.”
Watch Texas Tech’s Josh Jung talk to his bat! . . .
Yeah, the Red Raiders shortstop has a chat with his bat before stepping into the box for every pitch. The conversation resumes Saturday afternoon as Texas Tech and Michigan open the College World Series.
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“It’s the same routine, same phrases. Depending on what the situation is, I might need a little more reassurance to try to calm down. I started talking to my bat in college but I would always say the same thing in my head in high school.”
And no, he said he’s never heard of Mark Fidrych, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher who became a national sensation by talking to the baseball before each pitch.
Who’s to quibble? Jung is hitting .342 for the season and was just the No. 8 pick in the draft to the Texas Rangers. You just wonder if the bat ever talks back.
“I wish. Sometimes I wish it’d tell me I’m not feeling OK. I’d lock in a little more.”
See that rarest of sights, a team in Omaha from the snow belt! . . .
The north hasn’t produced a CWS champion in 53 years, but here’s Michigan to upset conventional wisdom, fresh off taking out No. 1 seed and top-ranked UCLA. Omaha glory has been mostly reserved for the south, and Ann Arbor is south of Saginaw, but not many other places. The Wolverines haven’t been here in 35 years. “This is uncharted territory for our program, for the Big Ten,” coach Erik Bakich said.
“We like to think of ourselves as a representation of northern baseball as a whole,” first baseman Jimmy Kerr said, “to show that the north can play baseball, the Big Ten can play baseball, and most of all the Wolverines can compete with anyone.”
Michigan needs to ignore some recent history.
Start with the three days the Wolverines spent in Lubbock in March, throwing batting practice to Texas Tech, the Red Raiders swept the three games by a combined score of 29-10. “They kicked our butts,” said Karl Kauffmann, who will start for Michigan Saturday.
Or there’s this: Michigan is 0-7 all-time against Texas Tech.
Or this: Texas Tech has won 21 of 26, scoring 184 runs in that stretch. The Red Raiders have homered in every NCAA Tournament game. Their leadoff hitter, Gabe Holt, is the consummate table-setter, reaching base in 117 of 124 games in his career, hitting safely in 103 of them (though he’s injured and might not play). The team’s only senior, Cameron Warren, has 17 home runs and 76 RBI. Jung, who has committed only two errors in 29 games since moving to shortstop, is hitting. .435 in the postseason. That’s a noisy lineup.
But UCLA made more noise than anyone this season, and Michigan’s pitchers turned the Bruins offense into a murmur. If that magic spell is to continue, it starts Saturday with Kauffmann’s assignment to slow down Texas Tech. He can’t wait. “This is the culmination of 21 years of my life.”
And for good karma, the Wolverines can always look over at Kerr at first base. His father played for the last Michigan team to play in the CWS, in 1984. His grandfather pitched for the Wolverines’ last national championship, in 1962.
Watch Florida State try an exorcism! . . .
There are a lot of ghosts of broken Florida State hearts around here that need to be erased. The Seminoles have been here 22 times and gone home without a trophy 22 times. And this is the last chance for retiring coach Mike Martin, so a potential fantasy story is on the plate, too.
Given so much, imagine what a championship would mean to them.
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“It’d mean everything,” junior Drew Mendoza said. “I think that’s what this program is all about, is winning the last game. That’s always been the goal, that’s going to remain the goal, until it’s accomplished.”
But look what they’re facing Saturday night. Arkansas starter Isaiah Campbell is 12-1, with 115 strikeouts. He has not walked more than three batters in any of 17 starts this season. The Razorbacks just crushed Mississippi 14-1 to get here.
But perhaps their sense of mission has contributed to the Seminoles’ grit. They had to play their way off the bubble to even get into the tournament. Martin credits a team meeting called by the veterans, with Mendoza in the middle of it. They went to Athens in the regional and rolled over the Bulldogs. They went to LSU for the super regional – their first visit to Baton Rouge in 36 years – and swept the Tigers.
They’re used to doing things the hard way, so they shouldn’t be fazed by a history of Omaha frustrating deja vus.
“I think the adversity that we’ve been through,” Mendoza said, “is going to carry us.”
Adversity? Michigan was one strike away from its season ending early in the Big Ten Tournament, Texas Tech had to fight for its life against Oklahoma State last week, and Arkansas just wishes people would stop asking about last year. Four teams with reasons to cherish opening day at the College World Series.