OMAHA, Neb. — Before the College World Series could get to the pressing questions at hand — Will Michigan’s pitchers ever blink? Is Vanderbilt an unstoppable freight train? Are termites easier to get rid of than Texas Tech? — they had to find out who the last member would be in baseball’s Final Four.
Turns out it’s Louisville, the only team left in Omaha depending on help from "Game of Thrones" and the NHL.
That might need explaining. Let’s go to the ninth inning Thursday night.
Mississippi State leads 3-2, and things look dire for the Cardinals. Cole Gordon is on the mound, and he has been one of the nation’s best closers, which is one reason the Bulldogs are 47-0 this season when leading going into the ninth.
But there’s this sign in the Louisville dugout. Not Today.
“It’s been our motto ever since we lost that first game in our regional,” pitcher Luke Smith would say later. So all the Cardinals look at it?
“Especially in that ninth."
The line comes from "Game of Thrones." It was coach Dan McDonnell’s idea to post it every game since the Cardinals faced elimination in their regional. Eleventh hour inspiration from a television mega-hit show.
“I don’t watch it, but it’s just a famous line in that show and we just kind of took that mantra,” he said. “I heard the kids liked it, but I didn’t realize how much they liked it. So we just keep using that line. Not today. Today is not going to be the last day.”
OK, but what about the hockey stick and puck in the dugout?
“We say we’re playing playoff hockey,” McDonnell said, “because when you get to Game 7, if you win, you advance to the next round. If you lose, your season’s over. This team has kind of acted like this is playoff hockey. You’ve got to understand, I’ve got a lot of Midwest/northern kids that like hockey. There’s probably not a ton of southern college baseball players that are into hockey, but my team is. Whatever connects with them. It’s good to see the belief and the trust and the fight all the way to the end.”
With a puck and a TV tagline behind them, how could the Cardinals be stopped? Gordon only needed three more outs. He got none.
First came Jake Snider working a walk on seven pitches. Then a Danny Oriente RBI single to tie after Snider advanced to second on a pickoff error. Then Drew Campbell’s game-winning hit for a 4-3 walk-off victory that had him racing for the safety of the outfield, as his teammates came at him like a wave for the pile-on.
“I thought they were going to kill me,” he said later. “A lot of these guys are bigger than me, I had to run toward the left field wall.”
Said Smith, “We had every belief that we were going to come back and win that thing. That’s the cool part about being the home team. You get to do it the fun way, and run on the field and tackle each other.”
And Snider, who scored the winning run: “Part of you knew that it was going to happen, but a part of you was also in shock.”
This was powerful stuff. Mississippi State, renowned for its rallying ways with a nation-leading 28 come-from-behind wins, had been knocked off with its own medicine. The Bulldogs coughed up a 3-0 lead with four Louisville runs in the last three innings.
Also, McDonnell had handed a defeat of acute anguish to his former college teammate and roommate at The Citadel — Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis. The two were even in each other’s weddings. So the postgame handshake was sincere, but the conversation was brief, giving Lemonis room for his pain. “It’ll be hard to talk about it, so I’m going to try not to,” McDonnell said. “I don’t ever prepare for the season to end. You don’t ever mentally go there. It’s hard to . . . but it dawned upon me that if we lost today, I would have lost to one of my best friends.”
Still, what did Thursday night mean most of all?
“A chance to play more baseball,” Campbell said.
And now that that’s settled, the plot can truly thicken on Friday. Consider some of the ifs.
Oh, right. Michigan is still in town. The Wolverines haven’t been seen for days, since the win over Florida State on Monday. If they beat Texas Tech Friday afternoon, they’ll be in the championship finals for the first time in 57 years. That was 1962 and you know what happened that year, besides John Glenn’s space flight? The Wolverines won the championship. They had a modest seeding in the tournament bracket this year, they’re from the snow belt, they haven’t been this far forever. They’re Cinderella.
Except, they don’t seem much like a sweet fairy tale character when you’re trying to hit against them. The pitchers have given up three runs and 12 hits in Omaha, with a strikeout-walk ratio of 17-2. Coach Erik Bakich will start Karl Kauffmann — who pitched seven innings in the 5-3 win last Saturday over Texas Tech. If that doesn’t work, Jeff Criswell is 7-1, came out of the bullpen against the Red Raiders and struck out four of the nine batters he faced. The Wolverines are fully rested after their four-day sabbatical. It all looks so good for Michigan.
MICHIGAN VS. TEXAS TECH: Preview and prediction for Friday's first semifinal game
Still, if Texas Tech beats Michigan . . . as coach Tim Tadlock said the other day, it certainly is interesting watching these guys play with their backs against the wall. It’d be their third straight win in an elimination game, and would have the Red Raiders thinking destiny. The three victories would also be more than all their other trips to Omaha combined. So they’ve never played in the finals, but maybe the karma is right. We’re only 11 weeks down the road from Texas Tech in its first basketball national title game.
“I think it kind of fueled our fire,” shortstop Josh Jung was saying about the basketball team. “We’re always trying to be ahead of them because we want to be the sport on campus. So them making it to the national championship game, now we’re, 'OK, we have to go win and stay ahead of them.' It’s just like a friendly rivalry. We’re all good friends with those guys.”
Texas Tech was 7-0 all-time against Michigan until a week ago, when the Wolverines scored four runs in 15 batters against Red Raiders starter Micah Dallas, who will get the ball against them again. So we’ll see what a difference a week makes.
If Vanderbilt beats Louisville Friday night, the Commodores will be in their third championship finals in six years. They’ll be 33-3 their last 36 games, so who wants to stand in front of that locomotive? “We know we just have to play our game,” left fielder Stephen Scott said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter who the opponent is.”
It would also guarantee that Omaha will see another Kumar Rocker start. Rocker in the finals. Instant buzz.
If Louisville beats Vanderbilt, the Cardinals will be on the doorstep of their first championship final in history. They already have two wins here — something no Louisville team has ever done. “A lot of us have been wanting this to be the best team that’s ever played here,” Snider said.
They might be there already, but reversing last Sunday’s decision on Vanderbilt — the Commodores won 3-1 as Louisville stranded 10 — would be more confirmation. "I think they know they just accomplished something no other Louisville team has ever accomplished," McDonnell said. "But they still want more."
Louisville has won five games in the NCAA tournament when facing elimination. But this is Vanderbilt. The Cardinals better make sure the sign and hockey gear are ready.