OMAHA, Neb. — And now, the three most commonly used words after the first round of the College World Series.
Swing. And miss.
It was a weekend of whiffs in Omaha. Vanderbilt’s pitchers struck out 19 Arizona Wildcats, and that’s against the second best on-base percentage team in the nation. Virginia’s Andrew Abbott fanned 10 Tennessee Vols in six innings, Stanford’s Brendan Beck blew away 10 against North Carolina State in 5.2 innings, and he didn’t even win.
But all that was just a prelude for Sunday night’s Special K parade, when the pages of the record book were flipped over by the steady breeze from futile swings.
Mississippi State pitchers Will Bednar and Landon Sims struck out 21 Texas batters. That beat Ohio State’s record of 20 from 56 years ago, which took 15 innings.
The two teams combined to fan 33 times, breaking the mark of 31 by Santa Clara and Michigan in 1962. That took 15 innings, too. The Bulldogs and Longhorns had their new records in the bag in the top of the ninth.
It ended in a 2-1 Mississippi State victory; a game that had 21 more strikeouts than hits and walks combined. And that was with the wind blowing out at TD Ameritrade Park. Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis mentioned the pregame conversation he had with his pitching coach Scott Foxhall: “When we saw the wind, I said the best thing to do is just strike them out. I really did make that comment.”
So what in the name of Jacob deGrom is happening in Omaha, Great pitching? Hitters pressing? Phase of the moon? Two of the five highest strikeout games ever seen in the 74-year history of the College World Series just happened in two days.
“I was telling some of the guys, `You're going to look up in a couple of years and see all those guys pitching in the big leagues,’” Lemonis said. “Just some special arms, special competitors on both sides.”
Consider Bednar’s line through six remarkable innings: 21 batters faced, 15 of them struck out, no runs, one hit, one walk, 108 pitches and only three of them left the infield fair. Between Bednar’s high heat and vicious slider, and the early evening shadows, the Longhorns didn’t have a prayer.
“It’s a humbling game,” Texas coach David Pierce said. “I mean, hitting is tough. If we strike out however many times and we strike them out however many times, at the end of the day it's a 2-1 game. We didn't get a clutch hit and they got one more than us.”
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As his strikeout total soared, was Bednar even keeping track? “Uh . . . yeah,” he admitted. “I wasn't trying to, but I kind of kept peeking up at the board.”
That’s OK, so was nearly everyone else.
Lemonis grabbed his pitcher afterward to hand him the game ball. “I just told him that’s one of the better performances ever here,” he said. Bednar would later admit, “To be real honest, it still hasn't set in yet.”
But also consider the general carnage of the weekend: The pitchers from the eight teams faced 323 batters. They struck out 101 of them – one of every three. Fifty-nine different batters whiffed. Texas, with a lineup that had scored 49 runs in its five NCAA tournament games, had four different batters strikeout three times each. Mississippi State’s leading home run hitter, Logan Tanner, went down four times.
The pitchers aren’t fooling around. That’s one thing learned now that all eight teams have had their first taste of Omaha 2021. There were others.
- Applause, please, for the ACC. North Carolina State over Stanford , then Virginia big over Tennessee. That’s as many victories as the ACC had in the first round of the men’s basketball tournament.
- Mississippi State has come a long way since its quick hook in the SEC tournament, when the Bulldogs were outscored 25-3. Now they need to ignore other history. They won their openers in the last two College World Series, too, and then went 1-4 after that.
- “That's going to be something we talk about,” veteran outfielder Rowdey Jordan said. “So I think you celebrate a little bit, but then you put it behind you. And that's what we're going to tell the younger guys: `Look, guys, we've been here. We didn't get it done.’”
- Virginia’s 6-0 win guaranteed this will be the 10th consecutive College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park with at least one shutout. Actually, there have been 20 in those 10 years. There were none in the final four Junes at Rosenblatt Stadium.
- The CWS had gone 84 games since 2014 without an extra-inning game before Vanderbilt outlasted Arizona in 12. There were good tidings for Commodores: The winners of seven of the past eight extra-inning games ended up champions.
- The games are coming in all sizes. It took Vanderbilt 4 hours and 51 minutes to finish off Arizona. Mississippi State and Texas were done in 2:45.
- Vanderbilt is the lone team left with unbeaten records in the NCAA tournament. The last national champion to run the table, by the way, was UCLA in 2013.
- Tennessee needs to find its clutch hitting. The Vols were 0-for-8 against Virginia with runners in scoring position.
- Stanford needs its early-inning magic back. The Cardinal had outscored its NCAA tournament opponents 23-3 in the first two innings. Stanford was down 3-0 after two innings against North Carolina State.
- There were nine home runs the first two days. So the hitters have had their moments. The pitchers have just had a lot more.
- Yet to be seen in Omaha is an overturned call by replay. All five reviews so far have upheld decisions. Since the system was installed in 2018, there have been only three calls overturned in 39 reviews.
- Two days have been enough time to provide CWS storylines to love.
Virginia’s Abbott pitching so well in town with the Olympic swimming trials going on across the street. He was a state finalist freestyler in high school. This week, he even got to meet Michael Phelps.
Logan Michaels hitting his first home run of the season on Father’s Day with father Jeff, who is fighting pancreatic cancer, in the stands. “He has been the force that gets me through it,” Jeff said of his son.
Kumar Rocker, who had had never allowed more than one run in six postseason starts, giving up five runs to Arizona. But Vanderbilt winning, anyway.
Jonny Butler hitting the first College World Series homer for North Carolina State in 53 years.
The people lining up for pictures in front to the Road to Omaha statue by the home plate gate. The four most photographed players in town are in bronze, celebrating in perpetuity, their joyous moment frozen in metal.
“I’m the one on the far right,” Virginia’s Brian O’Connor was saying. “At least that’s what I’m told.”
So, a man coaching inside the ballpark is standing in bronze forever outside the ballpark. The statue is three players hoisting a fourth on their shoulders, and the O’Connor figure is shouting. That he was used as one of the inspirations by the sculptor comes from his Creighton playing days. He doesn’t like to make a big deal of it, figuring it takes the focus off his current Cavaliers. but did say, “It’s a privilege that you’re somehow attached to this event.”
That’s an only-in-Omaha story. So, in 2021, are strikeouts coming in waves. It’s up to the hitters to answer, as the teams now start going home.