OMAHA, Neb — Can’t elimination games be entertaining in Omaha? Always a sense of urgency. Always a chance at atonement. Occasionally a tad bizarre.
Tuesday, for example. Tennessee vs. Texas, in the War of the Oranges.
Maybe you remember how Texas started this College World Series — by striking out 21 times in a 2-1 loss to Mississippi State, wasting a bunch of good pitching. The Big Whiff, directly to the wrong side of the history book.
“They were frustrated. They were embarrassed,” coach David Pierce was saying Tuesday. “If we would have lost a 2-1 game and we hit a lot of hard ground balls or line drives and they made plays, that would be one thing.
“When you get humiliated and you get stung, either you're going to back down and tuck your tail, or you're going to do something about it.”
Or as left fielder Eric Kennedy said, “Obviously, striking out 21 times in a game is unacceptable.”
So let’s journey to the fourth inning Tuesday to see what the embarrassed Longhorns are up to.
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With nothing to lose but their hotel rooms, they have come out whacking. After four innings, they lead 7-4. A bad sign for Tennessee, since Texas went 34-0 this season when scoring five or more runs.
By the end of the fourth, the Longhorns already own six two-out runs. Kennedy and Silas Ardoin already have five RBI. They’re batting eighth and ninth in the lineup. The Tennessee staff has already thrown 100 pitches. One of the Vols’ assistant coaches has already been ejected. There have already been two reviews of calls, both upheld. Emotions seem a tad high. “Two teams trying to make it one more day,” Pierce says on TV.
And who’s that guy in the orange shirt watching from the suite level? Why, it’s Mr. Omaha! himself and the most famous Vol of them all, Peyton Manning. Problem is, Tennessee needs runs, not touchdowns.
But no runs were to come. In the fourth inning, Texas hands the ball to freshman pitcher Tanner Witt, a fourth-generation Longhorn whose father Kevin played for four big-league teams. He is charged with keeping the lead for an inning. Or two. Maybe even three. His longest stint all season had been 3.1 innings.
Five innings later, he’s still out there. The lead is 8-4 and he’s finishing off the Vols. His final line includes no runs, three singles, and 78 pitches – 25 more than he had ever thrown in a college baseball game. “As a freshman he's the most poised pitcher I've ever seen,” Kennedy said.
To Witt, the task had been clear. “It could have been the end of the season, but I don't want it to be the end of the season,” he said. “I love these guys too much.” But did he even notice that he was pitching for his team’s survival, in the College World Series? Sure. “But I live for this moment,” he said. “This is the moment I've always dreamed for.”
Elimination games are a unique feature of Omaha. March Madness, this isn’t. Here lives the concept of the second chance. It ain’t over till it’s over. Twice. Yesterday can be forgiven and one defeat doesn’t necessarily end a dream. The Gonzaga basketball Bulldogs wish they could have had that deal in Indianapolis.
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Texas showed Tuesday what that is all about, which usually starts with learning from the loss, and then forgetting it. The Longhorn coaches had sent a message in batting practice the day before: Shorten the swings, take a different approach.
“They got challenged,” Pierce said. “I just think that their work that they put in from day one came out. And you have to be able to trust it, but then you also have to understand if we continue to stay frustrated, we're not going to play well today. So there's a very mature approach by them — not slamming anything, not pointing fingers, just understanding that it was a bad day. And we still have opportunity to play.
“I think it's so important because we've worked so hard for these moments. And we didn't want to leave here with a bitter taste.”
Kennedy said the recovery actually began in the dugout during the ninth inning that dreary night against Mississippi State. Assistant coach Troy Tulowitzki — the former major league infield star — had tried to lighten the atmosphere, and maybe the load his flailing hitters were feeling. “We were all kind of laughing, Tulo was laughing,” Kennedy said. “It's, like, it can't get any worse, play loose, let it fly.
“That's what the big message was in the meeting yesterday . . . We're here for a reason. But just stay loose and if we play our game not many people are going to be able to beat us.”
Early offense, late pitching, and defense that turned two double plays, including an all-world turn at home by catcher Ardoin, when he grabbed an errant throw, stepped on the plate and fired a strike to first. “One of the best plays I’ve ever seen, because of the situation,” Pierce said. All that's a good way to forget 21 strikeouts.
“That's in the past,” Kennedy said. “Nobody's thinking about that game anymore.”
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Texas, then, wants to make the most of its second chance.
Stanford, too, shot down on Saturday, getting 20 hits on Monday.
And Vanderbilt. The Commodores took a gut punch Monday night, getting a 15-strikeout four-hitter from Jack Leiter and still losing 1-0 to North Carolina State, basically because of one pitch. But Tim Corbin has been around the block as the Vandy coach. "Everything's not going to go your way," he said. "And there's been a lot of people that have finished this tournament that didn't start the way they wanted to.”
Indeed, the record book has several role models for losers in Omaha. Oregon State of 2018, for sure. The Beavers opened with an 8-6 loss to North Carolina, then scored 37 runs their next three games and ended up national champions. Or South Carolina in 2010. The Gamecocks dropped their first game to Oklahoma 4-3 but never lost again, giving up only 12 runs in six victories. Oregon State was blown away by Miami 11-1 in 2006, but won the title.
That's the road Texas now seeks to travel, showing Tennessee the door Tuesday. Sorry, Peyton.