OMAHA, Neb. -- While most expected to see the two best power bats in the country put on a show in Miami (Fla.)’s Monday afternoon tilt with Arkansas, it was two role players that took center stage in a College World Series elimination game.
Miami’s David Thompson and Arkansas’ Andrew Benintendi came to Omaha tied for the NCAA lead with 19 home runs each. Benintendi pulled ahead of Thompson after he turned on a fastball and put it into the bullpen in the Hogs CWS opener against Virginia.Before Monday’s game, the last time the top two players on the NCAA home run leaderboard faced each other in the College World Series was in 1997. An opening round game less than six weeks before Benintendi’s third birthday featured Rice’s Lance Berkman -- the NCAA leader with 41 home runs -- and LSU’s Brandon Larson, who entered the game second on the list with 37. Larson hit his 38th homer of the season in the game and finished 1997 with a total of 40.
So there was somewhat of an anticipation of an arms race, similar to the one between Berkman and Larson before the Benintendi-Thompson matchup.
As it turns out, one player did make the difference at the plate for each team. Only it wasn’t whom people expected.
Arkansas’ Rick Nomura and Miami (Fla.)’s Jacob Heyward combined to go 6-for-7 at the plate with two runs scored, four RBI, two walks and a home run.
While Thompson and Benintendi each failed to record a hit in seven combined at bats.
Nomura understood the importance of playing at a higher level in an elimination game, especially on a day when a player like Benintendi is struggling.
“I feel it's a team game. There's no ‘I’ in our team,” Nomura said. “I'm proud of my teammates for this whole year. They all worked hard and always put their best foot forward and sometimes that's just baseball and you just have to go with the flow and hope your teammates will pick you up.”
Benintendi was walked twice, the second coming on an intentional walk in the top of the ninth that set up an at bat for Nomura with bases loaded and two outs. Nomura, with a chance to reach base for the fifth time in the game, rolled over a 1-2 fastball and grounded out to second.
Coming through in a clutch situation is all that separated Nomura from his Miami counterpart, Heyward, on Monday.
Heyward also got an at-bat in the ninth with a runner in scoring position. Carl Chester was pinch running for Willie Abreu, who had launched a double to the deepest part of the park in center field.
The plan was for Heyward -- who was 2-for-2 with a home run by the ninth inning -- to lay down a sacrifice bunt and get Chester to third for the top of the order and one out.
Heyward failed to get the bunt down on the first two pitches and fell behind in the count 0-2. He drove the next pitch he saw toward the gap in left and threw up a celebratory right fist as he rounded first and Chester came home to score the winning run.
“We're trying to win a ballgame,” Heyward said about attempting to bunt in the ninth. “It would have been terrible if I struck out. On second base with no outs and nothing happening. “
Miami coach Jim Morris, who insisted that Monday’s hero be referred to as “Mr. Heyward” was relieved by Heyward’s inability to do what Morris’ initially tasked him to do in the ninth inning.
“Mr. Heyward's day. Goodness gracious,” Morris said. “He had an unbelievable day from the two-run homer to everything -- I got to be honest with you, not bunting him over -- when we were bunting there in the bottom of the [ninth] and he didn't get it over -- I was almost glad because I just had a feeling he was going to get a hit.
“It was one of those days. Of course he ripped it and you knew he was going to score when they did that.”
When the game ended, neither Benintendi nor Thompson sat to take questions at the post game press conference. Benintendi was still on top of the 2015 arms race, but the end of the road for Arkansas left the door open for Thompson to cement his place in the NCAA record books.