The moment clearly wasn’t too big for Washington. The Huskies played to their strengths, pitching and defense, but they simply couldn’t get the clutch hit they needed.
OMAHA, Neb. – One of the curiosities of this College World Series was to see how Washington, the wide-eyed newcomers in a field of Omaha veterans, would handle what coach Lindsay Meggs referred to earlier in the week as “the biggest baseball circus there is on the planet.”
On Saturday, in an excruciating 1-0 walk-off loss to Mississippi State at TD Ameritrade Park that put them on the brink of elimination, we got the multi-layered answer.
The moment clearly wasn’t too big for Washington. The Huskies played to their strengths, pitching and defense, elements that Meggs actually recruits with this spacious ballpark in the back of his mind. Starter Joe DeMers pitched an absolute masterpiece over 7 1/3 scoreless innings, and the Huskies, particularly shortstop Levi Jordan, made play after play to bail him out of whatever jams he got in.
But the Huskies simply couldn’t get the clutch hit they needed, which Meggs felt was not attributable to nerves, but something more akin to excitement – the thrill and anticipation of playing in college baseball’s shrine. It didn’t help that their game started more than half an hour behind schedule because of the marathon contest that preceded them – more time for the Huskie to build up a surge of, maybe not nerves, but nervous energy.
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“The first game went so long, we were stuck in the waiting area and got a little fidgety,’’ Meggs said. “I told one of my assistant coaches, I feel like I’m a substitute teacher in a third-grade class. Our guys were bouncing off walls and doing everything you probably don’t want to do as far as trying to settle down and get ready to play. With runners in scoring position, we didn’t take the kind of at-bats we have for the last few weeks. We got a little jumpy and chased some pitches.”
The game was still scoreless heading to the bottom of the ninth, which opened with back-to-back singles off UW reliever Alex Hardy. The Huskies got a break when Mississippi State popped up the attempted sacrifice, but Luke Alexander laced the ball over the head of drawn-in right fielder Kaiser Weiss, and the Bulldogs’ Hunter Stovall steamed home with the game-winner.
Meggs wasn’t second-guessing his decision to play the outfield so tight, which was done with the thought of cutting off the winning run at all costs.
“The way the ballpark plays and the fact the winning run was on second base, we weren’t going to let anything fall in front of us,’’ he said. “That’s the percentage play and that’s what we talked about doing before the game. He put a good swing on it. I don’t know if we catch it no matter where we are, but that’s why we were where we were, to give us a chance to throw somebody out.”
The Huskies had soaked up all the pageantry – the parade and banquet and hero’s worship that each participant is bestowed in this baseball-mad city during its annual June festival – with the appropriate eagerness. The overflow crowd of 24,758 on Saturday just added to the pomp. But now it’s down to a more business-like scenario, which Jordan summed up nicely: “It’s survive and advance, as Coach said after the game.”
And they’ll have to do it against a formidable team with which they are quite familiar, Oregon State, which was upset by North Carolina in the first game. The Beavers, most experts’ favorite to win the CWS, took two out of three from the Huskies in March when they were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Washington and Oregon State square off in a loser-out game on Monday at 11 a.m.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall for seven weeks,’’ Meggs said. “We’ve embraced it and we have an opportunity to play who I believe is the best team in the country on Monday at the College World Series.”
Following the ragged opener in which Oregon State and North Carolina played the longest nine-inning game in CWS history (four hours and 24 minutes, but it seemed more like six hours), Washington and Mississippi State completely flipped the script. It was taut and crisp virtually from the first pitch, with the increasing realization – and the accompanying tension – that one run was going to do it.
DeMers was a monument to efficiency, flooding the strike zone to an astonishing degree. Through four shutout innings, he had thrown just 34 pitches, and 31 of them were strikes. That ratio barely shifted, and when DeMers was pulled with one out in the eighth, still sporting a clean sheet, he had thrown just 72 pitches, with 55 of them strikes (and that included an intentional walk).
“Our pitching coach, JK (Jason Kelly), loves when Joe’s out there because we get into negative counts on purpose,’’ Meggs said. “They’ll wave a fastball purposely so he can throw a 1-0 change. That’s a big-league feel for three different pitches.”
Jordan, meanwhile, kept ranging left and ranging right to rob base hits. His switch from second base to shortstop at midseason helped jump-start the Huskies after an 18-18 start to the season.
“His footwork is off the charts There are no wasted steps with Levi,’’ Meggs said. “We’ve kind of joked that it’s like watching ‘Dancing With the Stars’ because he never takes a false step.”
But what the Huskies lacked, most glaringly in the third inning, was a big hit. They loaded the bases with one out, and catcher Nick Kahle, their No. 3 hitter, made solid contact. But his grounder went right at the shortstop, who turned an inning-ending double play.
“I think if we could have got the lid off there we might have been able to get a couple more, because it was early enough I don’t think they were interested in going to the bullpen at that time,’’ Meggs said. “That’s a huge moment for them. Nick gets a good pitch to hit, and he’s the guy we want up there in that situation. And he just hooked it.”
And so it went for the Huskies, who also left runners in scoring position in the second, sixth and ninth.
Now the novelty is gone, and the pageantry is secondary. It’s survive and advance – or lose and go home.
“There’s a lot of great things about being here, and we feel we deserve to be here,’’ Jordan said. “All the extra stuff that’s going on can be a distraction sometimes. But we’re here to play baseball and we’re here to win games.”
The Huskies like to think of themselves as gritty underdogs, and it’s worked well for them in getting through Regionals and Super Regionals. But in Mississippi State, they ran into a team that trumped them with the underdog card. The Bulldogs fired their coach three games into the season, and started the year 14-15, 2-7 in the SEC. They’re believed to be the first team to get to the CWS with an interim coach.
But they got here, for the 10th time in program history. The Huskies got here for the first time. And they want to stay here.
“As I told the guys after the game, you have to do some things one time before you get comfortable,’’ Meggs said. “Monday will be a different day for us.”