A Super Regional That Truly Was
Sometimes a game is destined to be a classic before the first pitch is thrown. You pretty much know it going in. But sometimes a classic sneaks up on you unexpectedly, coming out of nowhere to carve out a particularly hallowed spot in the annals of Fan-dom. Game Two of the NCAA College World Series Super Regional between UCLA and Cal State Fullerton was just such a game.
First of all, I was downright lucky to be in UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium in the first place, rescued from having my nose pressed against the proverbial window by a chance encounter with a gentleman who just happened to have extra tickets to the sold out game. But thanks to the patron saint of Sports Fans, who intervened and directed Jim Winn and his extra tickets my way, there I was in a third row seat behind home plate. I remember as a kid watching sports broadcasts from the West Coast and wondering if the stadium and weather could possibly be as nice as it looked on television. On this day it was.
Sometime in the third inning of a scoreless game, I wrote a note that this was shaping up to be “a pitcher’s duel as expected”. This was based on some pre-series research that highlighted a matchup of UCLA’s pitching (especially the big three of Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Rob Rasmussen), vs. the overall talent base and experience of CSUF – who had not one, but two players selected in the first round of the recent Major League Baseball amateur draft. The Kansas City Royals had taken shortstop Christian Colon with the fourth overall pick of the draft, and twenty picks later the San Francisco Giants made outfielder Gary Brown their top choice. Unfortunately for the Titans, Brown and his .438 batting average were limited to pinch-running status, having broken a finger stealing second in a May 16th game.
And a pitching duel it was for the first half of the game. When UCLA’s Justin Uribe put a solo homer over the right-field fence in top of fourth inning, I said to The Bird: “This could wind up being a 1-0 game.” This is why Las Vegas regularly sends me mail, shamelessly begging me to try my luck at their casinos. My prognostication skills would make me a one-man economic stimulus plan for the desert economy. For this game was about to go whizzing past “interesting” and into the realm of “captivating” – not so much because the bats exploded, but because the combination of small-ball tactics, timely hitting and some downright bizarre occurrences made it as exciting as any home run derby.
In fact, Toyota could take a lesson in manufacturing from this game, because runs were often scored without the benefit of a ball leaving the infield. In the top of the fifth for example, UCLA scored when shortstop Niko Gallego walked, stole second (on a pitchout, no less), stole third on a tremendous jump, and scored on a safety squeeze.
Richie Pedroza, the third-baseman for Cal State Fullerton is listed as 5’ 6”, which I thought was a little generous – actually more like UNICEF-level generous. At any height though, Pedroza is clutch, especially for a freshman. Batting directly behind senior star Christian Colon, he consistently found himself at bat with runners on base, as UCLA chose to work around Colon to get to him. And he delivered. In the bottom of the fifth inning he came up with two outs and a runner in scoring position. He worked the count and then singled on one of the hardest hit balls I’d see all game to tie the score at 2-2. The scenario repeated itself in the bottom of the seventh inning, with Pedroza coming to bat with the tying run on third and two outs – and once more he singled, this time to knot the game at 4-4.
Threatening throughout, in the bottom of the seventh CSUF finally broke through. In typical fashion for this game, it was done incrementally – a single, a walk, a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt that wound up going for an infield hit. A 5-4-3 double play got one run in, but appeared to kill the momentum, until Pedroza did his clutch thing to make it 4-4. The next batter, Corey Jones delivered two runs with a seeing-eye single to right, and given how difficult it had been for UCLA to score runs, the resulting 6-4 lead looked much larger than two runs.
Indeed, the starch came out of the UCLA side, and even when Cory Regis hit his second home run of the game to cut the deficit to 6-5 in the eighth, the response was muted. It was to be understandable, for they had failed to get to CSUF when they had them on the ropes, and while they had hit three home runs, those were three of only five total hits for UCLA to that point in the game. And then there was that “having lost 19 of the last 22 to the Titans” thing. Defeat just seemed inevitable.
And so it was that the Bruins fans did an orchestrated “everybody up” cheer for the Bruins after the second out of the ninth inning. They were proud of this winningest UCLA baseball team ever, and were determined to show their appreciation for a great season. A walk prolonged the final serenade, but…hey wait…is that?…could that possibly go OUT?!? Yes, it could – “it” being a majestic fly ball to left by Tyler Rahmatulla that cleared the wall with only a few feet to spare. And just like that, the season was NOT over. In fact, all UCLA had to do was secure three quick outs in the bottom of the ninth to complete the climb out of the coffin and set up a winner-goes-to-Omaha game the next day.
Except that in this game “three quick outs” was about as achievable as World Peace – or more difficult still – the eradication of reality television. And sure enough with one out and CSUF runners on first and second in the bottom of the ninth, the Titans attempted a double steal. This led to the baseball being thrown all over metropolitan L.A., and when the dirt settled, the game was tied and Cal State Fullerton had the winning run just 90 feet away – with still just one out. Enter UCLA’s guardian angel one more time, for the next batter hit a sharp ground ball right to shortstop Gallego, who was able to catch the All-American Colon leaning too far toward home.
The resulting run-down played out almost in slow motion. Every team practices the run-down play, but it occurs fairly infrequently in games – and never goes exactly like it does in practice. For UCLA this back and forth was truly do or die, for if Colon somehow managed to elude the rundown and score, the Bruins season was over. Again. All of this marched through my head as I watched the play unfold, so I have to think that similar thoughts occurred to UCLA as they worked to eventually corner the fleet-footed Colon, drawing a huge sigh/cheer from their fans. Extra innings.
The UCLA 10th was a microcosm of the game, for of the first six batters, the only solid contact made was a line drive that rocketed off the backside of the CSUF pitcher Kevin Rath – who somehow managed to track it down and shovel it to first for an out. An error, a couple of walks and the bases were once again loaded. But due to some significant lineup juggling on the part of UCLA coach John Savage, his best available offensive option remaining was freshman reserve Trevor Brown. But as I had come to expect by now, after looking a bit overmatched on the first few pitches he saw, Brown sent a bounding ball that somehow eluded Pedroza at third and Colon at short and skipped into left field. Two runs. Delirium. Which was escalated when two batters later the Titans right fielder lost a ball in the lights, allowing two more UCLA runs to score.
Now it was all over but the considerable shouting. But even playing out the string in the bottom of the 10th inning was eventful, as with one out Niko Gallego made a miraculous diving stop of a ground ball and then scrambled to his feet to gun the batter out. It was without a doubt the finest play that I’d ever seen from close range, and sure enough, out of all of the action spread across the globe on a busy sports day, it wound up being #1 in ESPN’s Top Ten Plays.
I shudder to think of the cosmic consequences had I indeed been left outside the gates – relegated to sports bar television coverage of sold out game. Far too many people would have been scarred for life by the sight of a grown Sports Fan weeping openly into his beer and peanut shells. Jim Winn, wherever you are, you did a service to society on this day.