A separated shoulder knocked Nick Ratajczak out of Louisville's College World Series, but he still left Omaha with an at bat that will last forever.
OMAHA, Neb. (WDRB ) – The scorebook says it was a fly ball to right field. It carried about 310 feet. Nobody thought the ball was going out of TD Ameritrade Park. Nobody thought it was going to drop between the Oregon State outfielders.
Just a simple fly ball in an elimination game that the University of Louisville lost, 11-4. There will be a dozens of them in this College World Series.
Except there was nothing simple about it. There will not be another one like it.
Nick Ratajczak hit that fly ball. He's supposed to be the second hitter in coach Dan McDonnell's lineup as well as the Cardinals' second baseman. For the last 10 days, he's been mostly an injured cheerleader.
"To not play as much as I wanted to, it was killing me inside," Ratajczak said. "I had to wear the fake smile."
Ratajczak hit that fly ball with a separated right shoulder. He hit it even though he had not taken batting practice for more than a week. He hit it after taking the smelly black sling that protected his shoulder and tossing on the bench.
"A bunch of us were out in the bullpen," said Joe Filomeno, a Louisville relief pitcher. "Jeff Gardner was down there and he said, ‘Rat's on deck.' I looked up and there was Rat, just swinging.
"Everything that Rat's been through these last few weeks. Tears came to my eyes when I saw him take the batter's box. Just hearing his name. It's hard to hold back tears right now just because of what he's been through and how much he's done for this team."
Ratajczak is a senior. This was his farewell to college baseball. For 61 games he had been as reliable as anybody in McDonnell's lineup. Solid in the infield. Determined in the batter's box. Indispensable in the locker room. His teammates loved and admired him. They always will.
But Ratajczak separated his right (throwing) shoulder in a collision as the Cardinals staged a practice game prior to their Super Regional trip to Vanderbilt June 8.
He tried to play in Nashville. Tried after going through all the treatment and rest the U of L staff prescribed. He hit twice and struck out once. He couldn't do it. Wanted to. Couldn't.
Same thing in Omaha.
But before the Cardinals played their opening game against Indiana Saturday, McDonnell wrapped his arm around Ratajczak and told him he would get into a game. Promise.
"I told him I would get him an at bat so one day he could tell his kids that he played in Omaha," McDonnell said.
That at bat came in the eighth inning. Louisville trailed, 11-4. The game had been over since the third inning when Oregon State surged to a 10-0 lead. An inning earlier, McDonnell told Ratajczak to go to the locker room and stretch. He was hitting in the eighth for catcher Kyle Gibson.
Ratajczak believed his coach. What he couldn't believe were all the emotions that washed over his body as he walked to the batter's box. Louisville fans stood and applauded along the first-base line. So did his teammates, the ones in the dugout and the ones in the bullpen.
Oregon State catcher Jake Rodriguez saw Ratajczak crying as he approached home plate and recognized what was happening.
"How are you doing?" Rodriguez asked. "You're the hurt guy, right?"
Ratajczak was hurt, but he was not hurting. This was the most enjoyable at bat of his life. He waited for the first fastball that he thought he could hit and drove it to right field. He ran to first base and then turned and ran toward second as the baseball settled into the glove of Oregon State right fielder Dylan Davis.
It was time to return to the dugout. Ratajczak's College World Series was over. So was his college baseball career. But not until he reached down, scooped two hands full of dirt and rubbed them over his uniform.
Consider it Nick Ratajczak's College World Series souvenir. It will outlast any T-shirt or cap.
"It's been a dream since I was 10 or 11 years old," Ratajczak said. "Even if I was to somehow make it to the big leagues some day, I don't think any at bat would mean as much to me. The fact that I can actually say that I played in Omaha, my bucket list is basically complete."