CRAWFORD | Walk-off grand slam: This one leaves a scar for Louisville baseball
Eric Crawford on Louisville's stunning walk-off, grand slam loss to UCSB in the NCAA Super Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I thought about something today, not long after pinch hitter Sam Cohen hit a Zack Burdi change-up over the Jim Patterson Stadium wall for a walk-off grand slam that put a jarring end to the No. 2-ranked University of Louisville baseball team’s season in the NCAA Super Regional, a 4-3 UC Santa Barbara victory that completed a stunning two game sweep of the Cardinals on their home field.
You write about the near misses a lot more than you do the high points. I’ve written from far more sad and devastated locker rooms than I have from courts with teams cutting down the nets, or lifting the trophy.
A loss like Louisville’s loss to UCSB on Sunday is the worst kind, because it was sudden and unexpected. And maybe that’s an understatement. This UCSB team was the longest shot in the Super Regional Field to win the College World Series, according to oddsmakers, and Louisville was the favorite.
The Cardinals were 36-1 at home coming into this series. And they hadn’t lost back-to-back home games since March of 2012. The thought that they would drop two at home was nearly unthinkable.
They had eight players taken in last week’s Major League Baseball Draft, including seven of the top 115 picks. They were the only team left in the field to rank in the top 10 nationally in batting average and ERA.
I mean, they had "Ali" stitched on their hats. That's team of destiny stuff. Lonnie Ali was sitting with Tom Jurich in his suite. Come on.
And finally, even after dropping a 4-2 loss in the series opener, they handed the ball to Burdi to close things out with a 3-0 lead. Burdi was the first relief pitcher taken in the draft, by the Chicago White Sox. And the Cardinals had won 186 games IN A ROW when leading going into the ninth inning.
As a coach, you want to put your players in position to succeed. You send Burdi to the mound with a 3-0 lead in the ninth, you can start making dinner reservations, pencil in tomorrow’s starter, name your chore. This is why they will be paying McDonnell the big bucks, $1 million a year for the next 10, to get the program into this very position.
Except this time, for one of those inexplicable reasons, Burdi gave up a leadoff single, then couldn’t find the strike zone. He walked the second batter of the inning, and then the third. Bases loaded, 3-0 lead. And Sam Cohen comes up. A pinch hitter. One home run in 26 at-bats all season.
On the first strike, a Burdi heater, Cohen said after the game, “I was a little late.” His coach, Andrew Checketts chimed in, “You were a week late.” But McDonnell acknowledged after, that Burdi “lost the zone a little bit and was probably aiming it a little.”
Burdi, up in the count, wanting to throw strikes, gives him a change up, and Cohen caught it. He got the barrel of the bat in front of it, and it was gone, over the right field fence.
A loss like that, it doesn’t just leave a mark, it leaves a scar. "Toughest loss in U of L sports history, given the talent and expectations?" That was a question that one longtime U of L fan texted me Sunday. Terry Howard might have something to say about that. But there haven’t been many.
McDonnell, as he did a year ago, vowed to be back. But this was supposed to be THE year. Everything was in place. Until it fell apart.
It’s hard to know what to say — or to write. McDonnell’s postgame comments to his team were brief. and he was too emotional to repeat exactly what he said to Burdi, only this:
“Last year I said, God loves me and he’s blessed this program, and I said we’d be back, and here we are,” McDonnell said. “I wouldn’t be able to get through telling you all what I told Zack. But obviously I walked back out there and I hugged him (long pause) because you know he’s hurting. What he and his brother and his family have meant to this program, I’m forever grateful, and you just don’t want him to blame himself. It’s not fair. It’s a team game. We could have coached better, could have scored a few more runs, could have done a little more to win. So, as I said last year, you’ll see me again. This program will be back.”
It’s always this way. You always remember the final act, but many of the earlier acts play just as big a role. Base running errors. Leaving eight runners on base. No. 5 overall draft pick Corey Ray going into his only slump of the season in the postseason.
Burdi went from the high of the draft to the low of that home run in 48 hours.
What can you say?
Like McDonnell, I had dismissed the notion that the draft had any effect on these guys, but I’m not so sure. This wasn’t the same team we saw all season, or at least, certainly not the same offense.
Given the last two trips to Omaha and the way the last two Super Regionals have ended, I’m sure McDonnell will be looking again at his teams’ late-season performances and how he can do something to have them sharper at the right time.
But the fact of the matter is this. U of L did enough to put itself into position to win on Sunday. It just didn't win. The coaches had the players a couple of outs from a decisive Game 3 with one of the best closers in college baseball on the mound and it wasn’t enough.
That’s just how it goes. After the game, McDonnell read through a list of highlights from the season. It should be noted, he didn’t refer to how good next year’s recruiting class will be. Nor did he list the draft positions as accomplishments for this team.
Checketts said after the game, “I think we just beat maybe the best team in the country.”
McDonnell said his team struggled with, “The three toughest outs in baseball.”
Those three outs are going to be the Holy Grail for this baseball program. Those three outs are what has eluded it now two years in a row.
Toughest loss in U of L sports history? The good news, where McDonnell and the Cardinals are concerned, is that it’s only been recently that fans cared enough to make a baseball loss part of that discussion. I suppose that’s progress.
Otherwise, Burdi gathered himself well enough to sign some autographs after coming out of the locker room. There’s nothing to do but get back into the game. And it is a game. Against the backdrop of what happened in Orlando Saturday night, it’s nothing.
Goodness knows, I’ve covered enough of them. I covered Louisville basketball as the No. 1 overall seed losing to Michigan State to derail a national title run. I was there when the women’s basketball team lost at home in the regional to Maryland to end the college career of Shoni Schimmel. I was there when UK’s unbeaten basketball team lost to Wisconsin, and for several other big-time NCAA losses.
Far more often, I’ve listened in the locker rooms to players after their final college games — downcast like Luke Hancock and Russ Smith — than in jubilation like Anthony Davis or Peyton Siva.
One I remember the best — a New Albany Little League baseball game, winner to go to Williamsport, but they lost. The pitcher in that game had pretty much won everybody over at the site. He was in tears, but went to the concession stands to thank people for their kindness that week, and ran back to a woman in one of the stands and she broke down in tears. He’d promised he’d come give her a hug after it was over, and even though they’d lost, he had come.
That kid was named Josh Rogers, and darned if I didn’t sit in a hotel room and watch his U of L team lose another heart-breaker in the Super Regional last season. Rogers is now 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA with the Class A Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic League, a farm team of the New York Yankees.
You always get back into the game, write the next story, make your next pitch.
But this one doesn't leave a mark, it leaves a scar.
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