College baseball is like Major League Baseball, but with teenage players, aluminum bats, and wild plays. So many wild plays, in fact, that we decided to look at the 10 best ones from the super regionals. Presented in no particular order, here are the plays (and memes) that led to the College World Series championship: Oregon State against Arkansas, which starts Monday night.
Austin Langworthy’s Deflected Home Run
Baumann: For my money, the Florida Gators are the best program in college baseball. Since 2010, they’ve made the College World Series seven times, and they won the SEC and were the no. 2 overall national seed in one of the two seasons they failed to reach Omaha. Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan is able to recruit top-level pitchers because he can point to a track record of developing them and not overworking them — since 2016, Florida’s had nine players picked in the first two rounds of the draft, including six pitchers. This year’s Florida rotation includes first-rounders Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer.
But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Florida’s super regional matchup with Auburn went to 11 innings of a decisive third game, thanks in part to Blake Reese’s steal of home in the fourth.
Even that pales in comparison to the eventual walk-off home run. Florida outfielder Langworthy hit a line drive to the track in right, freshman outfielder Steven Williams drew a bead on it, and, well …
THE DEFENDING CHAMPS ARE GOING BACK TO OMAHA! pic.twitter.com/Y0jmbdylSY— ESPN (@espn) June 12, 2018
Williams, a converted catcher, was mercifully spared the public beating that normally follows a mistake like that — even José Canseco chimed in to commiserate. It’s tough, but Florida always seems to find a way.
Mississippi State’s Rally Banana
Heifetz: Success in Omaha requires endurance, and endurance is aided by potassium. In the second inning of the Bulldogs’ game against Oklahoma during the regionals on June 3, freshman infielder Jordan Westburg got hungry. He grabbed a banana from the tunnel and, in a moment of divine clarity, didn’t eat it and instead made a shrine to the baseball gods.
The next inning the Bulldogs scored eight runs, and the Rally Banana was born. By the time Mississippi State got to Omaha, the banana had become a phenomenon. Fans started waving banana balloons at games while gripping banana stress balls and wearing banana shirts (and banana costumes). The biggest banana producer in the world gave its sticker of approval.
The Starkville Fire Department began responding to emergencies via banana phones.
The bananas lived up to the hype. With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game against Washington, junior infielder Luke Alexander hit an 0–2 pitch for a walkoff single over a shallow outfield for a 1–0 win.
Three days later against UNC, with the Bulldogs down 1–0 in the bottom of the second, Westburg smashed a grand slam that put the Bulldogs up for good and left many banana-dressed spectators doing splits (I’m not sorry).
Kyle Peterson Calls Ethan Paul’s Shot
Baumann: Mississippi State’s had a wild ride this year. Head coach Andy Cannizaro resigned after the first week of the season, leaving interim head coach Gary Henderson to shepherd the Bulldogs through a wild NCAA run. The Bulldogs allowed 20 runs in their first regional game against Oklahoma before storming back through the loser’s bracket to win the Tallahassee Regional. In the supers against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State blew a 7–2 third-inning lead in Game 1 before coming back to walk it off on an Elijah MacNamee home run. The Bulldogs blew a 3–1 lead in a Game 2 walk-off loss to Vanderbilt, setting up a decisive Game 3.
Mississippi State won 10–6 in 11 innings when Vanderbilt’s pitching staff finally ran out of gas, but my favorite moment of the series came earlier in the game. The Bulldogs scored three runs in the top of the ninth to take a 6–3 lead, leaving reliever Riley Self with three outs to get to send his team to Omaha. But nothing is easy in college baseball, and Self found himself facing Ethan Paul, representing the tying run, with one out. Former Stanford and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Kyle Peterson — for my money the best color commentator in the game, college or pro — said Paul ought to look for a 2–1 cutter on the inner half, and when it came, Paul made the most of it.
Vanderbilt went on to lose, of course, but what makes the NCAA tournament great is not necessarily the dramatic finishes, but the twists and turns these games take as they unfold. Having a moment as great as this ultimately count for nothing illustrates what a dramatic, exciting series this was.
The Mississippi State–Oregon State Ending
Heifetz: Oregon State was the team hoping to redeem itself after last year’s heartbreak failure to reach the finals. Mississippi State was the team of banana destiny. The former led 5–2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with two Mississippi State runners on base. On an 0–2 count, OSU pitcher Jake Mulholland hit Mississippi State’s Tanner Poole to load the bases for … the Banana God himself, Jordan Westburg. Mississippi State had won seven games this season on its final at-bat. Westburg, who was facing the chance to be the first player to hit two grand slams in the same tournament in College World Series history, got to a 1–2 count — the same count he had when he hit the grand slam against UNC. Bananas waved across the crowd.
He grounded out to shortstop, and Oregon State prevailed. All bananas get bruised (part of why there’s a global banana crisis), but Mississippi State’s loss allowed Oregon State to revel after finishing last year’s College World Series in heartbreak. Take a look at Todd Malone after watching his son Tyler hit the three-run home run that put the game out of reach for the Bulldogs.
They can’t pop bottles, but they can pop balloons.
(To be honest, I’m pleasantly shocked that near-professional baseball players throw water balloons just as awkwardly as I do.)
The Fullerton Disaster
Baumann: The University of Washington made its first College World Series this year, but just barely. In the super regional, Washington went on the road to face four-time national champions Cal State Fullerton, the Mecca of small ball in college baseball. After splitting the first two games, the Huskies sent right-hander Joe DeMers to the mound in Game 3 with the season on the line.
DeMers is a bearded, husky right-handed sinkerballer — what is sometimes euphemistically called “a Lance Lynn type” — and one of the most efficient pitchers in baseball. Earlier in the year he threw an 84-pitch perfect game, and against Fullerton, he was once again perfect through six innings, on only 51 pitches, while Washington took a 3–1 lead. DeMers lost the perfect game and the shutout in the seventh, but kept pitching into the ninth because his pitch count was so low. But DeMers allowed four runs on a hit batter and four soft singles before head coach Lindsay Meggs finally yanked him at 99 pitches. Washington tied it in the bottom of the ninth to send it into extra innings, but Fullerton second baseman Hank LoForte, all of 5-foot-6, put the Titans back on top in the 10th with a home run — only the 13th of the season for the entire Cal State Fullerton team.
Now, a pitcher tossing an eight-pitch-an-inning perfect game in an elimination game before collapsing in the ninth and a 5-foot-6 infielder socking a go-ahead extra-inning home run sound plenty exciting already, but it wasn’t until the bottom of the 10th that this game truly went off the rails.
After a leadoff single, Fullerton pretty much committed three errors on three straight balls in play. It was scored as error, infield single, error, for reasons passing understanding, but that infield single was a grounder to shortstop on which LoForte just dropped the throw to second. When the dust settled, Washington had the bases loaded and nobody out. The Huskies won on a Kaiser Weiss sacrifice fly, much to the delight of Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb, who’d played his college ball at Washington and whose younger brother Dylan is a freshman pitcher for UW.
Washington went 0–2 in Omaha, but only because they used up all their magic in the last half-inning of the super regional. DeMers went on to start Washington’s first College World Series games and threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings on just 72 pitches and took a no-decision in a 1–0 loss. Someone get this guy some run support.
Arkansas’s Catch to Make the Finals
Heifetz: Florida entered the tournament as the defending national champions and the overall no. 1 seed, but Arkansas pounced on them, jumping out to a 4–0 lead when Dominic Fletcher crushed a two-seamer up in the zone for a solo shot in the fifth inning. With Arkansas up 5–2 in the bottom of the ninth, Florida senior JJ Schwarz popped a ball into foul territory.
Arkansas right fielder Eric Cole, who has no fielding errors in his college career, ascended into the stands to make the play. Arkansas went on to win two outs later and punched their trip to the finals. Cole was drafted by the Royals earlier this month, but he’ll be treated like a king in Fayetteville if the Razorbacks win the championship.
Oregon State’s Comeback Express
Baumann: Oregon State and Washington both dropped their first games of the College World Series, sending them to an elimination game with Pacific Northwest bragging rights on the line. Washington took a 5–4 lead into the top of the sixth, but with Oregon State threatening, it started raining. And kept raining for four and a half hours.
Oregon State is hitting .323/.419/.494 as a team, with two 2018 first-rounders (Nick Madrigal and Trevor Larnach) and the 37th pick (Cadyn Grenier) in the lineup. Sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman (.397/.500/.616) will probably go in the first round when he’s draft-eligible next season. This is one of the best offenses in college baseball, and when the rain stopped, Oregon State annihilated Washington’s bullpen, scoring the game-tying run in its first at-bat after the delay and adding nine insurance runs on top of that. Two days later, the Beavers faced another elimination game, against North Carolina, and once again they found themselves trailing late, this time 6–3 in the eighth. This time, Oregon State scored four runs in the top of the eighth to take the lead, then tacked on four more insurance runs in the top of the ninth.
Even very good college teams tend to run out of reliable pitchers in the latter stages of the NCAA tournament, and when that happens, things can get ugly in a hurry. Oregon State’s offensive depth allowed them to just sit back and wait for that to happen, knowing that once they’ve got the opposing bullpen on the ropes, they can just string together crooked numbers.
Grant Little’s Liftoff
Heifetz: With the game scoreless in the third inning, Florida’s Deacon Liput rocked a ball toward the right-field fence. Texas Tech left fielder Grant Little sprinted toward the wall, gathered himself with two steps at the warning track, and met the ball in midflight before crashing into the wall with a resounding thud.
Perhaps better than the catch itself is how quickly Little pops up, and then how slowly he backpedals once he realizes that he’s made the play of the tournament.
The next inning, with Texas Tech runners on first and second, Florida left fielder Austin Langworthy responded by making a diving catch running away from the wall.
Little’s catch was better, but Langworthy’s team won as Florida beat Texas Tech 9–6. At least Little now knows he can fly.
Jax Biggers’s Busted Finger
Baumann: Arkansas has breezed through the NCAA tournament to the College World Series final, going 8–1 and outscoring opponents 75–33, and while such a dominant run has many authors, my favorite is junior shortstop Jax Biggers, an eighth-round pick of the Texas Rangers. (Yes, his name is really Jax Biggers. Get it out of your system now.) Texas A&M pitcher Mitchell Kilkenny broke Biggers’s left index finger with a pitch on May 11, and rather than wait for it to heal Biggers sat out six games, then returned during the SEC tournament while wearing a splint. That means he can’t bend his finger while he’s playing. So whenever Biggers grips the bat, he’s using only nine fingers, and he plays the field with this stark-white protuberance coming out of his glove. It’s like watching someone play baseball while eating a corn dog.
Swinging a metal bat with a broken finger probably doesn’t hurt that much unless you actually make contact with the baseball, in which case you’d probably wish you’d cut the damn thing off. But Biggers seems undeterred by pain — he’s 9-for-30 in the NCAA tournament, an even .300. College baseball is overflowing with scrappy, dirty-jersey types who’d try to play through an injury like that, but that Biggers is playing effectively, on the college game’s biggest stage, is incredibly impressive.
The Rain Delay Debauchery
Heifetz: This year’s College World Series has been delayed more than the past seven tournaments combined. That downtime is a chance for the fans who traveled to Omaha to explore the parts of the city they haven’t visited.
(Side note: Why do the groundskeepers need to protect the field from rain and fans? Are they getting hazard pay?)
Beach ball goes over the fence during the rain delay. Razorbacks fan goes down, gets it, sends it back to the stands and goes down a hero. pic.twitter.com/C64SwmFWdu— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) June 17, 2018
The drudgery of the rain delays even extended to the broadcast booth.
Rain delay theater. Featuring free souvenirs. pic.twitter.com/Dxrt5yosAO— Tom Hart (@tom_hart) June 19, 2018
The rain delay peaked, however, when a fan explained the importance of making it to Omaha in what seems like a Nathan for You short.
The SEC. It Just Means More. pic.twitter.com/yNoSGp5I67— Not Jerry Tipton (@NotJerryTipton) June 21, 2018
Rain delays are frustrating, but they force us to reflect on why we love the game.
“Drinking beer and partying the good life.” Yes, Billy. That’s what college baseball is all about.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a Mississippi State–Washington game was an elimination game; it was not.