OMAHA, Neb. — No matter what has happened in the historic run of Rosenblatt Stadium, and no matter what still lies ahead in this dying old ballpark, the ninth inning on Friday night will be talked about as long as the College World Series is played in this town.
Quite simply, it was one for the ages.
The final score reads Texas 4, Arizona State 3. And the win sends the Longhorns into the CWS championship series against LSU beginning next Monday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN360.com), but how they got there will always be the story.
“Wow, what a game,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said with part relief and part reverence. “The way they battled in the top of the ninth. Every ball they hit they squared up. It was awesome.
“I think you saw two teams with strong will and a strong spirit. And a heck of a baseball game came out as a result of it. The reason that was so exciting had as much to do with them as it did with us.”
With the score tied 2-2 as it headed to the ninth, Texas reliever Austin Wood was in his third inning of relief. Up to the plate strode Arizona State center fielder Jason Kipnis.
What ensued was an 11-pitch at-bat that was part battle and part dance. It ended when Kipnis reached on a single that deflected off Texas first baseman Brandon Belt’s glove. A throwing error by second baseman Travis Tucker allowed Kipnis to advance to second.
“Austin Wood is a great pitcher,” Kipnis said. “Everyone talks about the 25-inning game, but the guy is a battler out there. But I was determined to get on base. I stepped out of the box a few times, took a deep breath and said ‘you’re getting on base. If you’re going out, you’re going out on base.’ So I just did whatever I could and battled off pitches. Just put it in play, got on base, put my head down and ran and got to second and was ready to score.”
It looked like Kipnis would get his wish when Carlos Ramirez ripped a line drive to left but it was hit right at left fielder Preston Clark. One out. Up next was Kole Calhoun, one of the hottest hitters in Omaha. He worked Wood to a 2-2 count before going down swinging. Two outs.
Substitute DH Zach Wilson was up next. And all he did was rip a 1-0 pitch down the right field line for a triple to score Kipnis and give the Sun Devils a 3-2 lead.
“We didn’t have a lot go right for us but Kipnis’ at-bat was one of the best of the year,” ASU coach Pat Murphy said. “And then sure enough, a kid we had been counting on all year but didn’t really have the type of freshman year we’d like him to have came through.”
That’s right, the light-hitting freshman Wilson came through in the biggest of big spots for his first RBI since May 10. How’s that for drama?
“I honestly thought that going into the bottom of the ninth it was our game,” Kipnis said.
So did many of the 23,257 in attendance.
But Texas had last ups so it was time for ASU reliever Mitchell Lambson to try and shut down the Longhorns’ offense in his third inning of relief.
It started out well for Lambson as he struck out Brandon Loy.
Then Cameron Rupp found a 3-1 pitch to his liking and sent it over the big green wall in center field — well past the 408-foot sign. It was Rupp’s 11th homer of the year.
“We were a little upset but we got over it,” Texas catcher Cameron Rupp said about heading into the bottom half of the ninth. “We’ve always talked about picking each other up and that’s what we’ve done all year and that’s something we take pride in. So we just went out there and competed like we have all tournament and put the mistakes and everything behind us.”
It very much looked like the game was headed to extra innings, especially after Clark fouled out to Ramirez for the second out.
Next up was Connor Rowe. But before anyone in the ballpark could settle in for the at-bat, the center fielder joined Texas baseball lore when he sent the first pitch from Lambson into the left-field bleachers for a walk-off home run and a ticket to the CWS championship series.
“I’ve faced him before and every time he kept throwing me changeups,” Rowe said. “I don’t think I saw one fastball from him. I looked over at Coach Garrido and he gave me the box, which is like right down the middle. So I was definitely sitting on a changeup and that’s what I got. Luckily, it worked out.”
The last walk-off homer in the CWS came courtesy of Texas’ Chance Wheeless back on June 22, 2005 against Baylor. It too sent the Longhorns into the championship series where they swept Florida for the most recent of the school’s six national titles.
Texas, which has answered every challenge so far in the 2009 NCAA tournament, still has to get past LSU next week to create another storybook finish.
But for everyone who witnessed what happened here on Friday night, this was a very special tale.
”This is something they’re going to remember forever,” Murphy said.