TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Heartbreak had temporarily numbed the Arkansas Razorbacks.
One strike from sealing their first trip to the College World Series since 2004, they painfully watched Florida State rally for three runs and snatch a ninth-inning lead. A few of them even bolted a few feet out of their dugout in the inning, a premature celebration of sorts, thinking a Seminoles runner had been tagged out at second.
But Tyler Holt was ruled safe, and Arkansas' lead eventually evaporated. To nobody's surprise in the Razorbacks dugout, however, no one appeared too startled, even after reliant closer Stephen Richards blew only his third save this season.
"We've let a few leads slip," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We've come from behind all year until the last couple of weeks. We've had to battle back a lot. I just think that helped us persevere through this. There wasn't anyone getting after each other in the dugout.
"We were just thinking about getting someone on base."
Bo Bigham took care of that, drawing a one-out walk, Zack Cox followed with a single, and Andrew Darr delivered the game-clinching hit. Darr's two-run double to the gap in left-center capped Arkansas' 9-8 Super Regional victory and ignited a wild celebration in Dick Howser Stadium.
Last week at Oklahoma, the No. 16 Razorbacks (39-22) were subdued in celebrating their regional victory. That wasn't the case Saturday. After winning in such dramatic fashion, the Hogs spilled out of their dugout and joyously piled up near shortstop as the shocked Seminoles (45-18) and 4,581 fans observed.
"We're going to Omaha. I'm pretty excited to say those words," first baseman Andy Wilkins said. "It was pretty unbelievable. The whole team just fought and fought and fought the whole year. It's really paying off now. It was pretty frustrating. We had the lead there.
"But we've come back from way bigger deficits than that. It's how the team's been all year."
Arkansas will begin CWS play in Rosenblatt Stadium on either Saturday or Sunday in Omaha. The Razorbacks will face Cal State Fullerton in their opening game, and game times will be announced Monday night.
For now, though, they'll surely be content to reminisce about one of their most thrilling contests this season. Making the victory seem even sweeter s the way in which it unfolded, with three unlikely players leading the way — Bigham, Darr and pitcher T.J. Forrest.
Van Horn issued brief instructions upon handing the ball to Forrest with two outs in the fifth, Arkansas trailing 5-1.
"Just keep it close," Van Horn told the junior right-hander. "We still have a chance and we have the last at-bat."
Forrest exceeded everyone's expectations, retiring all eight batters he faced before leaving with one out in the eighth. The Razorbacks led 6-5 by the time Richards replaced Forrest.
Darr, a senior outfielder making a rare start, homered to spark a five-run, seventh-inning rally, part of his career-high four-hit effort. The only other hit of that inning came from Bigham, the freshman second baseman who emerged as a starter only two weeks ago.
A two-run error by FSU third baseman Stuart Tapley allowed Arkansas to get within 5-4. Bigham followed with a two-out, two-run single to center off Seminoles closer Jimmy Marshall, putting the Razorbacks in front for the first time Saturday.
Still, Stephen Cardullo's two-run single and Jason Stidham's RBI single off Richards in the ninth — each with two strikes and two outs — meant Arkansas had to rally once more. Bigham, Cox and Darr ensured the Razorbacks wouldn't have to show back up at Dick Howser Stadium today.
The way in which the No. 8 Seminoles lost, and the sight of Razorbacks jumping around like little kids on their field, simply devastated them.
"They say the highs and lows of baseball can kill a man, and that's what it felt like," Cardullo said of the nerveracking ninth inning. "It's so heartbreaking."
The afternoon was just as exhilarating for the Razorbacks, who talked all the way back in February about playing June baseball in Omaha. They pressed forward with those aspirations, even after being picked to finish fourth in the SEC Western Division.
That prediction seems laughable these days, considering Arkansas keeps coming up with increasingly creative ways to win postseason games.
"I knew somebody was going to come up with a big hit," Forrest said. "We've had big hits the last (five) games we've played. I knew that if they didn't throw good pitches we'd score those two runs. When (Darr) hit that, my heart hit the ground and I ended up on the bottom (of the dog pile).
"You dream about this as a kid, and now we actually get to go play in Omaha."
The Razorback players celebrate after downing Florida State 9-8 and clinching a berth in the College World Series.
Andy Wilkins congratulates Andrew Darr after one of his four hits on the day.
Headed To Omaha
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