In a game that started bad, never became good but did kind of neutralize, and finally finished flat our ugly the Oklahoma State Cowboys did not resemble the team they had been in their first seven games in the NCAA Tournament, including their first two in Omaha at the College World Series. Oklahoma State was blasted 9-3 in the first opportunity to clinch a spot in the CWS National Championship best-of-three series and Arizona forced another meeting with the Cowboys on Saturday that will be a winner-take-all, loser-sees-their-season-end scenario.
It started in the first inning as the Cowboys chose to go with Freshman All-American pitcher and number three starter Jensen Elliott over bringing back Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Thomas Hatch. Cowboys pitching coach Rob Walton was steadfast in his confidence in Elliott and the need for the standout from Coppell, Texas to throw after being off since the June 5 clinching win in the Clemson Regional.
Elliott looked like he was rusty, uncomfortable, and Arizona didn't give him a break. Elliott walked lead-off hitter Cody Raymer and then the eventual player of the game Zach Gibbons singled. After a fielder's choice and a strike out got Elliott close to coming out of the first frame unscathed, Wildcats designated hitter J.J. Matijevic singled to left and that scored the first run.
"I really hope that young man gets to start another game because he has been nails for us all season," Cowboys head coach Josh Holliday said of Elliott after the game. "He didn't get a good start and wasn't able to get settled in. They were tough on him early and there were things we could have done as a group to help each other. I just know if he gets to pitch again, he will pitch well."
The second inning was the end of Elliott's day as back-to-back doubles by Arizona's eight and nine hole hitters, who were strong most of the game, set up a two-run inning for the Wildcats. Both catcher Cesar Salazar and shortstop Louis Boyd scored. Salazar on the double by Boyd and then Boyd when Gibbons collected his second base hit in the first two innings. Elliott left allowing five hits and three runs in the first two innings.
Other than Hatch, Tyler Buffett, and the one inning pitched on Monday by Trey Cobb, there haven't been any other Cowboys pitchers getting action, so when Remey Reed came out for the third, he too couldn't have been blamed for being rusty or uncomfortable. But Reed pitched well over the next four innings and that is what I'm counting as the neutral portion of the contest.
Reed scattered four hits, allowed a run in the fourth when he walked the lead-off hitter, the eight hole batter in Salazar, walked the nine hole hitter in Boyd and a sacrifice fly from guess who, Zach Gibbons, pushed home Salazar for a 4-0 lead.
The Pokes showed some offensive life in the bottom of the fourth with two outs as Kevin Ginkel, on in relief of injured starter and the nation's leading pitcher in innings Nathan Bannister, walked third baseman Garrett Benge and then Conor Costello drove the ball deep to the right field corner. Gibbons dove but could not come up with it.
Costello wound up at third with the run-scoring triple and scored shortly after that on a wild pitch that bounced in the grass in front of the dirt at home plate. Costello's double accounted for one of the Cowboys' four hits in the game. The lack of offense has to be a major concern.
"That's going to happen," Costello said. "That's baseball, sometimes the bats will be going and sometimes they won't. We have a pitching staff that is throwing the ball really well and we have confidence in them. We trust them. We'll bounce back and we'll be fine."
"Their center fielder knocked down five line drives today," Holliday added. "We had seven or eight balls we barreled and didn't get anything out of them. If any one of those finds grass then maybe we make it more competitive. No excuses. We got outplayed and you have to compliment your opponent. We need to keep grinding and stay positive with our team."
After Reed came out after pitching four innings, his longest stint of the season, the Cowboys sent four more pitchers out to the mound. They weren't bad, but they weren't able to get ahead very often and they didn't get a lot of help late as two errors by second baseman J.R. Davis really made the game ugly on the Cowboys side. Davis' poor throw to first bringing reserve first baseman Andrew Rosa off the back could have ended the eight inning and a threat but it led directly to two more runs and a 6-2 Arizona lead and a huge mountain to climb.
The second error by Davis came in the top of the ninth when he was covering first base on a bunt and couldn't catch the throw from third baseman Garrett Benge. That was part of a three-run inning that made it a messy 9-2 lead.
The Cowboys didn't quit as while the bullpen performed a rally run that turned into a rally walk, Benge doubled with two outs and then Rosa, in his only at-bat of the game, dropped a well placed double down the left-field line to score Benge and make it 9-3, the final score.
"We'll have Hatch with a full rest and fresh," Holliday said of his starter for the all-or-nothing game on Saturday, which will start at 2 p.m. if there are two games tomorrow or it will be a night game if it is the only game. "Momentum is your next day's starter and we feel pretty good about our starting pitcher."
Oklahoma State is now 2-1 in the CWS, 7-1 in the NCAA Tournament and 42-21 on the season.
The Cowboys felt good about almost everything until this afternoon, but Hatch is 3-0 in the postseason with back-to-back shutouts and now a 9-2 record and a season ERA of 1.89. Let's hope Hatch stays hot and doesn't fall into whatever the Cowboys fell into on Friday afternoon at the College World Series because any more ugliness will be the memory the season ends on. This team deserves a better ending.