Throughout the NCAA Tournament, through an unbeaten regional win at Clemson, a two-and-through Super Regional at South Carolina, and through a 2-0 start at the College World Series that had the Oklahoma State Cowboys on the brink of the best-of-three national championship series there were two aspects of the game that were near perfect, pitching and defense.
However, sitting on that edge of making it to the most important two or three games of the season, one of those aspects broke down Saturday afternoon. Arizona defeated the OSU Cowboys 5-1 at TD Ameritrade Park, sending the Pac-12 team into the start of the championship series on Monday.
For the second day in a row and in the first two innings of each game, the Cowboys saw one of their starting pitchers, this time the ace of the staff and the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, falter. Thomas Hatch will go on and likely do great things in Major League baseball entering as a third-round pick and the top pick of this MLB Draft of the Chicago Cubs, but it may take him a while to shake off his final outing as an Oklahoma State Cowboy. It was the worst start of the year for the Jenks High School product.
Much like Friday when the Arizona hitters struck for three runs and five hits off Cowboys Freshman All-American hurler Jensen Elliott, on Saturday the Wildcats scratched and clawed for even more with four hits and four runs on Hatch. Then a single and a hit batsman to start the third inning sent pitching coach Rob Walton to the mound to collect Hatch and send Trey Cobb out in relief. Hatch, who finishes his Oklahoma State career with a 9-3 record, gave up four runs, all earned, on four hits, with two walks, and no strikeouts.
"I think Thomas (Hatch) pitched us here. I think he pitched us all the way here and we certainly enjoyed the ride that he took us on," head coach Josh Holliday said when asked what went wrong with the Pokes' ace. "He might have elevated a few balls today. They are a very good offensive team, similar to the Texas Tech and TCU offensive squads in out league, to where you play them in a three-game series the line-up is good one through nine. They run, they hit, they bunt, they don't make mistakes.
"They are a good team. They didn't get here by accident, those guys can hit. I'll tell you what, Thomas Hatch, what a remarkable season, conference Pitcher of the Year. He missed last season with injury and he bounced back and became an ace and a first-team All-American. Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, and I can't tell you how proud I am of him."
In the first inning, Arizona lead-off hitter Cody Raymer started with a double down the right-field line, stole third base when he got caught in no man's land by OSU catcher Collin Theroux, but Theroux couldn't make the throw to get him at third. Raymer scored on Zach Gibbons groundout to second. Ryan Aguilar came back with a double to the gap in left center and he later scored on Jared Oliva's sac fly to center for a 2-0 lead.
In the second, Hatch walked Wildcats third baseman Kyle Lewis to start the inning and then after catcher Cesar Salazar moved him to second with a sac bunt, Louis Boyd doubled to deep left field to score Lewis. After Raymer flew out for the second out, Gibbons, who has been a real problem for the Cowboys, doubled to the right-center field gap to score Boyd.
Gibbons' double was the fourth double in the first two innings. Hatch had given up just 10 extra base hits all season up this point and only one in the NCAA Tournament and then four doubles in two innings.
Cobb came on and steadied the ship for the Cowboys on the mound and in the field with five innings of four-hit and just one-run baseball. That run was unearned after a rare throwing error by Donnie Walton, who rushed the throw on a deep ground ball to short by the nine hole hitter in shortstop Boyd. Boyd would later score in that fourth inning on a Gibbons single. Gibbons finished 2-for-4 with two RBI after going 3-for-5 with an RBI on Friday.
Meanwhile, Arizona everyday third baseman and when called upon Major League pitching prospect Bobby Dalbec was not as good as he was in defeat in the 1-0 Oklahoma State win on Monday night but he was solid. He pitched seven innings, throwing 102 pitches while allowing one run on four hits, with two walks and six strikeouts as compared to his 12 strikeouts on Monday.
"I didn't try to change from what I did the first time I faced them (Monday night) because it worked the first time," explained Dalbec. "I knew the offense would come back strong like they did yesterday, so I tried to stay down in the zone and just sinking the ball a little bit more and keeping the ball low."
The Cowboys finished with seven hits but the lone run came in the third inning when Jon Littell reached on a lead off single and moved to third on a double by senior Corey Hassel. Second baseman J.R. Davis followed with a sacrifice fly to left field to score Littell. There were threats by the Cowboys the rest of the way but none very serious.
"I didn't strikeout as many and they were on more balls than on Monday," Dalbec added. "They hit the ball hard, they hit a lot of balls well. They are a good team, but we were (defensively) right there where they hit it."
It's disappointing as some 27 hours before they were eliminated and making plans to travel home with no more games to play they were just one game away from playing for the national championship. Arizona won 5-1 with nine hits and no errors. Arizona's defense was outstanding. The Cowboys had their lone run on seven hits, their best in the CWS and they had two errors. One on Walton and one on Cobb on a questionable scorer's decision on a bunt that stuck in his glove.
"Congratulations Arizona, they took a tough road through the bracket and compliments to their kids for coming back after losing a ballgame and beating us a couple of times there. That's not an easy thing to do, so hats off to Arizona," Holliday said in his overview of the contest which turned into a farewell to his players. Holliday didn't tear up, but he was to the end Mr. Positive.
"What an amazing accomplishment for us. I don't think since 1990 has Oklahoma State played this deep into the College World Series. That's a long time ago," Holliday continued. "Ahh, 26 years, I'm not great with math.
"I think the thing at the end of the year I don't know how you prepare to have this message or this press conference because I did not intend on losing. What an amazing collection of kids to bring us here, bring our fans here, bring our alumni together, to make OSU baseball something special that people are celebrating and rallying around. To do it the way that we did by taking on great challenges, overcoming adversity, with a gritty, gritty tough bunch of kids. They should be celebrated and I'm so grateful they are here.
"I kind of get grossed out in these press conferences when coaches sit up here and tell you how smart they are and all they've done to get their team here. These kids brought us here. THEY BROUGHT US HERE. Thomas Hatch brought us here, Corey Hassel brought us here. Trey Cobb, Donovan Walton, I can go down the list. These kids brought Oklahoma State to the College World Series, They are really special."
They are special. The 2016 Cowboys finish 43-22, they were second in the Big 12, won the Clemson Regional, won the Columbia Super Regional, and finished tied for third in the College World Series.
They may have brought on board enough financial support to start building that much needed and anticipated new baseball stadium. If not, they have made a big dent in the fund raising for it. Names like Hatch, Walton, and Tyler Buffett, who pitched the final inning in one, two, three fashion, will all go on to have success in professional baseball. This is a special team and the next evaluation for them as a group will be what they planted. How will next year's team play, interact, and achieve? Each team has its own mark and then is responsible for planting seeds. If this team planted those seeds as well as they achieved themselves then there is plenty to look forward too.