With the game four hours and 13 minutes old and runners at the corners with two outs in the bottom of the 13th inning, sophomore Sean Ratliff stepped to the plate. The big-hitting centerfielder had already hit one home run in the game, his team-leading 12th of the season, so it made sense that the UC Davis defense played back. There could be no sacrifice to break the 3-3 tie. Just get the out.
Ratliff stunned the Aggies by laying down a drag bunt toward second baseman Brandon Oliver, who was backed up all the way onto the outfield grass when Ratliff squared around. The speedy Stanford sophomore slid head-first into first base just ahead of the short toss by Oliver. Scoring at home was sophomore J.J. Jelmini, sending the Cardinal into a wild celebration for the 4-3 victory.
"They played back, and he can really bunt well," explains Cardinal head coach Mark Marquess of the surprising call to win the game. "If he gets it by the pitcher, it's going to be a base hit... Sean has been working on that and can do that. It's a pretty easy play for him because he can get the ball down."
"I wasn't even looking at where the ball was. I took off as soon as the ball went down," Ratliff describes. "I knew it was by the pitcher, and I knew he was playing deep. I felt like I bunted it pretty hard, so I was trying to get down the line. I saw the first baseman start to stretch, and I just figured, 'I have to get there before the ball does, or this is going to be an even more frustrating day than it's already been.' I got there. Bang, bang. I looked up at the umpire, who made the right call. We got the win."
"It's good to have it end at all," says the sophomore after the 13-inning struggle. "But it's even better to have it end with us on top. We had to battle."
Junior pitcher David Stringer was tossing in the bullpen to stay warm, in the event that he had to return to the hill for the 14th inning, as he watched the winning play unfold.
"That was unbelievable," the righthander exclaims. "I am actually writing a paper on small ball versus big ball, and I was reminiscing about the Ramon Hernandez walk-off drag bunt in the Division Series a few years ago . When I saw him drop the bunt down, I saw that the second baseman was pretty far back, and Sean has great speed. I figured, 'That's it. That's the game right there.'"
Marquess had actually called the same play for Ratliff four innings earlier. In the bottom of the ninth, Stanford had the bases loaded with two outs when Ratliff came to the plate. The Cardinal were trailing 3-2, and Marquess gave the sign to Ratliff. Davis pitcher Nik Aurora threw a ball on the first pitch and then a wild pitch, which scored sophomore Jeff Whitlow and advanced the other runners to second and third. The game now tied and an empty bag at first with two outs, Aurora intentionally threw two more balls to walk Ratliff. That took away the chance for the bunt play, until an hour later. Junior Michael Taylor quenched the Cardinal threat by fouling the first pitch to the catcher near the screen behind home plate.
Failed opportunities to score runners was a theme throughout the evening for Stanford, who left 15 runners on base. Davis pitchers issued seven walks in the game and hit four Cardinal batters (freshman Toby Gerhart was plunked thrice, a season-high for Stanford). That ninth inning opportunity was built off just one hit, with the Aggies putting three batters aboard of their own accord.
In the bottom of the fourth, sophomore Cord Phelps struck out with the bat on his shoulder while redshirt sophomore Adam Sorgi was on third. Three innings later Phelps was aboard with a walk and then stole his first base of the year. A groundout by senior Ryan Seawell moved Phelps to third, where he was stranded by sophomore Joey August.
The eighth inning saw Stanford with runners on second and third without any hits. Gerhart was hit by a pitch, and repeated pick-off moves by Aurora to first base ultimately resulted in a ball getting away from the first baseman. Taylor was intentionally walked, and then a balk moved the runners another 90 feet. After a nine-pitch at bat, sophomore Jason Castro lined out to the shortstop.
The aforementioned failings with a runner on third base all came with two outs - regrettable but not completely deplorable. The greatest frustration of all came in the bottom of the 12th, when Stanford loaded the bases with just one out. Taylor started the rally with a single up the middle that glanced off the glove of the Davis diving second baseman. Then Sorgi stroked a stand-up double down the left field line, advancing Taylor to third. Castro was intentionally walked, bringing Phelps to the plate to win the game (and redeem himself after the fourth-inning strikeout). Aurora threw two balls, the second of which stirred the Sunken Diamond crowd into a frenzy. It was a hitter's count with nowhere to put Phelps. He got the pitch he wanted and hit it hard, but right at the first baseman to start a 3-2-3 double play to end the inning.
"It was a little disappointing, to say the least," Marquess admits. "That was very difficult because we had struggled all night with the bats and left a lot of guys on base. That was hard. We had a 2-0 count and a good pitch to hit. He hit it hard, and they made a great play. That's a hard double play to turn, and they did a good job with it."
Bad turned to worse the next half-inning, when the visiting Aggies finally got to Stringer. Stanford's reliever had been nearly flawless since entering the game in the top of the eighth, allowing just one hit and no runs. UC Davis found luck in the top of the 13th, leading off with two hard-hit singles. A sacrifice bunt moved both and put the go-ahead run just 90 feet from home with one out. Stringer intentionally walked to load the bases. Then he tightened down.
His first two pitches went for strikes, the first looking and the second badly fooling Ryan Royster. It was nearly a three-pitch strikeout, but Royster barely grazed the next offering to stay alive. Stringer's fourth pitch just missed the outside corner. Finally with a 2-2 count, the Palo Alto (Calif.) native went with high heat and got Royster swinging. Stringer followed with a groundout to escape the inning and keep the Cardinal tied.
"I was definitely not going to get hurt on my worst pitches, so I was pretty much off-speed, off-speed, off-speed," Stringer explains. "Actually, I think I got him on a fastball. It might have been up and out of the zone. Don't get hurt on anything that's not your best stuff and go at them with everything you have. Hopefully that will get you through it, and it did tonight."
Throwing in his sixth inning of relief, Stringer could arguably have been pulled from the game in that jam, but the Cardinal coaches kept him in. It was the second straight Tuesday of long relief for Stringer, who previously tossed 7.0 innings at Santa Clara where he allowed no unearned runs.
"We want to win a game he's pitching well. If they had scored, I probably would have gotten him out," says Marquess of his decision to stick with Stringer. "But I was going to leave him in because he's throwing well. He got a couple balls up that they hit... But I was going to stay with him because I thought he still had good stuff."
"Our battle cry in the dugout for the last three innings was 'Get a win for Stringer,'" says Ratliff. "He's pitching out of his mind! Keeping us in the game, pitching us out of jams and doing everything that he had to do. We were just battling to try to get a win for him."
Entering the game in the eighth inning, a pitcher like Stringer is often going to throw hard with the expectation of short duty. His outing stretched on inning after inning, however, as the two teams stayed deadlocked.
"That actually helped me a little bit," Stringer opines. "Because sometimes when you're able to see the end of the game, even if you're not thinking about it, you try and pace yourself: 'I want to be the guy out there in the ninth inning.' Here, I honestly thought that every inning, we could score in the bottom half of the inning, so I just had to shut them down. Chances were good that we were going to win. It happened that we went through as many innings as we went through, and we got that one in the end."
Just as impressive as Stringer's work to finish the game was that of sophomore Austin Yount in the start. He was perfect through four innings in one of the most masterful stretches seen by a Stanford pitcher this year. Yount not only retired the minimum 12 hitters, but he did so with just 29 pitches. 23 were strikes. Eight times he induced groundouts.
"I was very proud of both Yount and Stringer," says Marquess. "They both did a great job."
"They kept us in the ballgame all day," echoes Ratliff. "Yount was incredible for the first four. He was pretty much lights out. Then Stringer came in and went the rest of the way. He threw just absolutely incredible baseball."
UC Davis finally got to Yount in the fifth inning, when his perfect game was spoiled on the first pitch, lifted over the left field wall and the leaping glove of August. The Aggies added a double but did not score the runner. In the sixth inning, a single and RBI double finished Yount's day. He was replaced by junior Nolan Gallagher, who netted the third out of the inning on his first pitch. Gallagher gave up a double with two outs in the seventh and then a single that looked to score the third run, but August charged hard and threw home. Seawell cut off the throw 25 feet from the plate and relayed it in time for the out.
Back-to-back singles to start the eighth inning was the beginning of the end for Gallagher, who gave an intentional walk after a UC Davis sacrifice bunt. That was when Stringer came into the game. With one out and the bases loaded, he induced the right result with a ball hit back to the mound, though a little behind him. Stringer stabbed at it but could not cleanly put his glove on the ball. Instead of a double play, the loose ball was fielded by Phelps and thrown to first for a single out while the Aggies went ahead 3-2. That was their last run of the game, with Stringer throwing 5 2/3 innings of shutout baseball.
Stanford's first two runs of the game came in the fourth and sixth innings. The first score brought Gerhart home after he led off the inning hit by a pitch. He ran hard on a Taylor single to right field and advanced to third with just one out. Sorgi nearly squandered the golden scoring opportunity by hitting a chopper to the shortstop for a double play. However, the turn was thrown high and pulled the first baseman off the bag. Sorgi was safe and Gerhart's run scored.
The sixth inning saw Ratliff belt his 12th home run of the year, a solo shot that headed out in a hurry. He had an 0-2 count but was waiting for a change-up after seeing the same pitch previously for a strike.
"I just felt like he was going to come back with it because they had been backing up off-speed pitches on me a lot of the day," Ratliff explains. "I was sitting on it down; he threw it down; and I got a good piece of it."
The fourth and final run will be forever remembered for Ratliff's two-out bunt, but that opportunity came only because of early events in the inning. It started with a lead-off full-count walk by junior Brian Juhl. Jelmini pinch ran for him and advanced to second on a Seawell sacrifice bunt. August next appeared to ground out to the shortstop, though the throw pulled the first baseman well off the bag. The UC Davis defender swung his arm at August on the basepath, which was called an out by the first base umpire. Marquess came out of the dugout to argue the play and an appeal to an umpire with a better angle on the "tag." After conferencing with the home plate umpire, whose line of sight was straight down the base path, the play was overturned and Sorgi ruled safe. When Gerhart next struck out, that supplied the second rather than the third out of the inning and allowed Ratliff to come to the plate.
The longest game of the year for Stanford was also their home finale, amplifying the emotions of the party near home plate. A ceremony before the game honored Seawell, playing his last time at home after four years on The Farm. Several juniors also undoubtedly suited up at Sunken Diamond for the last time Tuesday, heading to professional baseball in the upcoming Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
"I keep reminiscing back to my freshman year at times like this," says Stringer. "Ryan has been a great teammate, and so have all the other guys. Sorgi, Taylor - I could go on and list all of them. It's been an honor playing with all of those guys. I'll be sorry to see them leave, but it was good to send them out at home on a winning note."
"It's nice for Ryan especially being a senior," Marquess comments. "It's always tough when you have players who have been in your program, who have worked hard and who you're really fond of, to see them go on. Hopefully in 10 or 15 years, they'll have a job for the old coach [smiles]. They'll be very successful. I don't worry about those guys. But we'll miss them."
The win avenged a pair of embarrassing losses last May to UC Davis, which closed the regular season and nearly kept the Cardinal out of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. This victory furthers no such postseason chances, with Stanford's record standing at 25-28. Three games remain in the 2007 campaign, coming this weekend at USC.
"We have a chance to salvage the season and get back to .500, which is something we've been talking about doing since we start sliding a little bit," Stringer offers. "That would be a huge step for us to come back and win so many games to get back there."
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