The Connecticut baseball team adopted its "Dead Men Walking" slogan last week on the way to the Big East tournament championship. But after a heartbreaking 5-3 loss to Oklahoma Saturday night in the Blacksburg Regional, the Huskies now go limping into an elimination game in the NCAA tournament.
UConn fell behind the Sooners 3-0 in the top half of the first inning Saturday, battled back to tie the game and force extra innings, but ultimately could not seal the deal as No. 2 seed Oklahoma scored twice in the 12th to defeat the Huskies.
UConn (35-27), the only No. 4 seed in the tournament to win on Friday, now must face host Virginia Tech for the second time in three days. After losing to UConn 5-2, the Hokies bounced back to eliminate Coastal Carolina 9-1 on Saturday. The elimination game begins at 1 p.m. (ESPN3, WTIC.com, WHUS-91.7 FM) Sunday.
The winner would play Oklahoma (42-19) at 5:30 p.m. The loser goes home. That's how much pressure was on during the final innings. The loss was absolutely gut wrenching for UConn, given the fact both teams played so well.
"I was privileged to be part of such a good baseball game," UConn coach Tom Penders said. "I wish we could have come out on top, but it was a really good college baseball game. This isn't a knock on softball, which is over in two hours and is easy for television, but I don't think too many people would be clicking off that game.
"We're really proud of the way we fought. Down three in the first, there was no resignation in our dugout whatsoever until the last out of the game. We believed that we could win and I felt that from every guy in white [uniforms] tonight."
The Huskies had their chances to remain undefeated and move into the championship round. UConn stranded 11 runners, including four in extra innings. UConn also left the bases loaded in the sixth inning after scoring one run to close Oklahoma's lead to 3-2.
When Oklahoma scored three runs on four hits in the first, it looked like it might be a long night for UConn starter Jordan Tabakman. But Tabakman settled down, throwing 117 pitches in nine innings and holding the Sooners scorless on just four more hits.
"We've been dead men walking all tournament," Tabakman said. "We've come from behind a lot. We were down 7-0 to USF. We were down 3-0 today, but every inning, every pitch, we just fought back. Even though this loss stings a little bit, we're going to sleep on it and come back tomorrow and do our best and hopefully Anthony [Marzi] gives us a good game and we'll pull off three and head to the super regionals."
Tom Verdi and Billy Ferriter led off UConn's first with back-to-back singles. After a double steal, LJ Mazzilli drove in Verdi on a sacrifice fly to left.
Verdi (3-for-6) singled and scored again in the sixth. He moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, took third on Mazzilli's fly out and scored on a single by Vinny Siena. The Huskies went on to load the bases, but Jon Testani fouled out to the catcher for the third out.
"We've been battling all postseason from the start of the BIG EAST tournament. We've done it all year long and we just need to keep battling and I think you saw that tonight," Verdi said. "I couldn't be more proud of the kids I play with. It was just an unbelievable college baseball game."
The Huskies picked up an unearned run in the eighth after Ferriter led off by reaching on a throwing error and advancing to second. He went to third on a wild pitch and scored when Siena grounded out to second.
David Mahoney pitched 1.1 innings of relief for UConn, giving up three hits but no runs. Closer Pat Butler took the loss as the Sooners scored two runs on two hits and one UConn error in the 12th. Craig Atkin singled to lead off and scored on a triple to center by Max White. Ferriter misplayed the hard-hit ball to center, got a glove on the ball but couldn't make the catch and the go-ahead run scored. White scored when Mazzilli missed a tag play and was charged with a scoring error.
"We hung around and hung around and they executed when they had to late," Penders said. "We made some mistakes late. We were really tough mentally and physically until the last inning there when they got the runs. Just a couple mistakes hurt us."
Until that inning, UConn's defense had been stellar in postseason play. But little things can create big changes in college baseball, especially in the NCAA tournament.
"I am extremely proud of our mental toughness," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said. "We have to tip our cap to our competitor they played well against us. They got down three and leave their guy in there and he battled through it and threw over a 100 pitches.
"We left a lot of runners out there (10) and had an opportunity to score. I think when you have been doing this for over 21 year sthat you think it's going to come back and bite you so that was my biggest concern and trying to manage the game. It is what it is and we left a lot of men on base. You have to give them credit for the way they pitched."
Mazzilli walked and Siena singled in the bottom of the 12th but UConn couldn't capitalize as Bobby Melley lined into a double play to end the game.
"We don't do anything the easy way at UConn," Penders said, "so now we just have to go do it the hard way tomorrow. The last time we made a super regional [in 2011], we did it the hard way. So I think that's the way it's meant to be for these kids."