By BILL PETERSON
AUSTIN – The subject of which outs in a baseball game are the most important has been known to engage seamheads in hours of conversation that has never done any genuine harm, so long as every party understands, deep down, that all the outs are important.
The matter came up earlier this week in a conversation with Texas State baseball coach Ty Harrington as he discussed the merits of his top two relief pitchers, set-up man Tyler Brundridge and closer Michael Russo.
Yes, Harrington agreed, certain situational outs in the sixth or seventh inning are critical and generally under-rated, especially considering that the middle reliever so tasked enters with runners already on base. Those outs, or lack thereof, set up the game’s final act and dictate the ensuing strategy for each team.
However, Harrington concluded, the final three outs of a game are the toughest to get.
It would figure that the Bobcats’ NCAA Tournament opener Friday would emphatically demonstrate both principles. Less predictably, those principles illustrate why the Bobcats lost to Boston College, 8-7, at Disch-Falk Field on the University of Texas campus.
Entering the Austin Regional as the No. 2 seed, the Bobcats (41-16) are one loss away from ending their most successful season in history. They will play Army (34-20) at noon Saturday. The winner survives and the loser leaves town. Army lost, 3-1, to Texas Friday evening.
It seemed for about 20 minutes Friday afternoon that the Bobcats would never secure the last three outs, even long after establishing that they wouldn’t get them in time. Going to the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead as Brundridge worked on a clean slate, the Bobcats had all but punched their ticket for another day in the winner’s bracket. The Bobcats were 31-2 when leading after eight innings.
But the Boston College summoned line drives from the bottom of its order and quickly blew up Texas State’s top two relievers. Barry Butera led off with a hard single to right field before Andrew Lawrence moved him to third with a hard single down the right field line. Mike Sudol doubled to the left-center field gap, driving in Butera, moving Lawrence to third, and compelling Harrington to make a pitching change.
The call went to Russo, who couldn’t keep the ball in the park. Facing ninth-place hitter John Spatola with a 1-1 count, Russo threw a slider and Spatola lost it, really lost it, hitting it so far to right field that he didn’t even know where it went until he noticed Texas State right fielder Laurn Randell giving up on it. In fact, the ball left Disch-Falk Field, bouncing along Comal Street while the base runners rounded third right in front of an exploding Boston College dugout.
In the blink of an eye, Boston College took a 6-5 lead and the sunlight dimmed on Texas State’s first NCAA appearance since 2000. Worse, the Bobcats couldn’t contain the crisis and Boston College continued launching rockets from the batter’s box to all points on the field, gaining strength at the end of an afternoon in the Texas heat.
“In kind of a weird way, maybe the sun beating down on us all day, maybe we relaxed a bit by the time we got to the ninth inning,” Boston College coach Mik Aoki said. “… I thought maybe we were a little tense early on and we got relaxed later. When we got the first three batters on in the ninth and had the tying run on base, we knew we were in a good place.”
Not content with the lead, Boston College hammered out two more runs with three singles and a double before Harrington hooked Russo in favor of Mitchell Pitts, who ended the bleeding with a fly ball for the third out. By then, Boston College surged to an 8-5 lead.
“They just barreled up a lot of baseballs in the ninth inning,” Harrington said.
Opening Friday with a team batting average of .336 and an OPS of .936, the Bobcats are never truly out of a game, particularly when they’re down three with Bret Atwood, Paul Goldschmidt and Keith Prestridge due up. Thus, Boston College endured its own struggle to secure the final three outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Within six pitches, Texas State was back in the game with a clear chance to at least force extra innings. Atwood walked on four pitches against Boston College left-handed reliever Mike Belfiore. Then, Goldschmidt smashed an 0-1 pitch into the left field bullpen, bringing the Bobcats within 8-7 with no outs.
Harrington took down Prestridge, a left-handed hitter, in favor of Adam Witek, who walked on four pitches. Then came strategy time.
Among the factors to consider were Belfiore’s lack of command in his ten pitches, which cashed out eight balls (two walks) and a home run. The next Texas State hitter, right-handed Spenser Dennis, led the team in batting (.406) and on-base percentage (.457), walking more than he struck out this year (20 to 16).
Harrington played it by the book. As the home team, he played it to tie and ordered a bunt from Dennis, who had gone one-for-three with a walk and a double earlier in the game. The bunt put Witek on second base with one out, giving the Bobcats two shots to tie the game.
“I went back and forth on that,” Harrington said. “I looked at it as a junior (Ben Theriot) and a senior (Lance Loftin) having two cracks at it.
The first crack went to Theriot, who blasted his first pitch to deep left field.
“I thought that was off the wall,” Harrington said. “I grabbed (assistant coach Derek) Matlock’s arm and said it might be off the wall.”
It might have been, driving in the tying run. But Lawrence ran it down on the warning track, snagging the fly ball in front of the fence. Two outs.
The game came down to Loftin, who doubled home a run in the sixth and held the upper hand in his ninth-inning at-bat until the very end. Loftin took a ball, then fouled off two pitches, then took another ball, then fouled off another pitch, then took another ball before whiffing on a full-count seventh offering to end the game.
“We still had an opportunity to win the game in the bottom of the ninth inning after having someone reach in and pull your beating heard out of your chest,” Harrington said. “Then, all of a sudden, you look back up and here we go again. Our guys were right back in there. As much as I’m disappointed, what you saw was the character of this team in the bottom of the ninth inning.”
But you also saw Boston College pitchers consistently produce outs in the teeth of Texas State scoring opportunities throughout the game. In four of the first six innings, including the first three, Texas State advanced runners to scoring position without driving them home. In the first three innings, the Bobcats couldn’t produce a two-out hit with a runner on second. In the sixth, Kyle Livingstone made the third out trying to steal third base.
The Bobcats had a big inning brewing in the seventh, but Aoki mixed and matched relievers to keep the game within reach as his bullpen produced crucial outs. The Bobcats held a 4-2 lead with Jason Martinson at third, Atwood at first and one out with Goldschmidt, the lineup’s big producer, coming to the plate. Aoki pulled his tiring starter, JB McDonald, for right hander Kevin Moran.
The sophomore reliever alternated fastballs and sliders against the Bobcat slugger, who pulled three pitches hard to foul territory. Finally, Moran induced Goldschmidt to fan at a 2-2 pitch for a critical strikeout. Prestridge then rolled a single to left, driving in Martinson and advancing Atwood to second. Dennis walked on four pitches, loading the bases.
Again, Aoki made a pitching change, bringing in left hander Nate Bayuk to face Theriot, a left-handed hitter. The inning ended with the bases loaded when Theriot flied out to center field on a 2-2 pitch.
For the game, the Bobcats were four for 14 (.286) with runners in scoring position, knocking in five runs. They put seven runners in scoring position who ended up not scoring. Then again, they did score seven runs. Boston College got them out just often enough to stay alive.
“They kept innings going, but I think, on the flip side, we did a good job of keeping it within striking distance because they put a lot of pressure on through those first six or seven innings,” Aoki said. “We hung around and we strung together a bunch of really good at-bats in the ninth inning.”
The Eagles (34-24) will play in the winner’s bracket against Texas (42-13-1) Saturday at 6 p.m. If Texas wins that game and the Bobcats beat Army Saturday, Texas State and Boston College would meet again Sunday. To survive this weekend, the Bobcats would have to win four games in the next three days.
“The strength of our team has been hitting,” Goldschmidt said. “If we can get hot, something crazy can happen.”