OMAHA, Neb. — Reach into the furthest corners of your imagination, where monsters and boogeymen live, and answer the question. Which is most unlikely, most unbelievable, in a College World Series baseball game: A runner forgets to step on first base on his way to a would-be triple, or a 5-foot-11, 179-pound shortstop with little power hits the first homer of the tournament, the first homer in 115 innings — back to June of last summer — to scrub a scoreless ledger in the top of the seventh inning, in a stadium that's lucky to have its flagpoles still standing upright, the daily beating they take from the wind blowing in?
In the span of 20 minutes, the Longhorns went from the most snakebitten team in Omaha to the luckiest. The final, winning score — 1-0, Texas over UC Irvine — provided a razor-thing margin for error. Somehow, the Longhorns were the ones joking at the end.
"I had a mild heart attack," UT coach Augie Garrido said afterward, also cracking that four players dropped comatose when sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinojosa turned an Irvine offering into a homer over the left-field bullpen.
The room was Garrido's at this point, the Texas players, from left to right, doubling over in laughter: Mark Payton, Chad Hollingsworth (the winning pitcher, a 8 1/3, four-hit, no-run outing his latest big-game masterpiece), Hinojosa and Travis Duke.
Garrido continued, poking fun at Ben Johnson and his whoopsie. They won, after all.
"By the way, we had a practice to keep everybody loose," he said. "Tomorrow we're doing base running. How to touch the bases. Get back to some of the simple fundamentals."
The Longhorns will practice Thursday and begin preparations for this weekend's series against Vanderbilt. They need to beat the Commodores twice to advance to the CWS Finals. One loss and it's over.
How is it not already?
A win, in five stages:
- Hollingsworth hits the first batter to begin the third inning and strikes out the next. As the Anteaters' lineup turns, star third baseman Taylor Sparks walks to the batter's box, wielding his club. He obliterates Hollingsworth's pitch, driving it high and deep to center field, and a little to the right.
Had he been a touch earlier on his swing, had he been able to pull the ball to left, Sparks might've had a homer.
From his post in centerfield, Mark Payton flips his hips, turns and runs to right-center. Right-fielder Collin Shaw navigates toward the same direction. Payton is a tough kid, but he's small at 5-foot-8, and despite this being his senior season it's his first at centerfield. You wonder if he'll be able to get to it, and when he leaves his feet the stakes increase: If the ball and Payton hit the dirt, that runner on first is going to score standing up.
He catches it.
"Payton, of course, was the difference-maker," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "We'll see more of that catch than we want to."
- Ben Johnson is the fastest player on the team. He flies. He does not know it as he's nearing first base, but he has the luxury of time as Irvine left fielder Adam Alcantara is going to bobble the ball against the wall not once but twice.
Ben Johnson reacts to Erby's ruling
Johnson's foot, the replay will show, missed the bag. Missed. The. Bag. This is the latest cruel twist at TD Ameritrade Park, where it seems offense is not allowed. No home runs for you! And no triples for you, either! After Johnson returns to the dugout, Payton lines a single into the outfield. Johnson would've scored.
- As Hollingsworth strolls to the mound to begin the sixth inning, Johnson's gaffe is the furthest thing from his mind.
"Once you're on the mound, you've got to worry about yourself," the pitcher said. "I knew we were gonna come up big after that, so I wasn't worried, but I mean it was very disappointing that he missed first base. But that's baseball. It happens every game to some team. It's just a matter of who's going to overcome that one thing when you get screwed."
Texas is teetering on the brink at this point. After one out, Hinojosa errs in his throw to first, and the Anteaters get the makings of a quick rally going. Hollingsworth, his pitch count climbing, battles back, inducing a pop-up and striking out cleanup hitter Jerry McClanahan to end the frame.
Absolutely critical," Garrido said of UT's bounce-back. "Absolutely critical. Without doing that and if they had scored and gone ahead at that point in time, it would've been like we were cursed. And we would've carried around the guilt and it would've been hard to compete. It's really hard to get over something like that.
- Garrido's thoughts as Hinojosa's hit slices through the evening sky?
There's no way you think it's gonna go out. I sat there and watched it and watched it and watched it and watched it until it got there. When he first hit it, you thought it had a chance, but man, we've had so many of those that didn't make it."
Hinojosa had worked the count against Anteaters lefty Evan Manarino, getting it to 2-0. A fastball was coming, and he knew it.
"I think the wind may have changed," Hinojosa said of his second homer of the season. "So that was kind of lucky on our side."
The work wasn't finished. Hinojosa assisted on all three outs in the bottom of the inning. 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
- Nobody out, a man on first, the winning run at the plate. Usual Texas closer John Curtiss is unavailable with food poisoning, so it's on sophomore southpaw Travis Duke to put out the fire, as he did Monday in a five-out save against Louisville.
Condolences to Curtiss, who has an uncomfortable night ahead, but it works out best for Texas. Duke gets McClanahan to fly out, then in a lefty-lefty matchup has Jonathan Munoz, the designated hitter, looking at strike three. With the pressure on, the final Anteater, Grant Palmer, feebly pops out to right field.