Although I would like to come up with some pithy, upbeat description of Stanford's agonizingly close loss to Georgia in the College World Series winner's bracket game Monday, one adjective keeps coming to mind as a descriptor of the experience of watching Stanford in Omaha today. That adjective, unfortunately, is "painful."
It started out fine, of course. Indeed, before the game started, I was basking in the once familiar Rosenblatt glow. Because I had missed the game on Saturday due to a jury trial that went longer than expected and to a trip to Texas for a presentation, this was my first trip inside the 'blatt in five long years.
I am not sure why, given that this was not our first time experiencing pain in that place, but Rosenblatt is a special place to Mini and me. As we sat there taking it all in before the game, I told Mini that the College World Series is my favorite sporting event of all. He agreed. There is something special about the mix of America's game, baseball, with the passion of college sports.
Even the game itself started innocently enough. Stanford posted a nicely crooked "3" on the scoreboard for the third inning that featured Cardinal third baseman Zach Jones "almost a homer if they did not have that silly extended padding" triple to the left field corner. Georgia (43-23-1) did not score its first run until the bottom of the fourth. Things looked mighty good for a while.
The pain, at least for this observer, started in the fourth. Surprisingly the pain came on when Stanford was hitting in that inning. Again, the start was wonderful, with Georgia pitcher Nick Montgomery giving up a bloop single to Randy Molina and a walk to Sean Ratliff. Things looked bad enough for Georgia, which was facing a 3-0 deficit at that point, that the Dawgs replaced their starter, Montgomery, with Stephen Dodson.
Setting the scene, Stanford had two on, with nobody out. Toby Gerhart was at bat, facing Georgia reliever Dodson, who had just entered the game to stop the bleeding. On the very first pitch from Dodson, Gerhart attempted to lay down a bunt to advance the runners to second and third. "Attempted" is the key word, though. Painfully, "down" had nothing to do with it. Instead, Gerhart's failed bunt produced only an easily-fielded lazy fly that Georgia first baseman Rich Poythress grabbed for the first out in what would prove to be a key half inning..
No big deal, right? Just one out, right? Well, yes and no. It was just one out, but it was an out that Stanford gift wrapped and gave to Georgia, with no advancement of the runners. [Unlike some others here, I do not often second guess Mark Marquess. The man has taken team after team to the College Worlds Series from an academic school in a sport that has, across the nation, a pretty bad track record in the "student-athlete" sense. But, having said that, let me second-guess him just a bit.] From this casual, but nonetheless intense Stanford baseball fan's perspective, the single biggest skill that is lacking on Stanford baseball teams, year after year, is bunting. Year in and year out, we are horrible bunters. I can live with that, if we limit our chances to mess up a bunt attempt. Bunting against a brand new pitcher does not seem to fit that bill, so I would have preferred a different play.
Sports are a funny. The outcome of many a game depends upon a relatively few plays. Sometimes you recognize the key moments right when they were happening. My gut told me that the popped up bunt might become a turning point in the game. Indeed, Jones and shortstop Jake Schlander followed up the bunt with two quick outs to end the inning. If you asked me to pick the play that turned the tide in the game, that painful moment would be the one I would select. From that point forward, Stanford's offense never really got back on track.
However, Stanford starter Jeffrey Inman pitched well, right up to a painful end that featured several walks in the critical Georgia half of the sixth inning. Inman had some trouble, include an early round of control difficulties in the first inning, but he wiggled out of trouble time after time, with a bit of a boost from two Jason Castro throws to second to get Dawgs who were trying to steal second. Georgia did plate one run in the fourth, but Stanford maintained a 3-1 lead.
Reliever Austin Yount won most of the battle in the sixth, especially after enduring the pain of walking in one of the runners he inherited from Inman. An epic battle with Georgia left fielder Lyle Allen with the bases still loaded finally ended when Allen swung through what must have been at least the twelfth pitch of the at bat. The next Georgia hitter, pesky second basemen David Thoms stung the ball, but hit it right to Cardinal first baseman Brent Milleville, who snagged it from the air for the third out. Nonetheless, Georgia had closed the gap to 3-2 in favor of Stanford in the seventh.
The pain worsened considerably in the seventh, when Yount first seemed to escape disaster when a would-be home run slipped just foul, landing inches from the yellow-lined padding marking the foul pole. However, Bulldog center fielder Matt Cerione shook off the disappointment and delivered a two-RBI single to plate the go ahead run that pushed the score to 4-3.
The Cardinal managed just six hits in this game to Georgia's nine, but much of Stanford's pain resulted from a failure to take advantage of opportunities. By this writer's count, the Cardinal stranded six runners, three more than it plated. Stanford battled, even to the point of putting two on in the ninth with one out, but it fell painfully short when pinch hitter Colin Walsh's sharply hit grounder up the middle became the double play that ended the game.
It was painful to see an outstanding game by Second Team All-American catcher Jason Castro go to waste. Two for three, with a two run dinger, plus a walk. Two runners gunned down at second out of two steal attempts by Georgia. A couple of nice blocked pitches in the dirt. You cannot ask for much more from your catcher.
Note: It appears that the Steve "MizzouCard" Easton post-season curse is fully in effect. This is now THIRTEEN straight trips (an amazing seven in baseball alone), all with the same result. I really think I have to think about not coming anymore. Maybe my personal Cardinal Karma™ really is that bad.
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