Photo by Associated Press.
Originally Published: June 30, 2016 7:08 p.m.
OMAHA, Neb. — A close play at the plate went against them. Their second baseman committed two errors on one play, leading to four runs. Their starting catcher left with an injury after the seventh inning.
Yet the Arizona Wildcats had runners on second and third with two outs in a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth inning.
That’s where their surprising run to the College World Series championship game ended, with a 4-3 loss to Coastal Carolina on Thursday.
“Extremely sad right now,” first-year coach Jay Johnson said. “This is a national championship-caliber group that we had. They proved it for 73 games. I’m very disappointed that I don’t get to coach them anymore. We’re a very tight group, and we’ll get through it together. It stings pretty bad right now.”
Coastal Carolina (55-18) took the best-of-three finals to become the first team since Minnesota in 1956 to win the title in its first CWS appearance. Arizona (49-24) was trying for its second national title since 2012.
Arizona came up just short in a season in which it was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 and after missing the NCAA Tournament the previous three years.
“Amazing season, and they’re a deserving champion,” Johnson said. “We played as good as we possibly could this year, and they’re the best team we’ve played, in my opinion.”
The Wildcats’ first two batters in the bottom of the ninth reached base against Alex Cunningham, and Zach Gibbons’ sacrifice fly made it a one-run game with two outs. Ryan Aguilar then doubled into the left-field corner, but Cody Ramer was held at third because Anthony Marks was able to get the ball back to the infield so quickly.
“That’s the play of the season in college baseball,” Johnson said. “We play aggressively, but Cody would have been out by 100 feet — and I know it’s only 90 feet. I can’t believe the play that was made.”
Ryan Haug, who replaced injured catcher Cesar Salazar in the eighth inning, struck out to end the game.
Arizona thought it had scored in the third after Ramer sent a liner into right field that got under Connor Owings’ glove and rolled to the wall. Ramer made it to third on the two-base error. Gibbons then hit a comebacker to Andrew Beckwith, who went home as Ramer tried to score. After catching Beckwith’s wide throw, catcher David Parrett reached back to put the tag on Ramer, who was called out by umpire Joe Burleson on an extremely close play.
“I’m guessing if Joe is umpiring the home plate in the national championship game, he’s the best umpire in the country. I hope that’s what the criteria is,” Johnson said. “And he said he tagged him.”
Arizona, which came into the day with just two errors in seven CWS games, saw Ramer commit two on the same play in the sixth inning. Ramer couldn’t get a handle on a grounder, allowing Parrett to score from third. Then Ramer tried to get Michael Paez running from second to third, but he overthrew Kyle Lewis. That allowed Paez to come home. G.K. Young then launched a no-doubt homer into the seats above the right-field bullpen for a 4-0 lead.
“They picked me up for every mistake I made,” Ramer said, “and I was hoping we were going to pull through.”
Arizona’s Bobby Dalbec (11-6) worked 5 2/3 innings, striking out eight to increase his CWS total to 26 in 20 2/3 innings.
“It was a tough (sixth) inning. That kind of happens,” Dalbec said. “Middle innings will win and lose ballgames, and they lost this one today.”
Andrew Beckwith (15-1), the national leader in wins, went 5 2/3 innings after pitching two complete games and picked up his third victory of the CWS. He was named the Most Outstanding Player.
Cunningham earned his first save, striking out Haug with a full-count fastball to end the game after Arizona had pulled within one in the bottom of the ninth.
When Haug swung and missed, Cunningham turned to his dugout, beat his chest with his fist three times and saluted before flipping his glove away to start the celebration.
“The running joke is that in high school I lost the state championship three times in a row. I was not going to lose this one, I promise you that,” Cunningham said.
ARIZONA CATCHER HURT
Salazar left the game at the end of the seventh inning after getting hit on the top of his head by Paez’s bat on a swing-and-miss strike three. Salazar briefly lay face down and was tended to by an athletic trainer. He walked off under his own power and was replaced by Haug.
COME ONE, COME ALL
Because of the noon start time on a weekday — caused by the rain-and-lightning postponement Wednesday night — people attending the U.S. Olympic swim trials across the street at CenturyLink Center were admitted for free to the outfield seats. The game drew 18,823, raising tournament attendance to 341,667, the third-highest all-time.