LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Sam Cohen just hit the biggest home run in BR-56 UC Santa Barbara baseball history.
With one out and the bases loaded against one of the nation’s best relievers, Cohen belted a game ending grand slam to give the Gauchos a 4-3 win over BR-1 Louisville inside Jim Patterson Stadium Sunday afternoon.
“I was a little late on that first pitch,” Cohen told reporters after the game. “I really just buckled down and choked up a little bit. I got on top of the dish and from that point on, I was just looking for anything middle in just to try to elevate.”
Cohen took Zack Burdi’s 1-2 changeup and belted it down the right field line and just to the left of the foul pole as the Gauchos advanced to the College World Series.
“These guys have been a remarkable group and in terms of perseverance and belief, and a fun group,” said UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts. “Frankly, for us to move on, you might feel like you might have just beaten the best team in the country.”
Cohen’s game winning grand slam capped off a weekend in which the Gauchos punched their first ticket to Omaha in school history while the Cardinals saw their season end at the hands of a Big West team during Super Regionals on their home diamond for the second straight season.
“We didn’t lose that game, [UCSB] won it,” Louisville head coach Dan McConnell said. “We didn’t take advantage of enough opportunities and they kept it close.”
Here are nine of the biggest takeaways from this weekend’s Louisville Super Regional.
WHO IN THE SAM HILL IS SAM COHEN?
The undisputed hero of Sunday’s game wasn’t exactly a household name among Gauchos Nation entering Super Regionals. The freshman from Coto de Caza, Calif. (in Orange County) appeared in 19 games, starting five, where he went 9-for-26 at the plate, including three doubles, a home run and seven RBIs.
In short, Cohen was to the Gauchos on Sunday what Matt Joyce is to the Pittsburgh Pirates (Joyce has an MLB-best four pinch hit home runs and tied for the most pinch hits in the majors with nine): a bench stalwart with a propensity for big hits in key situations.
“He’s hit some home runs this year and he shows power in batting practice,” Checketts said. “Sammie seemed to be the best match at that point to catch up to [Burdi’s] fastball and even he was struggling to do that.”
Fortunately for Checketts and, most importantly, Cohen, Burdi threw a changeup instead of a fastball, much to the relief of the next scheduled battle, third baseman Ryan Clark.
“[Clark] probably sees about five sliders in a row,” Checketts said of what would happen if Cohen hadn’t gone yard. “So, I think it ended well for us.”
FEAST OR FAMINE FOR AUSTIN BUSH
UCSB first baseman Austin Bush picked up where he left off at the Nashville Regionals, where he went 5-for-16 with home runs in each of the Gauchos’ wins that weekend.
“I just wanted to simplify things and get back to the roots of playing baseball,” Bush said of his performance in Nashville. “I think I’ve done a better job of that.”
That momentum continued in Saturday’s opener, when Bush took Brendan McKay’s first pitch of the top of the fourth inning just to the right of the batter’s eye in center field to tie the game 1-1.
“I was just looking for something up and put a good swing on it,” Bush said. “It was a fastball up and I just got the head [of the bat] out a little bit.”
Sunday was a different story for the sophomore from Turlock, Calif., as Cardinals pitcher Drew Harrington struck Bush out three times, then, for good measure, Burdi struck Bush out for a fourth time on the day.
“He’s had some days like that before,” Checketts said. “The stuff he was facing was real. That’s an absolute big boy breaking ball and it’s hard to lay off of.”
McKAY STRUGGLED ON THE MOUND
Saturday wasn’t exactly the best outing on the mound for the sophomore southpaw from Darlington, Pa. Despite throwing eight innings and striking out nine, McKay allowed nine hits and four earned runs in the 4-2 series-opening loss.
The Cardinals offense staked McKay to a 1-0 lead thanks to a home run by Blake Tiberi to lead off the bottom of the second. Unfortunately for McKay, who struck out four batters over the first two innings, he would allow his four runs over the next three innings and Louisville couldn’t recover.
“I was throwing great” in the first couple innings, McKay said on Saturday. “But, I left a couple of ptiches up that they were able to do some damage on.”
Clay Fisher’s RBI double in the top of the third knocked in the Gauchos’ first run of the day, tying the game at 1-1.
The Gauchos would add runs in the fourth, when Kyle Plantier’s RBI double extended the lead to 3-1. J.J. Muno added an insurance run with an RBI single for UCSB in the top of the fifth. Tiberi’s RBI single for the Cards in the bottom of the sixth would cut the lead to 4-2, but by then, it was too little too late.
“[McKay] might have missed on a few pitches, but one ball blooped in with two outs and they scored a run,” McDonnell said. “One ball hit off a glove and we didn’t make a clean feed to first. But, they also played hard, they swung and they found holes. It’s just baseball.”
… BUT McKAY SPARKED CARDS’ SUNDAY RALLY
Sunday was a much different story for McKay.
Just as he did during the Louisville Regional, McKay took care of business at the plate, launching a 3-0 pitch just to the right of the batter’s eye in the top of the third to spark a three-run frame for the Cardinals.
“It was good to crack it open and get a run across the board,” McKay said. “It kind of helped us get some momentum.”
After the Cards were held to two runs in Saturday’s loss to UCSB, McKay’s bomb was a shot in the arm for the hosts.
“Brendan loosened everybody up and said it was okay to hit with that 3-0 home run,” McConnell said.
The Cards would complete the in-inning “cycle” as Devin Hairston tripled down the left field line, then scored on Blake Tiberi’s RBI double to right center which split the outfielders. Danny Rosenbaum capped the frame with a first-pitch RBI single to give Louisville a 3-0 lead.
BASE RUNNING ADVENTURES COST CARDINALS
Three costly outs on the basepaths didn’t help Louisville’s cause on Sunday.
In the top of the second, Tiberi attempted a two-out steal of second, only to start his slide into the base too early and getting thrown out to end the frame.
“Tiberi’s out was a ball in the dirt,” McDonnell said. “That’s just an aggressive play that we work on. We’d do that again.”
With Rosenbaum on second with one out in the top of the third, Will Smith hit a grounder to the shortstop in front of the runner. Rosenbaum broke for third, but, with the play in front of him, was easily out, stalling a potential rally.
“You still needed a hit to score him from second,” McDonnell said. “It’s not like we got a hit and we would’ve scored.”
In the top of the seventh, Colin Lyman lead off the frame with a single, then stole second, only to be picked off a couple pitches later.
“As coaches, we take responsibility when a guy gets picked off second,” McDonnell said. “WE have to a better job of helping him because the play is behind him.”
DREW HARRINGTON IN BEAST MODE
One day after McKay struck out nine UCSB batters, Harrington threw seven-plus innings of shutout ball, striking out 12 batters in preserving the Cards’ 3-0 lead. If nothing else, the junior from Elizabethtown, Ky. frustrated the Gauchos offense all day.
“It was miserable facing that guy today,” said UCSB second baseman J.J. Muno. “You knew he was going to throw a slider and every single guy in our lineup knew that.”
Plantier had better luck facing Harrington as he laced a single in the bottom of the seventh after walking and bunting a runner over in his previous two at bats.
“He walked me and then being able to bunt gave me a good look at him for my next at bat,” Plantier said. “I just got myself in a good count and tried not to do too much and just put the barrel of the bat on the ball.”
Harrington’s development as a pitcher has helped the Cardinals become a power in the ACC. McDonnell noted how Harrington went from struggling as a freshman to becoming a dominant reliever last season to developing into a “weekend starter” (most D1 conference baseball games are played as three-game weekend series, hence the term) and earning ACC Pitcher of the Year honors this season.
“He had an amazing year,” McDonnell said. “I’m really proud of him for how far he’s come.”
BIEBER’S SATURDAY MASTERPIECE
Lost amid the hoopla surrounding Louisville’s pitching staff was the performance of UCSB starter Shane Bieber in Saturday’s win. Bieber threw seven strong innings, striking out seven and allowing just two runs on eight hits and a walk before handing the ball over to Kyle Nelson for his ninth save of the season.
“He was consistent in the strike zone, made some big pitches and to put up a zero in that first inning was big,” Checketts said.
Bieber bounced back from that second inning home run in a big way for the Gauchos.
“It’s his ability to bounce back and just continue to do what he does,” Bush said. “He fills up the zone and lets our defense work. That’s a big part of our game and how we play baseball.”
By the time the eighth inning rolled around, the heat and the humidity which hit Louisville over the weekend (“If it’s over 74, we start crying,” Checketts joked) appeared to have taken its toll on the junior from Laguna Hills, Calif.
“He was at (109 pitches) and was huffing and puffing when he came out,” Checketts said. “[Assistant coach Matt Harvey and I] were talking about whether we should send him out or not. Usually, he’ll put up a pretty good fight and he didn’t put up much of a fight. I think that he was aware that he was tired.”
Nelson would close the door on the Cards, limiting the hosts to a walk over the final two innings.
NEWBIE GAUCHOS REPPING “WEST COAST BASEBALL”
For a team making their first-ever appearance in Super Regionals, UCSB certainly didn’t look intimidated when they walked into Patterson Stadium. But, it almost didn’t come to this point as the Gauchos were struggling down the stretch.
“We were sliding a bit late in the season,” Bieber said. “Thankfully, the leadership was able to recognize that and bring it up to the team. Once we got that at-large berth into the regional, we just said, ‘hey, let’s turn over a new leaf and go out there and play our game’ – it’s been working out so far.”
UCSB entered the tournament as an at-large bid, finishing third in the Big West behind BR-20 Cal State-Fullerton and BR-35 Long Beach State. Yet, after sweeping through both the Nashville Regional and the Louisville Super Regional, it’s the Gauchos who are through to the College World Series, carrying the flag, as it were, for the Big West – and, really, most of the West Coast leagues.
“There’s (a handful) of West Coast teams in the tournament, and for us to run with the West Coast when no one gave us a shot, is pretty cool to be a part of,” Plantier said.
Muno added, “We don’t have the RPIs that the East Coast and the South have, so we knew that we have to represent for the West.”
Not to mention the many UCSB alumni, including one media personality in particular…
While the Pac-12, on the surface, saw some of the regular powerhouse squads like UCLA and USC miss the tournament field, the mantle for “West Coast Baseball” in the 2016 tourney has fallen on UCSB, who, along with BR-19 Arizona (who swept BR-8 Mississippi State in the Starkville Super Regional), are the West’s best hopes in the College World Series.
“I know a lot of those teams had injuries to Friday night pitchers, so it may have been watered down a little bit,” Checketts said. “That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t good baseball being played, but there weren’t as many powerhouse teams on the West Coast teams this year. For two West Coast teams to make it [to Omaha] with no host, that says a lot for the quality of baseball that we’re playing out there.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Louisville’s season ended at home in Super Regionals against a Big West team for the second straight season. The Cardinals lost a three-game series to Cal State-Fullerton at Patterson Stadium last season. The Cards also lost the 2009 Fullerton Super Regional to the Titans … WIth the loss, Louisville lost a game which the lead entering the eighth inning for the first time since May 5, 2012 when the Cards lost 4-3 at West Virginia (when both schools were part of the former Big East Conference). Louisville had won 186 straight games when leading after eight innings … Eight Louisville players were selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft, second most in school history, led by outfielder Corey Ray (fifth overall pick, Milwaukee), Burdi (26th, Chicago White Sox) and catcher Will Smith (32nd, Los Angeles Dodgers) … In addition to Beiber (4th round, 144th pick, Cleveland), UCSB saw a total of five players selected in the draft, mostly third-day selections … Louisville reached Super Regionals for the third straight season, advancing to Omaha in 2013 and 2014. The Cards pulled off this accomplishment while members of three different conferences: the Big East (2013), the American Athletic Conference (2014) and the ACC (2015 and 2016) … UCSB will open the 2016 College World Series against BR-17 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. Eastern in the CWS opener. Oklahoma State swept BR-15 South Carolina in the Columbia Super Regional over the weekend after eliminating another South Carolina school, BR-18 Clemson, in the Clemson Regional.