COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Once again, the Louisville baseball team must fight its way back from the brink of elimination if the Cardinals are to reach their sixth College World Series in program history.
Texas A&M recovered from a 4-2 deficit to defeat Louisville 5-4 in Game 1 of an NCAA super-regional tournament a walk-off single to right field by Troy Claunch. The game-winning hit came nearer, Michael Prosecky with two outs and the bases loaded at the end of the ninth.
Game 1 of the College Station Super Regional was marked by missed chances. The Aggies dropped a whopping 17 runners on base to Louisville’s nine, but the Cardinals went 4 for 20 at plate with runners on base and hit .182 with men in scoring position.
“We put together some offense early on, but we fell a bit flat there at the end,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said after the game. “That’s a credit to Texas A&M and the obviously talented open plan office they have.”
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Jared Poland took the mound first for U of L and threw a brave 4 2/3 innings, repeatedly dancing around disaster but never letting the game get off the rails.
“Several teammates came up to me between the innings and told me to move on,” Poland said. “Just knowing that the team has my back is a key factor that pushed me to get back out there and do my best for the team.”
The Cards lineup took advantage of the respite Poland offered as they hit three runs in the second inning to take a 3-1 lead. Sophomore second baseman Logan Beard drove in two on a single at center, and another run came around on a sacrificial fly from Ben Bianco.
Poland sat up in the first four innings of the game and crossed eight aggies on base for the fifth time this season with 103 pitches. His last line: two runs allowed with five hits, four walks and seven strikeouts.
“He gave us a chance,” McDonnell said of his starter. “I didn’t think his breaking ball command was great. He probably didn’t feel it until late and he threw a few more pitches than he would have liked. We’re talking about walking off the field. Just walking off the field , it doesn’t have to be pretty. I was proud of him today because he came off the pitch.”
Considering Poland conceded a season-high seven runs through 4 2/3 innings in their last start at the Louisville Regional, the senior righty’s performance on Friday was a much-needed return to form — despite the command issues he and his Teammates plagued the bull.
U of L pitchers combined 10 walks and hit four Texas A&M batters. If the Cardinals are looking to force a winner-take-all Game 3 on Sunday, the free tickets cannot continue at that rate Saturday afternoon.
“The top of their lineup is definitely very talented,” said Poland. “I wish I had made her deserve it a little bit more. I don’t know how many walks I’ve had exactly, but I feel like I was out of the zone a lot. I think they’re all really talented, and they didn’t really chase speed, which was out of the zone. This is also a credit to them. I thought they looked good.
Leading 4-2, Louisville gained more momentum late in game six as Tate Kuehner worked his way out of a bases-filled one-out jam with back-to-back strikes.
The Cards failed to capitalize in the top half of game seven, however, and junior catcher Dalton Rushing landed on second base after hitting a one-out double.
Kuehner returned to the mound and allowed one to start the bottom of the seventh. Two batters later, Texas A&M’s Jordan Thompson tied the game 4-4, ending Kuehner’s scoreless streak at 9 2/3 innings with a homer left-center on a 1-2 place.
For a moment, it looked like Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year Levi Usher grabbed the ball in infield as it fell over the outfield wall. The elated reactions from Aggie’s fans behind him told a different story.
“I won’t lie, I had to do a double take,” Thompson said of Usher’s attempted robbery. “I don’t think I’ve hit a ball up to that part of the stadium. I’ve had a few on the wall occasionally during batting practice, but never outside. It was a great time to see how it turned out.”
What it means
Louisville needs to win Game 2 on Saturday if it wants any chance of slamming a ticket to Omaha — and salvaging its season.
The cards are no stranger to collecting in the face of elimination. They lost to Michigan in the second game of the Louisville Regional, only to storm back over the next two days with three wins, including two against the Wolverines, to crack their Super Regional ticket.
“We were close – maybe a swing away – and we took a chance, so I’m excited to see us play tomorrow,” McDonnell said. “Knowing what we know and having seen (the A&M home vibe) in person, I’d like to think they’ll enjoy it even more.”
To add to the uphill battle, Louisville used five pitchers from the bullpen to navigate 4 1/3 innings after Poland left the game. Kuehner and Prosecky shouldered most of the burden, combining 88 pitches over three innings.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, will come out of the bullpen pretty fresh after only using two pitchers in the last 4 2/3 innings of Game 1.
“I may have done a few trips too many,” McDonnell said. “I’m not used to making so many trips to the hill. We keep telling these guys we trust them and they gave us a chance. It was fun to watch because (the Aggies) were a big swing from putting a big crook and our bullpen kept us in it.
Game 2 is scheduled for a Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and will air on ESPN2. The forecast calls for a triple-digit heat in College Station.
McDonnell didn’t name a starter for Game 2 after the walk-off loss. Sophomore Riley Phillips may be the likeliest contender for the cards after senior Garrett Schmeltz entered Friday’s game to take on first baseman Jack Moss in the bottom of the seventh to compete.
Phillips picked up a win over Michigan in Game 4 of the Louisville Regional. The left-hander allowed just one run on two hits and had a career-high 11 batters in five innings.
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“I wouldn’t say we used someone with the mindset of saving someone for tomorrow,” McDonnell said. “It’s all hands on deck and you have a chance to win Game 1.
“Smeltz was a good matchup for this guy and we felt like (Alex) Galvan was a good matchup. It wasn’t scripted, but yeah there are several guys you’d think could bounce back tomorrow and/or Sunday (if). You get this opportunity.”
During his post-game comments, Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle confirmed that junior Micah Dallas will receive the nod to the start of Game 2. The right-hander is 6-3 in 14 starts with a 5.38 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 72 innings.
“He has to keep all his pitches going and trying to keep (Louisville) off base. They’re certainly tough to deal with,” Schlossnagle said. “He knows from that point on that it’s all about guts and guts. I don’t know how it will turn out.”