The College World Series will come down to a winner-take-all Game 3 after Coastal Carolina managed to stay alive with a 5–4 win over Arizona in Game 2 Tuesday night in the best-of-three finals. With both teams having faced elimination in the second round of the Series, thus requiring two wins to advance in the semifinals per the double-elimination rules that govern the first three rounds of the tournament, this will be the first time since the finals expanded to best-of-three in 2003 that the tournament will have required the maximum 17 games to crown a champion.
Tuesday’s Game 2 was a tense, see-saw contest that began with an impressive pitchers duel that witnessed both starters strike out ten or more batters for the first time in College World Series history, and was ultimately decided by the dramatically less impressive work of the two team’s bullpens. The story of the night was Coastal Carolina closer Mike Morrison, who drew the starting assignment despite not having started a game since May 1 of last year. Morrison, a senior who was drafted in the 27th round by the White Sox, came up huge the last time his team faced elimination in this tournament, throwing a season-high 83 pitches across 4 1/3 innings of relief in the Chanticleers’ 7–5 win over Texas Tech in the second round last Thursday. On Tuesday, pitching on four day’s rest, Morrison gave his team even more, throwing 103 pitches across 6 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and leaving with the game tied 2-2 in the seventh inning.
As well as he pitched over his final 5 2/3 innings of the night, however, Morrison almost didn’t get out of the first inning. Four of the first five men he faced reach base, but the Wildcats gifted him two out and he settled down thereafter. Indeed, while Morrison and Coastal Carolina deserve full credit for once again avoiding elimination, the Wildcats’ uncharacteristically sloppy play in the early innings helped keep the game close enough for the Chanticleers to both take a late lead and survive a late charge.
Excessive meddling from Arizona’s first-year head coach Jay Johnson was to blame for those two free outs. After his first two men got on base in the bottom of the first, Johnson asked his No. 3 hitter to bunt them over, keeping the bunt on with two strikes after rightfielder JJ Matijevic’s first two attempts went foul. Matijevic’s third attempt went foul as well, gifting Morrison with his first out, and first strikeout, of the night. After Morrison walked the next batter to load the bases, Johnson put on a suicide squeeze only to have Morrison’s pitch to Bobby Dalbec drift too far outside for Dalbec to reach, leaving the runner charging home hung out to dry for the second out of the inning. Dalbec did pick his manager up by singling in a run, but that would be the only tally Arizona would get until the fifth inning, when a leadoff walk came around to score.
Coastal Carolina, meanwhile, pushed two runs across in the third against Arizona starter Kevin Ginkel, thanks in part to a pair of defensive miscues by the Wildcats. Centerfielder Billy Cooke led off the top of the third with a single, then moved to second when Ginkel lost his footing on the rubber mid-delivery and fired a wild pitch toward the third-base dugout. A sacrifice but pushed Cooke to third with one out, prompting Johnson to play his infield in, but that positioning backfired when ninth-place hitter David Parrett hit a pop up just behind the infield dirt behind shortstop. Arizona shortstop Louis Boyd attempted to circle back to make the catch, but it fell untouched and Parrett hustled all the way to second base. Leadoff man Anthony Marks then singled past a diving Boyd to drive in both runners and give the Chanticleers an early lead.
Outside of that inning, Ginkel, who was drafted in the 22nd round by the Diamondbacks earlier this month, was outstanding, holding Coastal Carolina to just three other hits while walking no one and striking out 10. It was only after Ginkel had ceded to the Arizona bullpen in the eighth inning that the Chanticleers had their breakthrough.
Marks led off the eighth with a single off fellow lefty Cameron Ming and was bunted to second. Connor Owings, draftee of the Arizona Diamondbacks and younger brother of D-backs outfielder Chris, then broke the tie by flaring a single into left that plated Marks. Third baseman Zach Remillard, who had struck out in all three of his at-bats against Ginkel, then laced a double down the leftfield line and designated hitter G.K. Young drove in both men with a single in to right.
That put Coastal Carolina up 5–2, but reliever Bobby Holmes was shaky in relief of Morrison, struggling to find the strike zone and nearly coughing up the entire lead. Given an inexplicably long leash by Chanticleers manager Gary Gilmore, Holmes walked the bases loaded to start the eighth, then allowed two of those runners to score, one via an fielding error by shortstop Michael Paez, before finally wriggling out of the inning with Arizona having climbed within one run. Holmes looked no sharper in the ninth, but he got two pop outs and a sizzling line drive to first base for a 1-2-3 inning to force Game 3.
As was the case in Game 2, Arizona will be the home team for Game 3, which, like every game in the tournament, will take place at the cavernous TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. As for whom the starting pitchers will be, that remains to be determined. However, every indication is that Coastal Carolina will go with righty Andrew Beckwith, who is 14–1 with a 1.94 ERA on the season and turned in a complete game victory in each of his two previous starts in the College World Series, a 2–1 win over Florida in the first round and a 4–1 win over TCU in the first game of the semifinals last Friday.
Arizona will counter with either righty Nathan Bannister (12–2, 2.59) or two-way star Dalbec, who started the first two games of the finals at third base and went 2 for 2 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored in Game 2. Dalbec, drafted in the fourth round by the Red Sox, who likely intend to use him as an infielder, has gone 11–5 with a 2.65 ERA in seven starts and 21 relief appearances. He leads Arizona with seven saves, and has been a part of their starting rotation throughout the postseason. He would be on just three day’s rest, as Ginkel was in Game 2. However, Bannister left his last start in the third inning due to forearm tightness and may not be available.
As for the history that is on the line, Coastal Carolina has never been to the College World Series before this year and is seeking its first national championship. Arizona, by comparison, has been in the tournament 16 times, in the finals seven times and has won it four times, most recently in 2012. However, no first-year head coach has ever led his team to a national title. Johnson is just the fifth head coach in his first year with a team to even make it to the finals. The other four lost. As a result, no matter who wins on Wednesday night, it will represent a College World Series first.