Rick Vanderhook’s strategy was already in motion as he jittered in the dugout, unable to stand still. His decision would either prolong Fullerton’s season, or end it.
In the seventh inning of a College World Series elimination game Monday, Fullerton led Florida State by one run. There were runners on second and third and no outs. Reliever Blake Workman jogged in. The Seminoles’ No. 3 hitter, Jackson Lueck, waited. He was Florida State’s best hitter, batting .320 with nine home runs.
So Vanderhook ordered Workman to walk him.
Intentionally loading the bases was aggressive: It put trust on Workman — and tremendous pressure. And so as the count ran full on the subsequent batter, Vanderhook paced. He chomped, hard, on his chewing gum. He laughed nervously.
Workman threw ball four, and the score was tied. Vanderhook argued, earned an umpire’s warning, walked up the tunnel and back. Workman went to a full count on the next hitter, and walked him, too.
The walks would be Fullerton’s undoing. The Seminoles never surrendered the lead. They won 6-4 and survived to play another day. The Titans couldn’t protect another College World Series lead — once again powered by shortstop Timmy Richards — and their season ended.
Fullerton is always a contender to make it to Omaha, but this season’s team was not a favorite. The Titans failed to win the championship of the Big West Conference for only the second time in seven years. But they blitzed through the NCAA tournament, dispatching Pac-12 Conference power Stanford in a regional and then rival Long Beach State, the Big West champion, in a super regional.
“I knew how difficult it was to get here,” Vanderhook said. “But it’s even more difficult to get here and win.”
He added: “Nine in a row. Well, I can say at least we’re here to lose nine in a row.”
Fullerton starter John Gavin lasted only 3 1/3 innings and walked four, but he limited Florida State’s potent offense to two runs, one earned.
Meanwhile, Fullerton managed only one hit and the Seminoles led 3-1 by the sixth inning, when the bounce of a baseball changed the game. Florida State center fielder J.C. Flowers ran in for a low line drive with two outs and a runner on. He dived. His glove plucked the ball inches from the grass. But his collision with the ground rattled the ball loose, scoring a run and extending the inning.
The next batter, Richards, now represented the go-ahead run. He spied a breaking ball hanging high and over the plate. He swung hard enough that his backswing thumped the back of his uniform between the numbers. The ball easily cleared the wall in left field.
On Saturday, Richards had hit a three-run home run in the first inning against Oregon State to boost the Titans to an early lead. Now, his two-run home run had given Fullerton new life, and the lead.
“You get three runs. You get up,” first baseman Dillon Persinger said, adding that the Titans “wanted a shut-down inning to get the momentum on our side.”
However, it was not the last time an errant bounce in the outfield swung fortunes in this particular game.
In the next inning, with a runner on, Fullerton left fielder Chris Prescott tracked a ball headed toward the fence, leaped and snared the ball in his glove. But as he smacked off the wall, the ball bounced free.
It put two runners on in the seventh inning, and Vanderhook went to the bullpen. Then he settled on his strategy.
“We didn’t throw strikes again,” Vanderhook said. “We didn’t do it for the last couple of days. A lot of pitches. We definitely got to know the field here at TD Ameritrade [Park] because the last two games I think these guys stood out in every inch of their position for longer than anybody in the history of the two games that we played.”
The 3-2 ball that tied the score was a curveball.
“I said go ahead, throw a 3-2 hammer,” Vanderhook said. “Because if he throws it for a strike, strike three.”
But the ball got away, and so did the game.
Helfand reported from Los Angeles.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand