OMAHA, Neb. – Somewhere over the last few weeks, the Kent State baseball team realized something hardly anybody else did.
It’s safe to say there are a whole lot more believers now.
The Golden Flashes belong in the conversation of college baseball’s elite in 2012. Any lingering doubt about that got wiped out Monday in the first down-to-the-wire thriller of the College World Series.
Buoyed by a quick start and six strong innings from starting pitcher Ryan Bores, Kent State stunned No. 1 seed Florida 5-4 to slam the door on the Gators’ season after two straight losses.
The Flashes (47-19) notched the first CWS victory in program history and will face the South Carolina (46-18) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The winner of that game gets another shot at Arkansas at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Florida’s promising season is over after the Gators (47-20) spent most of the season hovering near the top of the national rankings and entered the NCAA Tournament as a consensus No. 1.
As jolting as that part of the equation was, the story of the game was Kent State doing what it has done throughout the NCAA Tournament: Finding a way to survive.
“I don’t think many people gave us much of a chance (Monday),” Flashes coach Scott Stricklin said.
“It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the end. It was gut-wrenching no matter who you were rooting for. Even if you weren’t rooting for anybody, that was tough to watch.”
Indeed, the final half-inning was an emotional rollercoaster tinged with controversy.
And that came after a strange beginning when Florida starter Hudson Randall couldn’t comeback out for the second inning, a victim of the steamy heat and humidity that hovered around 95 degrees at first pitch.
Randall’s struggles were immediate. Kent State’s Jimmy Rider reached on a one-out error on steady Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana. David Lyon and George Roberts followed with single to produce a quick run and prompt a visit from Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan and eventually a trainer.
|Kent State players converge on the field to celebrate the first College World Series victory in program history: 5-4 over No. 1 seed Florida|
After several minutes, Randall stayed in the game and managed to record the final two outs.
But Jonathon Crawford came out for the second inning, and that seemed to be a boost for the Flashes.
was a guy we wanted to wait back on and try to attack his fastball a little
more and see it deep,” said Rider, who scored three runs.
“Crawford comes in and he’s throwing upper 90s, mid 90s, so we had to jump on his fastball a little bit more.”
Crawford leaped right into the fire in the second inning when he gave up a single to Jason Bagoly and Alex Miklos reached when the Gators misplayed his bunt. Derek Toadvine pushed those two up with a bunt and Crawford struck out Evan Campbell to nearly get out of trouble.
With the Gators on their heels, Rider dropped a bunt down the third-base line and beat it out for an RBI single. David Lyon added a third run – all unearned – when he pumped a base hit to center field.
Florida got one run on the scoreboard in the third inning on Mike Zunino’s two-out base knock, but the Gators struggled to find a comfort zone.
Unfazed by that small dent in the lead, Kent State manufactured another run in the fourth inning when Rider cranked a double to left field with one out and scored on a pair of wild pitches.
The rest of the game was a matter of the Flashes holding off the Gators. And with some assistance from home-plate umpire Phil Benson, Kent State managed to do so, but just barely.
Justin Shafer chased in a run in the sixth with his second double of the day to close the gap to 5-2.
|Florida freshman Justin Shafer covers his head moments after Kent State ended the Gators' season with a 5-4 victory|
An inning later, Florida was in position to storm in front when Fontana, Preston Tucker and Zunino tagged consecutive singles after Taylor Gushue walked to open the seventh and melted the difference to 5-3.
Reliever Brian Clark – who gave up the three hits – got a huge break when he got Brian Johnson to roll into a 4-6-3 double play, with Fontana scoring to whittle the deficit to 5-4.
Stricklin summoned closer Casey Wilson at that point, and he ended the Florida at-bat when he got Daniel Pigott to hit a soft liner to second base. Wilson got the first two outs of the eighth before Michael Clark entered and extinguished another threat when he got Fontana to pop up to Rider at short.
All of that was just a warmup for a wild ninth inning.
Clark threw six straight balls to start the frame, walking Tucker and leaving with a 2-and-0 count on Zunino. Josh Pierce came in and threw two more balls to walk Zunino and put two runners on base.
O’Sullivan sent light-hitting Cody Dent up to hit for Johnson, his cleanup batter, with the express intent of bunting the two runners up a base. Dent did so on a full-count pitch, but Pierce loaded the bases when he plunked Pigott.
That brought Turgeon up and that was when Benson got involved.
Pierce fell behind 3-and-0 and then blazed a gimme’ by Turgeon for strike one. The next pitch appeared to veer six inches outside the strike zone and replays showed it should have been ball four. But Benson called it strike two to fill the count.
On the next pitch, Turgeon offered and when Benson asked third-base umpire Jeff Henrichs for a verdict, he ruled that Turgeon had gone far enough for a swinging strikeout.
“I saw a full swing and, and everyone else did, too – especially on the third-base side,” Stricklin said.
With two outs, Shafer stepped in and jumped on the first pitch, sending a routine fly ball to right fielder T.J. Sutton to seal the upset.
O’Sullivan was adamant when asked if umpiring determined the outcome in the first one-run game of the CWS.
“The game was not decided by the umpires,” he said. “The game was decided by both teams playing.”
And the game was decided like most of the Flashes’ postseason games.
Four of Kent State’s last five contests have been settled by one run. The Flashes are now 7-3 against ranked foes with six wins in the NCAA Tournament and three against SEC opposition.
“We’re not a fluke,” Stricklin said. “We’re a really good baseball team.”
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