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 in this elimination game of the College World Series… or destroy it.
In Monday’s seventh inning, 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: tie score. Vanderhook argued, earned an umpire’s warning, walked up the tunnel and back. Workman went full on the next hitter. Then he walked him, too.
The walks would be Fullerton’s undoing. The Seminoles never surrendered the lead. They won, 6-4, and survived. The Titans couldn’t protect another College World Series lead, again powered by shortstop Timmy Richards, and their season ended.
Fullerton starter John Gavin lasted just 3 1/3 innings and walked four, but he limited Florida State’s potent offense to two runs, one earned.
Still, Fullerton managed just 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 dove. His glove plucked the ball inches from the grass. But his collision with the ground rattled the ball loose, a run scored and the inning extended.
The next batter, Timmy Richards now represented the go-ahead run. He spied a breaking ball hanging high and over the plate. He gritted his teeth hard and 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 unlikely early lead. Now, after a squandered lead had put Fullerton on the brink of elimination, his two-run home run had given Cal State Fullerton new life, and the lead.
But it would not be the last time an errant bounce in the outfield would swing fortunes in this 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. It was a worrisome jam. Vanderhook went to the bullpen. Then he settled on his strategy.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand