OMAHA, Neb. — As Kent State kept changing relief pitchers late in Monday’s College World Series elimination game in a desperate attempt to find one who’d throw a strike and get a Florida batter out, Jason Bagoly watched nervously from a familiar place in the third-base dugout.
Bagoly’s night as a player was done in the bottom of the seventh inning; Kent State’s starting designated hitter was subbed for a pinch runner after driving a double to deep center field for his second hit of the game.
That’s impressive, but not especially remarkable until you consider a few things. Such as . . .
• Bagoly previously hadn’t played at all in seven NCAA tournament games. His last appearance was May 24, in the second game of four Kent State played in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
• Florida was the No. 1 national seed. Kent State, the first MAC team to make the CWS since 1976, needed every hit, every run and every stroke of luck it got in holding on to beat Florida 5-4 on Monday. Kent State now will face two-time defending champ South Carolina on Wednesday in another elimination game.
• Tuesday morning, Bagoly flies home for his mother’s funeral services.
Cheryl McHenry died unexpectedly last Thursday while at work near Youngstown, Ohio, a day after Kent State had arrived in Omaha. She was 50.
Bagoly, a junior backup catcher, decided to stay with the team. The Golden Flashes are wearing Cheryl McHenry’s initials on their hats at the College World Series, but there was little reason to think they’d need her son to help ensure they’d play another day.
That’s where credit goes to Kent State coach Scott Stricklin for taking a chance on inserting a kid Stricklin said had spent the past few days “getting a lot of hugs” from his teammates into the lineup. By Monday evening, they were joyous bear hugs.
When Bagoly scored in the second inning, every Kent State player in the dugout greeted him with a high-five at the top of the dugout steps.
“I think Jason needed that,” Stricklin said. “I think his family needed that. I’m just really proud that he’s on our team.”
When Kent State got overwhelmed 8-1 by Arkansas in its CWS opener on Saturday, Stricklin sent Bagoly to the on-deck circle to pinch hit in the ninth inning. A game-ending double play kept him from getting to bat, and that kept Stricklin up at night.
“This has been a difficult few days for our program,” Stricklin said. “I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for Jason. The last couple nights, I’ve really been wrestling with the decision. I was really disappointed in myself that I didn’t get him in that game.
“We talked about it as a staff and we went back and forth. You think about the ramifications if he has a bad game — what if he gets out there and plays, and things go wrong?”
Sometime between that first game and Monday afternoon, Stricklin made the decision to start Bagoly at designated hitter vs. Florida, in a game Kent State needed to win to play on but a game not a lot of people outside the Kent State locker room gave the underdog a chance to win.
“I just knew how tough he is,” Stricklin said. “I knew he’d respond. I asked him how he felt, and he said he felt good. I brought him and (usual designated hitter) Nick Hamilton both in my office before the game and told them. Nick handled it great, and then Jason and I talked.
“He said he was feeling good. He gave me a hug, then he went out there and had the best game of his career.”
Bagoly came into the game hitting .264 for the season in 91 at-bats, none in almost four full weeks. His final line Monday was two hits in three at-bats, plus a sacrifice bunt, and one run scored.
Bagoly battled from two strikes down to single up the middle in the second inning. He came around to score the first of three Kent State runs in that inning as the Flashes built a 4-0 lead. They needed all of them as they eventually won an exhilarating 5-4 game as Florida left the bases loaded in the top of the ninth.
“I think that shows you what kind of kid he is, and how tough he is,” Stricklin said. “It gave our team a lift. It really did. His first at-bat, to battle like he did and get that base hit off of (Jonathon) Crawford. . . . It was unbelievable.”
Kent State got six strong innings from starting pitcher Ryan Bores. It got some unpredictable help, too, even before Stricklin had to beg for an appeal to the third-base umpire to get a strikeout call on the next-to-last batter of the game. Bores in the second inning induced an atypical 1-4-6-3 double play. In the sixth, center fielder Evan Campbell made a diving catch to rob Florida of extra bases. Gators starter Hudson Randall lasted just one inning as the near 100-degree got to him.
Bagoly and some of his teammates got to Crawford. Kent State needed four wild relief pitchers to seal it, but Josh Pierce eventually got Justin Shafer to fly out for the game’s final out. As has been the case throughout this magical run, the Flashes had multiple heroes helping to seal the latest biggest victory in school history.
This was Bagoly’s first turn, and he delivered under the most difficult of circumstances.
“Jason’s a fighter,” Kent State catcher David Lyon said. “If he went (to the plate) and had back-to-back strikeouts, nothing would have changed. We’re part of his family, we’re always behind him, and he knows that. And that helped him battle and succeed the way he did today.