Arkansas rudely interrupted Kent State's party Saturday afternoon.
By ZAC JACKSON FS Ohio
OMAHA, Neb. — About the only familiar thing to Kent State's baseball team Saturday was the mandate to clean out its dugout quickly after its game as to not interfere with the evening session.
Still in uniform, the Kent State players picked up after themselves like they always do. The walk to the bus at TD AmeriTrade Park was just a little longer, a little slower.
Everything else about Saturday's experience — from the crowd of 23,980 at the program’s College World Series game to the losing; the Flashes had won 23 of their last 23 — pretty much signified that this was a brand new world.
A brave, big and cruel world.
Arkansas was the more poised team early and the more patient team throughout as the Razorbacks blew open a close game over their last three at-bats of what became an 8-1 victory. Kent State ace David Starn struggled with control, and the Flashes struggled to keep up.
Kent State coach Scott Stricklin insisted his team was "loose" and not overwhelmed by the stage. But Kent State didn't get a hit off of Arkansas starter D.J. Baxendale until the fifth inning, scored its only run on a solo home run by Jimmy Rider with two outs in the sixth and left two on in the seventh after chasing Baxendale when they were down 5-1.
It was the Cinderella, though, that was left to chase for most of the day.
"We've been getting bounces for eight weeks," Stricklin said. "We've been very fortunate to get some calls, some bounces, and things have gone our way.
"The better team won today, but on top of that we didn't get any breaks either.
"If we get every break in the world, we lose 3-1, not 8-1. The better team won today."
Those bounces, breaks and clutch hits have made up a magical run that landed an Ohio team in Omaha for the College World Series for the first time since 1970 and a Mid-American Conference team here for the first time since 1976. The Flashes just didn't get many of them Saturday.
Starn gave up a second-inning home run — the Razorbacks' first since May 19 — to No. 9 hitter Jake Wise, Arkansas’ catcher. Stricklin said he left Starn in one batter too long. After striking out in his first two at-bats, Arkansas’ Matt Vinson delivered a two-RBI single to make it 5-1 in the sixth and essentially seal it.
Baxendale simply dominated, usually working ahead in the count and getting his sizzling fastball working early.
"Then he started throwing breaking balls when he was behind in the count," Stricklin said. "That's a sign ... and not a good sign for us."
The Flashes aren't done in this double-elimination format, but their Monday elimination game opponent will either be No. 1 seed Florida or two-time defending national champion South Carolina. The odds of a Kent State rally are long, just like they were for the Flashes to get here in the first place.
It's little consolation right now, though, as the excitement of playing the biggest game in school history (again) met the reality of an Arkansas team which looks like it's going to have a say in how things play out here over the next eight days.
"Our kids are thrilled to be here," Stricklin said. "But that's the thing, we have to make sure that we're not just happy to be here. We want to compete and get some wins and make a run at it.
Kent State's run to the World Series has been a source of pride for the university — and it's made for a sea of blue and gold amongst a pretty wild party in Omaha the last 24 hours.
More than 400 Kent State alumni attended a university function Friday night. Baseball alumni came to Saturday's game by the dozen, many riding 13-plus hours in groups from Ohio, and were scattered throughout the stadium. Some of the Kent State's most recognizable alums showed up, too;
Joshua Cribbs sponsored a bus trip that brought 150 fans from Northeast Ohio, and 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis also flew in Saturday to cheer on his alma mater.
"We're in Omaha ... that's the positive," Stricklin said. "This team has battled so hard and no one expected us to be here. I mean, we hoped to be here. But I don't think one guy before the season would have said we're going to be here.
"We still have an opportunity (Monday) to show the world that we're a really good baseball team."