For Kent State, elation and exhaustion
Piecing together a whirlwind weekend during which third-seeded Kent State wins its first NCAA regional baseball title, as told by the players and coaches who lived it . . .
When it finally ended, a little more than 6-1/2 hours after it started, a blissfully numb Kent State team celebrated.
There were hugs and high-fives and a few screams, but mostly there were sighs of relief. The craziest game anyone involved in had ever seen had ended with the Mid-American Conference-champion Flashes winning their 18th straight game by finally putting away a team that had spent a chunk of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
There was a sense of urgency, too, on a couple of different levels. Kent State needed to clear the dugout to make way for the next game between the regional's top seed, Purdue, and Valparaiso. And the Flashes needed to turn their elation to focus, because they'd play the winner of that game in about 21 hours.
As the clearing of the dugout and the process of crashing back to Earth from cloud nine continued, Kent State coach Scott Stricklin watched his senior catcher, David Lyon, labor up the dugout stairs. Catching can be a brutal business. Catching 21 innings is almost unheard of.
Stricklin, himself a former Kent State catcher, looked at Lyon and felt his pain.
"I'm good to go," Lyon said, cutting off his coach before the question could even be asked.
Lyon would need ice, and rest, but he would not need a replacement for the even bigger game that loomed Saturday.
"He wanted to play," Stricklin said. "There was no way I was going to be able to take him out, even if I wanted to."
The biggest win of the season — even in the most memorable baseball game in Kent State history — simply meant the Flashes needed to win two more.
By now you might have heard that Kent State and Kentucky played 21 innings last Friday in an NCAA regional baseball tournament game in Gary, Ind. Kent State won 7-6 to remain in the winners bracket in the double-elimination format.
Four teams go to a regional tournament, and 16 regional winners advance to the Super Regional round for a best-of-three series. The four-team regional uses a last team-standing format, with two games on Day One, two more on Day Two and then either two or three additional elimination games among the remaining teams.
With Kent State having survived, Stricklin can smile about what that marathon game really meant. A four-team regional is really double elimination only in theory.
Especially when the opener goes 21 innings.
"If you lose that (first) game," Stricklin said, "you're done."
Kent State was all but done in the bottom of the 20th. After reliever Michael Clark got the leadoff batter to line out, he gave up a single. Then a walk. Then, he hit a batter to load the bases with one out.
At the top of the dugout steps, Stricklin made a strategic move.
He chose to bow his head and say a brief prayer.
"Then I started reciting my kids' names," Stricklin said. "I do that sometimes when things get tight like that."
Somebody, somewhere, was watching over the Flashes. With the bases full of Wildcats and one out, J.T. Riddle hit a ball back to Clark, who fired it to Lyon at home for one out. Lyon then threw to first baseman George Roberts for a second out. And Kentucky found itself out of outs, again.
And soon the 21st inning would begin.
Exactly how long is a 21-inning, high-stakes baseball game? Kent State starting pitcher David Starn would know.
"I kind of even forgot that I pitched that game," Starn said.
Starn got one batter into the seventh inning. His team held a 4-3 lead when he was removed, and by official scoring rules he was charged with the run that tied the game 4-4. He then turned into a spectator and a second pitching coach in the dugout.
He cheered on Casey Wilson for 1-2/3 innings, Brian Clark for 5-1/3, Josh Pierce for 4-1/3 and Michael Clark for 2-1/3 before Kentucky loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the 20th.
"Probably my most memorable moment is when Clark turned that double play, 1-2-3 (in the scorebook)," Starn said. "Unreal."
Kent State had led 4-2, then 4-3, then took a 5-4 lead in the top of the eighth and took that into the bottom of the ninth. The Flashes got one hit in each inning from the 11th to the 15th but were able to score. Kentucky left runners on third in the 10th and the 15th. In the 12th, Kentucky catcher Michael Williams had a double turn into an out when he missed first base after hitting a shot off the left-field wall.
In all, 43 batters struck out and 47 runners were left on base.
"Those innings weren't easy innings," Stricklin said. "Every time Kentucky hit, they had a chance to win the game for (13) straight innings. That's very nerve-racking.
"I'm just proud of the way our kids handled it. They never got tight, they never got nervous. The dugout was fine. Guys were laughing, having fun with it. I think it was the 18th or 19th inning and I was like, ‘Fellas, enough fun — let's win it here.' "
Exactly how long is a 21-inning, high-stakes baseball game? Roberts, Kent State's cleanup hitter and the MAC's Player of the Year, got five hits in his first five at-bats. He finished 5-for-10.
Kent State center fielder Evan Campbell thinks it was the seventh inning Friday when he whispered to a teammate in the dugout, "We got this."
"It was a blur," Campbell said. "Before I knew it, it was the 17th, maybe the 18th. It was a mental grind, a physical grind. I was in center field. I made that run from there to the dugout 21 times.
"Just crazy. A marathon game."
If Campbell was guilty of being overconfident, he said it's because his team has earned everything and been given nothing. Even entering the regional as the third seed behind Big Ten-champ Purdue and a powerful Kentucky team from the always-powerful SEC, Campbell said Kent believed it was the best team there.
"I like being the smaller school," he said. "I think teams like Purdue and Kentucky, they look down on us like we're the little brother."
Kentucky and Kent State looked eye-to-eye for 30 innings over a period of 56 hours. Neither blinked.
The Flashes ultimately advanced. On Saturday night, with an exhausted bullpen forcing the coaching staff to design Plans B and C, Purdue scored first, but Kent State rallied to win 7-3 behind the first complete-game pitching performance of Ryan Bores' college career.
On Sunday afternoon, Kentucky eliminated Purdue to set up another game with Kent State — and the opportunity for still another. In that game, Campbell delivered the only runs of a 3-2 win on a three-run home run in the eighth inning that video replays showed shouldn't have been a home run at all.
"I was just sprinting around the bases," Campbell said. "Guys were crushing the ball all weekend, but the wind was knocking it down. I just remember seeing the one I hit kind of fading, and I knew I just had to run."
The first base umpire called it a home run.
"It was amazing," Stricklin said. "We got every break in that (21-inning) game when we needed it. We got every break in that regional. We got a couple calls our way. It's amazing how it worked out.
"There were times all weekend I'd say to myself, ‘We deserve this, we deserve this.' And we got it."
Sunday — and a berth in the Super Regional at Oregon this weekend — would not have happened without Friday.
Campbell started the top of the 18th with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Lyon walked, then Roberts flied out to right, allowing Campbell to advance to third with two out.
That's when Stricklin called on Joe Koch to pinch hit.
A fifth-year senior, Koch rarely played in his first three seasons. He was a starting outfielder last year but lost his job this year to freshman Alex Miklos.
"He deserves this," Stricklin remembers thinking as Koch took his first at-bat.
Koch delivered, finding enough space with a groundball to the left side that he was credited with an infield hit and an RBI when Campbell scored.
Kent State led 6-5 in the middle of the 18th inning.
Pierce got the first out of the bottom of the 18th for the Flashes but then surrendered a walk and a single that moved Thomas McCarthy from first to third. With the tying run 90 feet away and the winning run at first, Stricklin made a pitching change, giving the ball to Michael Clark.
Williams, Kentucky's cleanup hitter, was waiting. He crushed a Clark pitch to deep center field, and it bounced off the wall. A.J. Reed, who started the game as Kentucky's designated hitter and ended up pitching the final nine innings, was rounding second by the time Campbell picked up the ball.
"Evan made a perfect cutoff throw," Stricklin said. "Jimmy (Rider) caught it and threw a bullet to the plate. If that ball is 1 foot to the right or left, it's over."
Campbell to Rider to Lyon, who applied the tag. Reed was out at the plate. Clark got the next batter to ground out to Rider, and the game was 6-6 after 18 innings.
"Perfection," Stricklin said.
Kent didn't get a runner on base in the 19th or 20th. After surviving the bases-loaded, one-out situation in the bottom of the 20th, Koch led off the 21st.
"He's the best teammate we have," Stricklin said. "The way he's handled his situation is just incredible. He has a new role, and it's not easy."
Koch reached on a bunt single. Another bunt got him to second, and after freshman Sawyer Polen struck out, Miklos hit a triple to drive in Koch for what would prove to be the winning run.
"I knew we had tough, blue-collar kids," Stricklin said. "We found a new level of toughness."
After giving up a one-out hit and hitting a batter in the bottom of the 21st, Michael Clark ended the game on a groundball and a three-pitch strikeout at about 9:40 p.m. CT. First pitch had been thrown at just after 3 p.m.
"And we didn't get to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning," Campbell said. "We just sat around like we couldn't believe it."
Elation. Exhaustion. Twenty-one innings.
"I only remember the last hitter," Clark told reporters.
Clark — and his teammates — got the win in a game they'll never forget.