Sports are interesting, and one of the interesting aspects about them, among many, is that the very unlikely can sometimes happen.
The Louisville Cardinals baseball team went 50-12 this year through the regular season and first round (“regional”) of the NCAA baseball playoff. Moreover, they were an astounding 36-1 at home, the only loss coming by three runs at the hands of last year’s national champion, Virginia. Over the last several years they have been one of the best teams in the country, making it to the College World Series twice, though not yet winning it. They were considered by the tournament selection committee to be the #2 team in the country, behind Florida, but many of the better computer polls had Louisville as #1.
The college baseball playoff is one of the most interesting tournaments out there, from a structural perspective. Because it’s baseball, it’s not a one-loss tournament, at any of the four levels thereof, at least since 2003. Those four levels are: (1) the sixteen regionals of four teams each, (2) the eight “super regionals” determined by the regional champs, and (3) two rounds at the College World Series in Omaha, comprised of the eight super regional champs. A team can in fact lose as many as four games total over the course of the playoff, and yet still win the national championship. It’s not easy to do though, because a loss in the first game, at either the regional level, or in round one of the CWS, requires a team to win four games to advance, instead of three. In the 13 years of this format, only Fresno State has pulled that feat off, in 2008.
In winning their regional and being one of the top eight seeds, Louisville hosted the winner of the Nashville regional, which was won in an upset over favorite Vanderbilt, by UC Santa Barbara of the Big West Conference. That conference is not as good top to bottom as is the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that Louisville plays in, but neither is it any slouch, containing perennial power CSU Fullerton, and also Long Beach State, who gave third ranked Miami fits in its regional. More generally, the caliber of the baseball played on the west coast, including the PAC-12 and the Big West, is very high, though often slighted by writers and pollsters in favor of teams from the southeast (ACC and Southeast (SEC) conferences in particular). Based on the results of the regional and super regional playoff rounds, the slighting this year was serious: only two of the eight teams in the CWS are from the ACC/SEC, even though teams from the two conferences had home field advantage in fully 83 percent (20/24) of all the first and second round series. Five schools west of the Mississippi River are in, including the top three from the Big 12 conference.
In the super regional, the first team to win twice goes on to the CWS in Omaha. To make a long and interesting story short, UCSB won the first game 4-2 and thus needed just one more win to knock out Louisville and advance to the CWS for the first time in their history. Down 3-0, in the bottom of the ninth inning, they were facing one of the best closers in all of college baseball, just taken as the 27th overall pick in the MLB amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox. Coming in with 100+ mph fastballs, he got the first batter out without problem. However, the second batter singled, and then he began to lose his control and he did exactly what you shouldn’t do: walked the next two batters to load the bases. The UCSB coach decided to go to his bench to bring in a left-handed hitting pinch-hitter, a freshman with only 26 at-bats on the season, albeit with one home run among his nine hits on the year.
And the rest, as they say, is history:
(All the games from this weekend are available for replay here)