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Hateful eighth: Could it have been managed any better? Probably not

uva griff mcgarry
UVA starter Griff McGarry took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Griff McGarry is at 85 pitches through seven innings, throwing a no-no, absolutely rolling, more importantly, Virginia is up 4-0 in the winners’ bracket of the College World Series.

The no-no is part of the story, sure, the bigger part is, finish out the game, UVA is one win away from the CWS championship series.

I’m not sure if you were thinking this at the time, but I can tell you, my text chain was, and the consensus between half-innings was, leave McGarry in, but have somebody getting loose in the pen, just in case.

Brian O’Connor was thinking that way.

It didn’t matter.

You know the story. Mississippi State put up a six-spot in the top of the eighth.

There was a walk on a 3-2 pitch that was clearly a strike leading off the inning, then a pop-up, then a homer on a first-pitch get-over fastball.

To me, the bigger question isn’t, should Oak have gone to the pen at the start of the inning – again, McGarry was at 85 pitches, was rolling.

“There were some balls that were put in play that were squared up to outfielders, but he was terrific,” O’Connor said. “I mean, he responded like we had hoped that he would. And it’s just unfortunate for him that we just couldn’t finish it off, because he was spectacular tonight. And it’s too bad that it ended the way it did for him.”

It’s who O’Connor went to that has my attention morning after.

Zach Messinger was, O’Connor said after the game, “fresh,” which is fine, but of late, he hadn’t been a shutdown setup guy.

Messinger, in the NCAA Tournament, had given up a run in three of his four appearances coming in, his most recent being the touch-up at the hands of Dallas Baptist in Game 1 of the Super Regional, in which he gave up two runs on three hits in two innings of work in getting charged with the L in the 6-5 setback.

That was 10 days ago, so Messinger was indeed fresh, and his stuff looked fine – his fastball was in the mid-90s, et cetera.

“He’s done the job for us all year. Went right to him. The bases were clean after the home run. Just felt like, OK, he goes out there and gets two outs, and then my plan was to go to Stephen Schoch in the ninth inning,” O’Connor said.

The next batter, Josh Hatcher, after fouling off a 1-2 pitch to stay alive, hit a grounder up the middle that forced shortstop Nic Kent to range to his left, and the effort made it difficult for Kent to get anything on the throw to first, allowing Hatcher to reach.

Next up, Rowdey Jordan ripped a 2-1 pitch to left-center just over the outstretched glove of centerfielder Chris Newell, and here MSU caught another break.

Hatcher got the stop sign at third, but Jordan had rounded the second-base bag thinking he was going to try to score, and was two-thirds of the way to third and should have been caught for out number two.

Except that both Kent and second baseman Max Cotier had set up as cutoff men for the throw in from the outfield, and thus there was no one at second to take the throw.

Either one – the weak grounder that would end up as an infield single, the rundown that didn’t materialize – could have been out number two or out number three.

The leadoff walk on the 3-2 pitch that was a strike could have changed things.

All three went in Mississippi State’s favor.

O’Connor came back out again, to bring the hook for Messinger, signaling for his closer, Stephen Schoch.

Schoch hadn’t pitched since closing out the 4-3 win over ODU in the regional clincher back on June 8. O’Connor had revealed in the walkup to the CWS that Schoch wasn’t available at all during the Super Regional because of his usage in the clincher, in which he’d gone three and a third innings, 75 pitches, after having gone two and a third and 37 pitches to close out the 3-2 win over South Carolina on June 6.

“Stephen Schoch had told me, I watched him throw two days ago. I thought he looked sharp, he told me two days ago, against Tennessee, that he was ready to go. And he told me that again tonight, and the guy’s been our guy all year long. He just couldn’t hold them, just couldn’t get the job done,” O’Connor said.

I’m second-guessing here, and second-guessers are always right, because we know how things worked out, and how it could have been done better.

Schoch obviously didn’t have it.

He faced four batters, gave up the three-run homer, got a liner to left that fortunately hung up for out number two, gave up a single, walked the next guy on four pitches.

The half-inning that would never end – my unofficial timer had it going 33 minutes in real time – had O’Connor going out to the mound one more time, to replace Schoch with Nate Savino, who got Scotty Dubrule to hit a grounder to the left side of the infield, which unfortunately had been left rather uncovered because teams these days like to overshift to take away the pull side, and the ball trickled through for an RBI single that added a key insurance run.

Key because Newell would hit a solo shot in the bottom half that, again, things work out the right way, we’re at least tied going into the ninth.

Nine-thirty Eastern, McGarry was making history. ESPN had a graphic attached to the scorebug informing viewers that he was throwing a no-no.

A few minutes after 10, it was 6-4 Mississippi State.

Could the top of the eighth been managed better?

I’m leaving McGarry in to start the inning, not bothered by the walk, because, for the millionth time, ball four was strike three, he was robbed.

You lift the guy after the homer.

I don’t go with Messinger, but he induced a weak grounder on a 1-2 pitch that should have kept the bases clear with two outs.

Schoch left a pitch up, and Tanner Allen was sitting on it, and did what .386 hitters with 10 homers do.

“I’m telling Stephen when he comes in the ball game, he’s got to make pitches down in the zone. You’re looking for a ground ball,” O’Connor said. “Obviously he’s a tremendous player, right, the kind of player that you could sit there and say, you don’t want him to beat you. But you also don’t want to, you also don’t want to walk him, because his run takes the lead.

“So you want to make him earn it. And to his credit, he did. He put a great swing on the ball. We didn’t execute. And he made us pay for it. And that’s what great players do.”

What I like to say in these kinds of situations is, the other team gives out scholarships and pays its coaching staff good money because they want to win, too.

Sometimes when you lose, it’s because you lost.

Sometimes, it’s because the other guys won.

“I told our guys that they shouldn’t think about this game as we lost the game. They won it. And it’s important that they think of it that way,” O’Connor said. “Sometimes when you have a guy that’s going out there, he’s got a no-hitter, he’s pitching a great ballgame, you’re up 4-0 going into the last two innings, and they take the lead, you know, sometimes you can think about that, we lost it, but all the credit goes to Mississippi State. They had key players rise up and get big clutch hits and clutch at-bats. And so, they won the ballgame.”

That’s what happened. Mississippi State won the ballgame.

Story by Chris Graham

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