It looked like the perfect addition to Davidson's Cinderella run. The Wildcats, a four seed in their region, ran through their initial four-team region, going 3-0 including twice beating #2 North Carolina. On Friday, the Wildcats rallied from a 6-0 deficit in the sixth inning to tie the game against national seed Texas A&M. The game looked destined to fit into Davidson's miraculous story so far in the 2017 NCAA tournament.
But Texas A&M stayed composed, and squashed the cinema-like story line, holding Davidson at bay until George Janca produced a walk-off single in the bottom of the fifteenth inning, giving the Aggies a key Game 1 victory in the best-of-three Super Regional.
Aggies pour in the runs in the early going
Playing like a national seed early, Texas A&M pounded Davidson with a battering of early runs. Nick Choruby doubled to lead off the first inning, coming around to score on a fly out and groundout. The Aggies kept it coming in the second inning, with Choruby providing the damage again, doubling in a pair of runs after back to back singles and a sacrifice bunt put them in scoring position. In the third, A&M tagged on another run, this one courtesy of a RBI single from Walker Pennington. Once again, two singles to lead off the inning led to the run. Davidson finally held the Aggies off in the fourth, but Texas A&M made up for it in the fifth, as Hunter Coleman followed up a Braden Shewmake single with a monster two-run bomb for a 6-0 Aggies' lead. Having yet to allow a hit, A&M looked to be in a good position.
Scrappy Wildcats fight back, tie it in the 9th
Without a hit, and down six runs, Davidson seemed out of the game. Somehow, however, the bottom of the order, sparked them in the sixth inning, and the Wildcats came roaring to life.
Looking for a spark, Davidson got one in a throwing error that put their leadoff man on. After a sacrifice bunt, Cam Johnson recorded Davidson's first hit, a booming double off the center field wall to drive in their first run. Will Robertson poked another double down the right field line to score Johnson, and Alec Acosta drilled a single to cut the deficit to 6-3. Although A&M starter Brigham Hill kept the damage at three runs, his bullpen failed to replicate the act in the seventh, with a little help from more shoddy defense.
After a lead-off single, the ensuing ground ball looked like a double play off the boat, however, after recording the force at second, an errant throw to first let the batter reach second with one out. An infield single put runners on the corners, and Johnson drilled another double to the wall to make it a 6-4 game and put the tying runs in scoring position.
Texas A&M brought in their shutdown reliever, Cason Sherrod, who minimized the damage, allowing a sacrifice fly and inducing an inning-ending ground out. After a clean eighth inning, the fight looked gone from the Wildcats.
But, while the rally appeared dead to the viewers, it remained very much alive in the Davidson dugout. A four-pitch walk began the inning, and a well-executed sacrifice bunt set the stage for Johnson's game-tying single, knotting the score at six runs apiece.
The Aggies got a lead-off walk of their own in the sixth, but a botched sacrifice bunt saw their lead runner get hosed at second, and the rally died there.
Gutsy effort from Davidson starter
Despite the early runs, Davidson showed tremendous faith in their starter, Durin O'Linger. After giving up six runs in the first five innings, Davidson's bearded ace settled down to give his team 7 2/3 innings, keeping Texas A&M off the scoreboard during the rally. O'Linger was a strike throwing machine, hurling 92 strikes on 138 pitches. He allowed runners into scoring position in both the sixth and seventh inning but stranded them both innings. He departed in the eighth inning, and his teammates rewarded him by taking him off the hook in the ninth.
Ball Four chant almost lifts Aggies
The fan base in College Station is one of the best in the country, and their trademark chant is their 'Ball Four' chant. Whenever an opposing pitcher throws a four-pitch walk, the fans start chanting 'Ball Five' - predicting that the pitcher will throw another ball. It's been known to rattle the best of pitchers, as some pitchers have gotten up to Ball eleven or twelve before managing a strike.
In the eleventh inning, the chant almost boosted the Aggies to victory. After a two-out bloop double gave the home squad life, Davidson elected to issue an intentional walk in order to set up force outs at every base. However, the free pass triggered the chant, and the effects immediately showed in the pitch command. Another four-pitch walk was issued, bringing the chant to 'Ball Nine' while loading the bases. Davidson elected to change pitchers. After another ball started the next batter, reliever Westin Whitmire settled down to record a strikeout to end the inning.
Failed bunt attempt costs Davidson in 13th
Davidson had their own opportunity to take the lead in the 13th inning when they put runners on the corners with one out. It appeared the Wildcats put on some sort of safety squeeze, or there was a miscommunication in the signs, but when the bunt attempt was pulled back, Davidson's lead runner was caught thirty feet off third base and was easily picked off by the catcher. The ensuing single would have given the Wildcats the lead, but instead just put two runners on, allowing the Aggies to escape with a line out to left field.
A&M waste chances in 12th and 14th
The Aggies had more chances to put away the game in extra innings, both in the twelfth and the fourteenth. Yet, somehow, Davidson worked out of trouble both times. With a runner on second and one out in the 12th, Whitmire induced a ground ball to third base. For some unknown reason, the runner sprinted towards third and engaged in a collision with Eric Jones at third base. An alert Max Bazin, backing up the play from his shortstop position, grabbed the loose ball and tagged the heel of the diving runner for the second out. Whitmire escaped the inning after that.
In the 14th, a single, sacrifice bunt, and ground out moved the runner to third with two outs, followed by a walk and stolen base. With runners on second and third, Whitmire bore down and buckled Cole Bedford with a 3-2 curve - the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
Davidson strands a pair in the 15th
After surviving several A&M chances, the Wildcats wasted one of their own in the fifteenth, stranding a pair of runners. Attempting to spark a two-out rally, Bazin followed up a walk with a bunt single to put two runners on for Johnson. The Aggies replaced Mitchell Kilkenny on the mound, ending his brilliant 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief work, with John Doxakis. Doxakis quelled the bat of the ever-dangerous and red-hot Johnson, catching him looking for the third out.
Aggies barely convert opportunity in 15th
The fifteenth inning looked like another wasted opportunity for the Aggies, but Janca saved it, slapping a seeing-eye single past the diving second baseman for the walk-off win.
The Aggies loaded the bases with nobody out, and they looked ready to end the marathon game. Shewmake walked to begin the rally, and Coleman followed with a single. Kopetsky bunted, and Whitmire's throw to third was a split-second too late.
However, Whitmire, as he did so often on Friday, bore down to induce a pair of pop outs, one to the catcher and one to the right fielder just past the infield dirt to record two outs. Whitmire got Janca to foul the first pitch off, before offering up a high outside fastball. Janca, 0-5 in the game prior to that at-bat, got on top of it and sliced it through the hole, just past the diving Acosta to secure the walk-off win.
Game 2 is tomorrow, and it could become a question of depth, as both sides used a tremendous amount of pitching today. Davidson looks to continue their underdog run by forcing Game 3.