Cohen Walk-Off Grand Slam Sends UCSB To First-Ever CWS
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Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara Athletics
Just when it looked like order was being restored at the Louisville Regional, the script on UC Santa Barbara's storybook season took its most amazing turn yet.
With the Gauchos trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth in the second game of the best-of-three Super Regional series and an All-American closer in Zack Burdi on the mound for Louisville, freshman catcher Sam Cohen entered the game for UCSB as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and one out.
Thanks to Cohen, the Gauchos are goin' to Omaha for the College World Series.
Cohen hammered a 1-2 change-up from the 2016 first round draft pick inside the right field foul pole for a walk-off grand slam that stunned No. 2 Louisville (50-14) and led to a massive dogpile at home plate once he had touched the bag.
Entering the weekend with a 36-1 record at home, Louisville was handed its first back-to-back losses at Jim Patterson field since the 2012 season. It also snapped a streak of 186 straight games won by Louisville in which they led entering the ninth inning.
"I don't have a lot of words, I'm still in a little bit of shock," said UCSB (42-18-1) head coach Andrew Checketts. "Remarkable. I think as a coach we don't get to get in the box anymore or play anymore so ultimately it is the players that made the difference. These guys have been a remarkable group in terms of perseverance and belief."
The ninth inning blow, ironic considering it was on Louisville's home field, was a surprise after Burdi looked outright dominant when he entered the game in the eighth.
Inheriting a two on-no out situation from starter Drew Harrington, Burdi's 100-MPH fastball led to a double play ball and a routine pop-up to end the inning while preserving the Cards' 3-0 lead.
That dominance turned to shakiness in the ninth as Burdi suddenly lost the strike zone, walking consecutive batters to load the bases after JJ Muno singled on a first pitch heater with one out.
From there, Checketts made the move to bring in Cohen as a pinch hitter, even though Cohen had just one 26 career at-bats heading into the game.
The Coto de Caza native was late on his first hack against Burdi's fastball, leading him to choke up on the bat when he got to two strikes. That decision paid off as he was on time for Burdi's two-strike off-speed pitch that went right into Cohen's wheelhouse.
"I really just buckled down and choked up a little bit and got on top of the dish and from that point on I was just looking for anything middle in just to try to elevate," said Cohen. "Right when I hit it I didn't realize until I touched home plate that I hit one out."
UCSB's sixth walk-off win of the season, Cohen's blast was the latest in a string of clutch home runs by the Gauchos in the postseason.
In the Nashville Regional opener against Washington, Devon Gradford homered in the 12th inning to tie it before Austin Bush won it with a monstrous roundtripper in the 14th. Bush, UCSB's 6-6 first baseman, also powered go-ahead home runs in the Nashville regional title game against Xavier and Saturday's Super Regional opener against Louisville.
Of course, Cohen's heroics wouldn't have been possible unless the UCSB pitching staff limited one of the most potent offenses in the country to three runs.
In the biggest start of his young career, freshman right-hander Noah Davis turned in a gutsy 5 1/3 inning effort in which he largely kept the Cardinals at bay besides the one inning in which they scored their runs.
He started the game on a roll, retiring the side in order in the first and sending down six of the first seven batters he faced.
The Huntington Beach native then bounced back from a three-run fourth by facing the minimum in the fifth.
When the freshman ran into trouble in the sixth, junior right-hander James Carter got out of the jam by inducing a routine fly out to right and a grounder to third.
Carter, Trevor Bettencourt, and Kevin Chandler combined to keep Louisville off the board for the final three innings of the game.
Also integral in limiting the Cardinals' production was heads-up defense that allowed the Gauchos to punish the hosts for baserunning mistakes.
Dempsey Grover wiped out a runner trying to take second on a ball in the dirt in the second inning, with help from Muno who made an acrobatic tag across his body. Grover also threw out the number five overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Corey Ray, trying to steal second in the fifth.
Other big plays included Clay Fisher throwing out the lead runner at third on a routine grounder that wasn't a force play and Carter picking off Colin Lyman at second in the seventh inning.
UCSB's win negated a dominant start from Louisville's Harrington, who struck out a career-high 12 over seven-plus shutout innings.
The Cardinals scored all of their runs in a two-out rally in the fourth, hitting for the cycle in reverse order as a team. Brendan McKay, Saturday's starter for the Cards, opened the scoring with a solo homer on a 3-0 pitch. Devan Hairston followed with a triple, scoring on a Blake Tiberi double. The final run of the inning came across on a Danny Rosenbaum base hit.
The Gauchos will open play in the College World Series, which goes from Jun. 18-29, against Oklahoma State, which defeated South Carolina on the road in the Columbia Super Regional.