There was a Magic School Bus that I remember as a kid, where Ralphie was lining up to bat in a dream to open the episode. “Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded and a home run wins the World Series.” Before you know it, Ralphie was snapped out of his dream and back into going to school.
It’s a similar dream that most baseball players (or kids aspiring to be one, in general) can only hope to see come to fruition. For pitchers, a nightmare, one that came true for Zack Burdi as Sam Cohen launched a ball past right field to win the series for the UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos.
JJ Muno, UCSB’s infielder who was on third base at the time Cohen hit the magical grand slam, noted that he was at a loss for words in the post-game press conference Sunday. It’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t, whether at Jim Patterson Stadium or watching on ESPN2. It wasn’t just any home run; it was a pinch-hitting, walk-off grand slam from a true freshman to beat the #2 overall seed and advance to your first-ever College World Series.
You also add that Louisville was 36-2 at home this season, along with its extensive list of potential MLB prospects, and it may have seemed impossible for UCSB to rally and win the game. But alas, baseball is a game where teams like UCSB, given no hope to succeed, can create opportunities for themselves and then capitalize on it.
Even as Louisville had managed to shut out UCSB the eight innings prior, with teammate Drew Harrington having a career day with 12 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. Louisville jumped to a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning with a Brendan McKay home run, with Devin Hairston and Tiberi both scoring runs later in the inning. Louisville had multiple chances to push the lead, but missed opportunities with runners on base and gaffs in base-running kept the Gauchos within striking distance in the ninth.
Even as Austin Bush, who hit a towering home-run to lead the Gauchos in Saturday’s win, struck out four times in as many at-bats. UCSB, as a whole, struggled to get any runs in the first eight innings, but they Gauchos found another wild, wacky way to win the game. Just as they did against Washington.
With social media as prominent as ever, moments like yesterday’s will live on, long after it gets tens of thousands of retweets on Twitter.
This is real…
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 12, 2016
But even for Burdi, now a first-round pick with the Chicago White Sox, it’s a moment that has to be overlooked and overcome. He’ll join his brother Nick in the pros very soon, along with several other teammates. Even as their season, and likely college careers, ended as catastrophic as it did, he still found a way to embrace fans and take photos.
It was also a devastating end to the 2015-2016 Cardinal athletic calendar, one that saw a lot of bumps and bruises as the first half of 2016 is about to finish. With how much turmoil surrounds the men’s basketball program after a self-inflicted postseason ban, as well as an early exit for the women’s basketball team, it just seemed inevitable, in hindsight, that the Louisville baseball would have met a similar fate this summer.
But for Dan McDonnell, who was at times beside himself in emotion, he also found some positives out of it. He noted that his team was among the top in the nation for community service, and he was very grateful for the Burdi family, choking in emotion as he praised their impact on the program (as well as a senior class led by the likes of Kyle Funkhouser, along with juniors Corey Ray and Blake Tiberi). Prior to his arrival, Louisville baseball only had one total NCAA appearance. Since, McDonnell has led the Cardinals to multiple NCAA appearances, with four consecutive Super Regional matchups and two College World Series trips.
On one hand, based on McDonnell’s work, it’s amazing that the Louisville baseball team has become such a popular thing in the city of Louisville. It’s also, in another, a reminder that even as successful as Louisville has become in college baseball, there is no guarantee to win it all.