Saturday, 10 June 2017 09:10

Davidson's grit shows in loss to A&M

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Davidson's Will Robertson slides in safely in the sixth inning. Davidson's Will Robertson slides in safely in the sixth inning. Tim Cowie

For five innings Friday in Texas, it appeared that maybe just maybe, the Davidson Wildcats were going to get knocked back down to earth.

The Super Regional debut was not going well for the underdog of all college baseball underdogs that has made the improbable seem more than possible of late.

Texas A&M, powerhouse of 33 NCAA postseasons and five College World Series appearances, was flexing its muscle. The Aggies built a six-run lead against Wildcats’ ace Durin O’Linger, and Davidson had yet to get a hit, or even solid contact, off Texas A&M’s Brigham Hill. Finally, it seemed, the red hot Wildcats had met their match, at least for a game.

But five hours and 12 minutes after the first pitch was thrown and after 15 innings had more than filled the scorecard, Davidson walked out of Blue Bell Park having shown more of the grit and determination that put it in the round of 16 to begin with.

Ultimately, the 7-6 loss in Game 1 of the College Station Super Regionals will go down as just that, a loss. But it was a classic, a thriller that ended when Aggie George Janca hit a two-out walk-off RBI-single.

“A lot of big plays, big pitches throughout,” said Davidson coach Dick Cooke. “I thought both bullpens did an outstanding job all the way through. Just a good, solid baseball game and we get to come back and play again tomorrow.”

Davidson (35-25) made the night one to remember for both sides by sticking around and steadily coming back, led by the hitting of leadoff man Cam Johnson. O’Linger settled in after Hunter Coleman’s two-run homer in the fifth made it 6-0, and when he exited after 7.2 innings and 138 pitches, he left to a standing ovation from fans of both programs.

“O’Linger is just as good as advertised,” said Aggies coach Rob Childress. “Very competitive kid, kept them in the game.”

Davidson senior closer Westin Whitmire, who grew up in Texas, gave the Wildcats a chance in the extra innings, escaping jam after jam, as his counterpart, Aggie Mitchell Kilkenny, did the same.

“It was a heavyweight fight, two really good teams going at each other,” said Childress.

Davidson showed its first signs of life in the sixth when Johnson and Will Robertson doubled to drive in runs, and Brian Fortier followed with a sacrifice fly to plate another. Johnson doubled in another run in the seventh and a Robertson sacrifice to follow cut it to 6-5. Davidson tied it with one out in the ninth when Johnson singled up the middle to score Brett Centracchio, who led off the inning with a walk. It was a new ball game. The Wildcats had come back from a 6-0 deficit to tie it against a traditional power in one of the country’s elite atmospheres.

“I’m certainly glad with this club that there’s no clock in baseball,” said Cooke.

The Wildcats’ best extra-inning chance came in the 13th when they got runners to the corners with one out. But Jake Sidwell was picked off third by catcher Cole Bedford following a bunt attempt by Max Bazin. Bazin then singled before Johnson flied out to left to end the inning.

The Aggies (40-21) loaded the bases in the 11th, and with two outs, Cooke called on Whitmire with Aggie fans at a fever pitch. Whitmire struck out Janca to end the threat.

In the 12th, Texas A&M’s hopes were dashed when baserunner Austin Homan was called for interference after colliding with third baseman Tyler Agard, who was fielding a ground ball. The Aggies had runners on second and third with two outs in the 14th, but Whitmire struck out Cole Bedford to again escape.

Finally, though, the Aggies loaded the bases with no outs in the 15th after Whitmire, who threw four innings to double his longest outing of the season, failed to throw out the lead runner at third on a bunt attempt. Whitmire then forced two popups before Janca singled past Alec Acosta at second base to drive in the winning run to end it and set the stage for another must-see game Saturday.

“We played a great game, so really it’s just go out and do the same thing tomorrow, just try to get the bats going a little earlier,” said Johnson. “That’s really it. It was a good game, could have gone either way.”

Davidson and Texas A&M are each in their 115th baseball season. Their histories couldn’t be any different, but their first-ever meeting will be talked about for years.

Meanwhile, Game 2 is set for Saturday at 6 p.m. (EST), and in order to keep hopes alive for a trip to Omaha, Davidson needs to win to force a decisive third game. Cooke said his team will be ready, even after a difficult loss.

“We said, ‘Clear it how you need to personally, this is what time the bus leaves tomorrow,’” he said. “They’re real good at that.”

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