STILLWATER, Okla.- Madness. That seems to be the only word to describe what has been arguably the most thrilling, yet slugfest-dominated regional in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Perhaps even in the last several national tournaments.
Because what has unfolded in Stillwater this weekend has been nothing short of captivating, with its unexpected twists and turns in momentum and scoring ever present, and a slew of moments, plays, and certainly, comebacks, that will be etched in the minds of those across the country for seasons to come.
And the best part is that the regional is not even over.
Oklahoma State is to thank for that. Maybe it was playing in front of the Cowboy faithful in a familiar setting at home at O’Brate Stadium. Or quite possibly it was the fact that OSU woke up Sunday morning facing elimination, having lost a five-run lead in gut-wrenching fashion to Arkansas on Saturday night.
Regardless of what factored into the performance by the Pokes on Sunday, it was nothing short of incredible. Especially considering the fact that the day started with the Cowboys’ stock quickly plummeting in a noon duel with Missouri State.
“To compete like that is hard,” OSU head coach Josh Holliday said late on Sunday night. “To compete like that for 10 straight hours with no break in between is incredible. And to do it after last night’s punch in the gut, it tells you everything you need to know about these kids.”
To reach the peak, the journey must begin in a valley. And in a valley OSU was; a long, deep valley. It began on Saturday night, when the Cowboys, coming off a 10-5 victory over Missouri State on Friday evening, sprinted from the gates in a highly-anticipated matchup against SEC power Arkansas. Though the Razorbacks struck first, OSU countered in the bottom of the inning, then took control in a five-run third that saw Nolan McLean swat a two-run homer, followed by Roc Riggio’s three-run blast just minutes later. They led 10-5 after a Riggio RBI single, but things began trending south in the seventh, with Arkansas cutting the deficit to two on a pair of home runs. And then in the eighth, OSU could not hold back the floodgates any longer, and the Razorbacks pushed forth, using three hits, three walks and three hits-by-pitch to score eight runs, snatching what appeared to be a surefire victory away from the regional hosts.
In the postgame press conference, Holliday made it clear that a repeat of Saturday's debacle could not happen if his squad’s postseason goals were to be achieved.
“How do you guys rebound and recover quickly from this?”, Holliday was asked after the Arkansas loss.
“Quickly,” was Holliday’s prompt reply, “with no room for anything but a quick night’s sleep and a courageous alarm clock and a chance to keep playing baseball.”
But the rebound was not sudden for the Cowboys. Whether it be a lack of rest after the marathon of a game on Saturday, or another factor, Missouri State pounced on OSU in Sunday’s elimination battle, putting 12 runs on the board by the third inning. A comeback did not appear to be in the cards for OSU, but as with so many things in the Stillwater regional, that momentum changed in the blink of an eye. A six-run fourth gave the Cowboys confidence, and they slowly began chipping away at what had been a double-digit deficit. By the time Griffin Doersching stepped to the plate in the sixth, the MSU lead had dwindled to 14-13, with the Bears doing everything they could to stop the bleeding. But nothing could be done to prevent Doersching from connecting with the 81-mph pitch sitting just over the plate. He sent the ball sailing over the wall in right-center field for a grand slam.
“That was a moment right there,” Holliday said of the grand slam, “because you had to get through that first game in order for the second one to happen.”
The impact Doersching has had in his first, and only, season with OSU has been remarkable. A right-handed power hitter who transferred after four seasons at Northern Kentucky, he has brought both power and experience to the Cowboy lineup. Entering the weekend, he had gone nine games without a multi-hit performance. But in the span of three days, has recorded three, with a 3-for-7 stat line against MSU proving to be the beginning of a memorable day at the plate for the Wisconsin native.
His grand slam put OSU up 17-14, powering the Cowboys to a 29-15 rout of the Bears, and setting up a rematch with the Razorbacks. A chance at redemption was just what they wanted, riding high after one of the tournament’s most shocking comebacks.
OSU made the most of its second chance to knock off the Hogs, though victory did not come easily. Once again with their backs against the wall, the Cowboys responded well, showing little fatigue despite the five-hour contest against MSU having finished just a short time prior. After Brady Slavens gave Arkansas a 1-0 lead in the opening frame, David Mendham issued a quick response, tying the score, and igniting what turned out to be a three-run inning.
The tenacity that OSU displayed was present through all 10 innings. Even when Arkansas attempted another rally, taking an 8-7 lead in the seventh, the Cowboys stayed the course. Remaining consistent was a major factor in their 15-9 Big 12 mark, and it proved especially valuable on Sunday night. They attempted to pull away once more in the ninth, pushing three runs across but Arkansas countered with two, sending it into extra innings. OSU, at the end of the longest day of its season, took charge with the season on the line, leading the inning off with a Riggio double. A single from Zack Ehrhard followed, and with one out, Aidan Meola’s base hit drove both runners home, giving the Cowboys a lead that would last. McLean joined in with a two-run homer one batter later, cushioning the lead. But they did not need it. Arkansas went quietly in the ninth, as McLean induced three flyouts, putting the finishing touches on a day that saw OSU survive elimination twice, and do it in thrilling fashion.
“I’ve never seen a group of people empty the tank [like these guys did] pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch starting from the time they got here this morning until now,” Holliday added. “It was remarkable.
“Everybody on our team contributed, from pitching to hitting to cheering to running the bases to bunting to playing defense to picking each other up to inspiring each other to caring, they all had a part in it. You saw one amazing college baseball game in the nightcap and it should be a lot of fun tomorrow again at six o’clock.”
Riggio played no small role in that success, helping to keep the team together through the ups and downs of the day, while raising his batting average for the regional to .591, along with four homers and 16 RBIs.
“He was pretty inspirational today,” Holliday said of Riggio. “He was kind of the vitamin that got the energy going.”
The Cowboys will face elimination for the final time of the weekend on Monday night, with Arkansas now in the same situation. But there seems to be little question as to which team has the momentum heading into that pivotal contest.
Said Holliday: “That’s probably the most remarkable day of competition I’ve ever been a part of.”
Few would disagree. A day that spanned from the early morning until well after the sun had set certainly challenged the Cowboys. The fatigue could be seen on the faces of Holliday, McLean, and Mitchell Stone in the postgame press conference. But there was also a sense of joy and accomplishment as each spoke. Because two games, 43 runs and 19 innings later, the job was done. For now.