The only reason Coastal Carolina pitcher Zack Hopeck wasn’t the story of the game Monday night in the opener of the College World Series finals is because the guy on the mound for Arizona was even better.
But Hopeck, a sophomore right-hander making his first start since June 6 in the NCAA regionals, gave the Chanticleers everything they could have hoped for and perhaps more.
He stayed poised while working out of two tight spots early in the game and held the Wildcats to just one run through six innings before they padded their lead in the seventh on the way to a 3-0 win at TD Ameritrade Park to open the best-of-three series.
“I thought he did a great job. He wiggled out of two or three situations, but the bottom line is the kid gave us a chance,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “At the end of the day, their kid just outpitched us [by] just a hair.”
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Without juniors Andrew Beckwith and Alex Cunningham, the two workhorses of the Coastal Carolina pitching staff who have both made two starts already in this College World Series, unavailable Monday night, the Chants put their trust in Hopeck.
You get to play on a stage like this, it’s just second to none. It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable. I just wanted to go out tonight and have fun with my teammates, and I did. I had fun. We lost, the kid pitched real well, but I had fun.
CCU pitcher Zack Hopeck
While the pitching decision wasn’t publicly announced until Monday, pitching coach Drew Thomas had told Hopeck after the Chants’ 7-5 win over TCU on Saturday night that he would get the ball to open the championship series.
“I found out the other night right after the game. Coach Thomas came up to me and said, ‘It’s your turn. I was thrilled, I was excited. I was just ready to come out here and have fun,” Hopeck said. “You get to play on a stage like this, it’s just second to none. It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable. I just wanted to go out tonight and have fun with my teammates, and I did. I had fun. We lost, the kid pitched real well, but I had fun.”
Hopeck, who came into the night with a 3.81 earned-run average after serving as the team’s mid-week starter most of the season, ran into trouble quickly in the top of the first inning when Cody Ramer led off the game with a ground-rule double and Ryan Aguilar drove him home two batters later for a 1-0 lead.
But Hopeck struck out Jared Oliva and Alfonso Rivas back-to-back to end the inning with no more damage.
Ramer later led off the third with a single and Zach Gibbons followed with a double to put runners on second and third with no outs, but Hopeck didn’t allow any runs as he got Aguilar to fly out to shallow left, struck out JJ Matijevic and after a walk to load the bases he got Rivas to ground out to second.
“[Shortstop Michael] Paez was talking to me throughout the game, keeping me calm. I just stayed within my breaths and I’ve got a good defense so they’re going to play behind me,” Hopeck said. “I know I got a couple of strikeouts in those jams that really helped. Everybody knows I’m not a strikeout pitcher, but it just so happened to be today I got a few key ones at the right time.”
Hopeck’s five strikeouts matched his career high and he went a career-long 6 1/3 innings before turning it over to the bullpen with a runner on second who eventually scored. He was charged with two earned runs on five hits and three walks.
“I thought I threw pretty well. I missed a few spots and they took advantage, no doubt. It’s tough when you leadoff the game with a ground-rule double like that, but basically I just bounced back and tried to do the best I could,” he said.
No Beckwith on Tuesday
Gilmore put to rest any notion of the Chants possibly bringing Beckwith back on short rest again to pitch in a must-win game Tuesday night.
Beckwith has thrown two one-run complete-games in this College World Series, but he threw a career-high 138 pitches Friday night against TCU.
He will not pitch tomorrow. Absolutely not. He threw  pitches the other day, no shot I’m bringing him back.
CCU coach Gary Gilmore on Andrew Beckwith’s status for Tuesday night
“He will not pitch tomorrow. Absolutely not,” Gilmore said. “He threw  pitches the other day, no shot I’m bringing him back.”
Gilmore did not reveal who he would start, though it sounded like he and Thomas have already made that decision.
“[Arizona] kind of didn’t tell us today until game time, so they’ll get the same thing from me tomorrow,” he said.
The options would seem to be freshman Jason Bilous (3-1, 4.43 ERA), who gave up three runs on five hits and four walks in 2 1/3 innings Thursday while taking a no-decision against Texas Tech, or perhaps sophomore reliever Bobby Holmes (6-2, 4.22) if he is physically up to the task after already pitching three times out of the bullpen here in Omaha.
Cloney dominant for Arizona
Junior left-hander JC Cloney kept the Coastal Carolina hitters off balance all night while throwing a complete-game shutout.
He allowed only four hits, with two coming in the bottom of the ninth, along with three walks and six strikeouts and has now thrown 16 scoreless innings in the College World Series.
It marked the first time Coastal Carolina had been shutout since an 11-0 loss to Wake Forest on March 8.
“He was adding, subtracting [velocity], throwing three pitches for strikes. You want to sit on a fastball and then he throws you a cutter. You sit on the off-speed and he throws a fastball,” Paez said. “He just threw a great game, like coach said. It’s hard to hit when you have a guy that’s going to add or subtract, throw those three pitches for strikes and keep you off balance all game.”
Gilmore is hoping the better at-bats he saw in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings can carry over to Tuesday night, especially with a different pitcher on the mound for Arizona.
“We know where we’re at. If we lose, it’s over obviously. But at this point, we just want to play really aggressively and really hard and compete and play with a lot of confidence,” he said. “I think Cloney, I honestly think he just kind of took a little bit of that away from us tonight. He just pitched so well.”
Arizona coach Jay Johnson said after taking Cloney out of his last start when he took a shutout through seven innings against UC Santa Barbara, he was inclined to give him the opportunity to finish this one.
“I think he wanted to kill me last [Wednesday] against Santa Barbara when he hadn’t given up any runs,” Johnson said. “I went up to talk to him in the eighth, give him reinforcement on something, and he was like, ‘Get away from me.’”
Pitching decision for Wildcats
Johnson also did not name a starting pitcher for Tuesday night.
“I do not know who we’re going to start tomorrow,” he said. “And I do feel good about the fact that we haven’t used anybody but JC over the last two days.”
Wildcats ace Nathan Bannister, who left his start Friday after 2 2/3 innings due to discomfort in his arm, is progressing and could be an option at some point.
“Nathan was better today than he was Sunday and better than Saturday. [He] played catch today, which was a good sign. And we’ll evaluate him again tomorrow,” Johnson said.
Game of inches
As he reflected on the loss, there were a few moments that stuck out for Gilmore, moments that could have changed the game significantly if the the breaks had worked out a little better for the Chants.
Obviously there was Paez’ deep fly out to right in the bottom of the eighth that came so close to being a two-run home run, and there was Connor Owings’ double-play groundout in the ninth where he got a good swing on the ball and just hit it to the second baseman.
Also, though, Gilmore lamented a situation in the top of the seventh when Ramer tagged from first on the sacrifice fly to center that plated the second run.
“I’ve got a second baseman [Tyler Chadwick] who has not played there in four years and those two guys haven’t played together,” he said. “To me [Arizona] made a huge mistake tagging at first and running to second on that play and if Mikey doesn’t cut that ball we tag that guy out and the run doesn’t score. That was a frustrating moment for us, and then we turn around immediately and give up a hit to the guy that had tagged and gone to second.
“So it could have been potentially a lot different if we had just made one simple little play right there.”