Nobody could have predicted the Coastal Carolina baseball team making it here, all the way to the finals of the College World Series.
Even coach Gary Gilmore admitted that for all the dreams he’s had and shared all these years of reaching Omaha, those thoughts had never been quite this extensive.
More than anything, this special run has been a product of the Chanticleers’ relentless tenacity no matter the situation before them or the opponent across from them, and so once again pushed to the brink of elimination it is now their move to see if they can overcome the odds once more.
Arizona rode a dominant pitching performance from junior left-hander JC Cloney to a 3-0 win over Coastal Carolina on Monday night before a crowd of 20,789 at TD Ameritrade Park, taking the opener of the teams’ best-of-three CWS championship series.
The series continues Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET as the Chants (53-18) will try to earn at least one more day out here while the Wildcats (49-22) will look to finish off the program’s fifth national championship.
“We’ll be fine. This team has responded all year long,” Gilmore said. “And to me you’ve got to tip your hat, their left-hander Cloney, he was just very good. He didn’t give us much to hit and he surely didn’t give us consecutive at-bats of stuff to hit. So hopefully we’ll fare a little bit better tomorrow.”
Pitching was the main question mark for Coastal Carolina coming into the series opener with junior right-handers Andrew Beckwith and Alex Cunningham – who had started four of the team’s first five College World Series games – both unavailable.
But sophomore right-hander Zack Hopeck was terrific for the Chants on Monday night, allowing just two runs (the second scoring after he left the game) while throwing a career-long 6 1/3 innings and yielding five hits and three walks with five strikeouts.
The problem was that his mound counterpart was even better.
Cloney (8-4), who had thrown seven scoreless innings in a win over UC Santa Barbara earlier in the College World Series, allowed just four hits and three walks with six strikeouts in a complete-game shutout.
He didn’t allow a Coastal Carolina runner to reach second base until the ninth inning, though the Chants did put manage to put some pressure on him late.
They’re a great group. They’ll bounce back. We’ll be a better team, more confident team tomorrow and we’ll be fine.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
Michael Paez came oh so close to jacking a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth, but right fielder Zach Gibbons hauled it in right at the fence.
“I thought I got enough of it, but knowing this field you can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said.
And the Chants threatened again in the bottom of the ninth when Anthony Marks led off with a single and Zach Remillard reached on a bunt single to put two on with no out.
They just couldn’t push one across, though. Cloney got Connor Owings to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play and then got G.K. Young looking for a game-ending strikeout to finish off the shutout.
We’re never out of the fight, we stick to the process, we believe. Marks led off the inning with a hit and great bunt by Zach and we were all in it – we had no doubts in our minds we were going to come back. And unfortunately CO hit a one-hop shot to the second baseman. You can’t do anything about it. ... We never thought in our heads that we weren’t going to win this game.
CCU shortstop Michael Paez
“I was just hoping that somehow a miracle could happen,” Gilmore said. “And [Owings] got down in the count in a hurry and ended up hooking that breaking ball and again, if he hits that ball a quarter inch lower [with the bat] or whatever that ball’s a hit or possibly a ball over a guy’s head in right. It just is what it is. But we were in position. The kids never quit.”
As it ultimately turned out, Arizona got all the run support it would need in the opening moments of the game.
Making his first start since June 6 in the NCAA regionals and having pitched only 1/3 of an inning here in Omaha so far, Hopeck (3-4) showed remarkable poise in keeping Arizona to just that one early run despite the Wildcats having ample opportunities to seize a larger lead in the opening innings.
Arizona opened the game with a leadoff double from Cody Ramer and a one-out RBI single to center by Ryan Aguilar for that quick 1-0 lead, but that’s all Hopeck would allow until exiting the game later in the seventh inning.
With runners on first and second and one out in that opening frame, he battled back to strikeout Jared Oliva and Alfonso Rivas to get out of the jam.
Hopeck encountered more trouble in the third when Ramer led off with a single to right and Gibbons ripped a double down the third base line to put runners on second and third. Again, though, the sophomore righty stayed calm and found a way out of the inning. 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 on a full-count pitch.
At that point he was in a groove.
Arizona didn’t threaten again until the seventh when Cesar Salazar led off with a single and took second on a sac bunt. Coastal Carolina went to the bullpen at that point to bring in junior righty Cole Schaefer, who had pitched just once since mid April. A wild pitch advanced Salazar to third, and after a walk Gibbons drove home the run – charged to Hopeck – with a sac fly to center. Aguilar then added another RBI single to make it 3-0.
And despite that late pressure in the ninth from the Chants, that’s how it would end.
“We’re never out of the fight, we stick to the process, we believe,” Paez said of having hope for a ninth-inning comeback. “Marks led off the inning with a hit and great bunt by Zach and we were all in it – we had no doubts in our minds we were going to come back. And unfortunately CO hit a one-hop shot to the second baseman. You can’t do anything about it. ... We never thought in our heads that we weren’t going to win this game.”
They’ll try to take the same mindset into yet another potential elimination game on Tuesday night now.
Because the series is not over yet, and with the way this Coastal Carolina team has responded to challenges all postseason, it could be far from over.
“They’re a great group. They’ll bounce back,” Gilmore said. “We’ll be a better team, more confident team tomorrow and we’ll be fine.”
NCAA College World Series Finals
Best-of-three championship series (Arizona leads 1-0)
Who: Coastal Carolina vs. Arizona
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
Game 2: 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, on ESPN
Game 3: 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (if necessary), on ESPN
▪ All games can be heard locally on WSEA-FM 100.3