First-year head coach Todd Whitting and the Houston Cougar baseball team had an up-and-down regular season. Against a tough schedule, they showed more talent than most observers (myself included, I'll admit it) believed they had coming into the year. But a lack of pitching depth and a penchant for losing big leads had Houston sporting a sub-.500 record heading into the Conference USA tournament. Whitting's stated pre-season goal of putting together an at-large NCAA tournament-type season was clearly dead and buried.
But that didn't mean that the Cougars' season was. Why, it was only 2008 when a Houston team that would have likely found itself on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament ran the table in the conference tournament and earned the league's automatic berth.
With Conference USA's bizarre pod system, any single loss can end your tournament run. So Houston's task coming into the weekend was simple - don't lose, or your season may well be over.
On Wednesday, the Cougars accomplished that goal, despite a 5-3 deficit heading into the top of the ninth. They rallied for five in that frame, topping East Carolina. However, Southern Miss also won their first pod play game, meaning that a loss in Thursday night's game with the Golden Eagles would eliminate Houston from contention for the conference title game. Turns out, Thursday night wasn't big enough to hold the showdown that was to come.
The game got off to a late start due to an earlier game going late. But the result of the previous game meant that whomever won the UH-USM game would automatically earn the spot in the conference title game, while the loser's dream of a conference title was over. Southern Miss is an NCAA at-large team anyway, but for Houston, a loss meant the end of the season.
The Cougars got off to a good start, when M.P. Cokinos' fifth-inning, two-out, two-run single stretched the Cougar lead to 3-0. But the Golden Eagles put up a three-spot in the next frame to tie the game.
Houston responded with two runs in the bottom of the sixth, on RBI base hits by Codey Morehouse and Landon Appling. The lead was back up to 5-3. But Southern Miss responded with another 3-run inning inning in the top of the 7th to take a 6-5 lead.
With the Golden Eagles threatening to extend the lead in the top of the 8th, Whitting chose to bring in Morehouse from third base to pitch. He got out of the frame successfully, and the bats responded in the bottom half of the frame. Specifically the bat of senior outfielder Caleb Ramsey, who apparently wasn't ready to call it quits on his college career - he came up with a two-out RBI triple to even the score. Both sides went down quietly in the ninth, and it was on to extra innings. I can't even embellish what happened next, so I'll just lay it out for you.
In the top of the 11th, Southern Miss speedster Kameron Brunty lead off the inning by hammering one off the wall. Ramsey misplayed the ball in right, allowing Brunty to get all the way to third for a triple. With USM head coach Scott Berry filling in as acting third base coach after regular third base coach Chad Caillet got tossed for arguing balls and strikes, Berry made the questionable decision to send Brunty home for a potential inside-the-park home run. Except Ramsey made a perfect relay throw to second baseman and fellow senior Ryan Still, who fired a strike to the plate. Brunty was out.
In the bottom of the 11th, Houston got runners on first and second with one out, but couldn't score. This would become a pattern. Yes, this game went so long, patterns were only getting started in the 11th inning.
In the bottom of the 12th, Houston again got runners on first and second with one out. A fly out meant out number two, bringing up Still. He delivered with what looked like it would be a game-ending single...except Southern Miss center fielder Justin Diliberto came up with a perfect throw and nailed runner Joel Ansley at the plate. At which point Whitting came out to argue the call, and was promptly ejected.
In the top of the 13th, Southern Miss got its lead-off batter on, and bunted him over to second, but a pair of weak fly-outs ended the threat. In the bottom half of the frame, Houston got runners on first and second with one out, and even used an infield single to load the bases, but (you see where this is going, don't you?) failed to score, after Ansley grounded into a double play.
In the top of the 14th, Southern Miss got a lead-off walk, but then hit a pop fly for out number one, and surrendered a strike-him-out-throw-him-out double play to end the frame. Did I mention that Morehouse, in addition to his 3-run day at the plate, was still pitching, having at this point thrown 6 1/3 innings of scoreless relief?
Did I also mention that Golden Eagle closer Collin Cargill was also still pitching, after having entered in the 8th inning? Cougar catcher John Cannon reached second on an error with no outs, but this time, the Golden Eagle defense didn't have any more rabbits in its hat. A strikeout and a single put runners on the corners with one out, and Still came up with a picture perfect squeeze bunt to score Cannon from third.
Fourteen innings (a Conference USA tournament record), four hours and 43 minutes (also a C-USA tournament record), 13 runs, 25 hits, five errors, 21 strikeouts, two potential winning runs thrown out at home, and two ejected coaches later, at just shy of 2:00 in the morning, Houston emerged victorious, by the score of 7-6.
What does it all mean? Because of the stupid pod play system (seriously, I'm not a fan), the Cougars actually have to play another round robin game later this afternoon, despite the fact that they have already clinched a spot in Saturday's conference championship game. I'm not sure if they can just forfeit Friday afternoon's game, but apparently not, because they've already named a starter in freshman Luke Moran.
Their Saturday opponent will be the winner of the Friday pool play game between Central Florida and Rice. The Cougars haven't beaten the Owls in over two years, whereas Houston is 20-8 all-time against the Knights. Forget the concept of "to be the best you have to beat the best" for a second here, and forget cheering for our nerdy, little brothers across town. I will be cheering all-out for UCF tomorrow.
That's all I've got for now. Good night, Houston.