With national title, Wildcats arrive as power, end Gamecocks' reign
OMAHA -- Before we get to the story of the improbable game-winning hit, before we get to how the Arizona Wildcats solved one of the greatest pitchers in College World Series history and toppled the two-time defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks, before we get to how a once-woebegone Pac-12 program became a college baseball power, here's a story about James Farris, and what he was doing before the biggest start of his life.
With a whole morning and an entire afternoon to kill before Game 2 of the College World Series championship between Arizona and South Carolina, Farris sat in his hotel room, and he started watching the Comedy Central show
The story of what Farris was doing before one of the biggest games in Wildcats history tells you a little something about the kid from Gilbert, Ariz.: He does a pretty good job of staying relaxed. Which is why Arizona manager Andy Lopez tapped the team's No. 3 starter as his Game 2 starter. At 4:00 p.m., Farris conquered
Farris' performance will go down as one of the great clutch performances in WIldcats' history, and it set the stage for another unlikely hero, backup first baseman Brandon Dixon, a defensive replacement who hit .252 on a team where seven regulars hit over .300 and five hit .350. After Sunday night's Game 1 win, Dixon stood 0-for-7 in the CWS. That night after the game he was hanging out with his roommate Bobby Brown in the hotel room. "If I have just one hit in the World Series," he said to Brown, "I want it to be a big one."
As a backup Dixon spends the first four innings of every game on the bench, watching the action. When the fifth starts, he begins to stretch. He runs sprints down the line during breaks. Dixon stuck to his routine on Monday, but when he stepped up to the plate in the ninth with the game tied 1-1, he found himself in the big moment he hoped for, and he delivered. Dixon's grounder down the third-base line past LB Dantzler's outstretched glove scored two runs, and gave the Wildcats the lead for good. It was his only hit of the CWS.
They are two unlikely heroes, Farris and Dixon, and thanks to the sophomore pair, Arizona's remarkable title run is complete. The Wildcats, who became only the third team in history to never have trailed at the CWS, crashed the "Ray Tanner Invitational" with a dominant and convincing run, winning all five of their games in Omaha.
And so they won their fourth championship, and first since 1986. And with their two-game sweep of South Carolina, the Wildcats have officially arrived as a college baseball power. The trajectory of the program began to turn at the start of the season, when the Wildcats moved from their campus ballpark, Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium to Hi Corbett Field, the former spring training home of the Indians and Rockies. Attendance began to increase (they more than doubled their attendance from 2011), the Wildcats began winning games, and Arizona hosted their first NCAA regional in two decades.
Hi Corbett did something else to manager Andy Lopez's young team: the ballpark's spacious dimensions forced the Wildcats to learn how to play small ball --- they were the fourth highest scoring team in the country, and yet they hit only 22 home runs this season. And that made them a perfect fit for Omaha and for TD Ameritrade Park, the pitcher's palace where sluggers go to die.
And it made them built to win nail-bitters like Game 2. Gamecocks ace Michael Roth, who made his record eighth career CWS start, began the game by retiring the first six Arizona hitters. Roth, whose career ERA of 1.49 is the fifth lowest among pitchers with at least 30 CWS innings, looked in control, but Joseph Maggi led off the third with a double, and was moved over to third on a Riley Moore sacrifice bunt. Trent Gilbert's groundout to second scored Maggi.
The Wildcats were able to win because of small ball, but mostly, they won with spectacular pitching. With a generous strike zone, playing in the great pitcher's park, it seemed clear early that runs would be at a premium on Monday night. Like Konner Wade did a night earlier, Farris pounded the strike zone --- 12 of the first 14 hitters saw first-pitch strikes --- against the free-swinging, aggressive Gamecocks, and he pitched the game of his life. "Short of [two] base on balls and hit bats, I thought he was absolutely spectacular," Arizona manager Andy Lopez said after the game.
On a warm, overcast evening on Monday, the great pitcher's duel seemed to lull the Omaha crowd to sleep, leaving the bleacher bums in leftfield to provide their own entertainment in the middle of the fourth when they tossed dozens of beach balls onto the field, and caused a brief delay in the game. In the middle of the seventh, seven --- yes, seven --- different fans from the crowd dashed onto the field in a surreal scene.
But the finale of the fortnight ended with fireworks: Dixon's double, then Trent Gilbert's single to break the game open. And then in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and two outs, Arizona's Mathew Troupe unleashed a 2-2 fastball and Grayson Greiner hit a high fly ball that landed in Robert Refsnyder's glove.
Back in Tucson, there's a sign above the Wildcats' clubhouse door, leading to the dugout. "Get yourself ready to play, and then your time will come," it says.
South Carolina's time is over. Arizona's has just begun.