Whoever said baseball was a game of inches was wrong.
It’s a game of centimeters, maybe even millimeters, and that’s why West Virginia University is playing in the loser’s bracket today, needing to beat Baylor to keep alive its hopes of a NCAA Regional bid.
On Thursday, facing the best pitcher in the Big 12 and one of the best pitchers in all of college baseball in TCU’s Preston Morrison, they came up a couple of millimeters short and wound up losing what well could have been a one-run game in their favor 6-2.
In a way, it was a shame because of what was at stake.
WVU is, as one TCU player put it, “playing for their season, playing for their baseball lives,” and the Mountaineers came so close in a game it appeared they had no chance of winning.
Facing Morrison, the conference’s Pitcher of the Year and possessor of an 8-3 record and Bob Gibsonesque 1.18 ERA, was Corey Walter, a senior who had had nothing but struggles for most of the year, his record standing at 1-5, his ERA at 4.52, three and a half more runs a game than Morrison was giving up.
But inning for inning, pitch for pitch, batter for batter, he went eyeball-to-eyeball with Morrison into the eighth inning. TCU did hold a 1-0 lead at that moment, it coming down to one of those plays that was a centimeter off.
In the fifth inning, Walter made one of the few mistakes he made all day, although walking the leadoff hitter in an inning has a way of coming back and if not biting off your ear, at least taking a nip at your toes.
That is just what Walter did, which made what transpired next so deadly, Dylan Fitzgerald driving a ball deep to centerfield. Normally, if any ball stays in the park, Mountaineer centerfielder Bobby Boyd runs it down, being in possession of more speed than maybe anyone on the field.
But this time he got twisted around a bit and when he laid out for the ball it just tipped off the edge of the web of his glove.
“I turned the wrong way on the fly ball over my head,” Boyd explained following the game. “It then drifted to my other side and I didn’t turn back. I wish I could get that one back.”
There are no do-overs and it led to the run that made it 1-0, although WVU coach Randy Mazey had Boyd’s back on that one.
“Sometimes we take for granted what Bobby Boyd does,” Mazey said. “Bobby is one of best centerfielders to ever play at West Virginia. You kind of expect every time the ball goes in the air it’s going to be caught. Most people wouldn’t have even had the ball hit their glove.”
The play was excusable, especially when, an inning later, Boyd made the play of the series, fully extended as laid out to make a diving grab of blooper into short left-center.
But back to the millimeters, for the game came unraveled on one pitch.
It was now the eighth inning, and Walter was starting to lose it. TCU had loaded the bases, a walk of the No. 9 hitter putting the first man on. One was out, the count full to Kevin Cron and Walter went to the fastball that he had lived with all game.
It was one of those pitches that a pitcher at any level will take in that situation.
To be honest, it was strike three to everyone in the ball park but the only man who counted, umpire Doug Williams, who saw it as Bob Uecker would say, “juuuuuust a bit outside.”
Ball four, a run in and big inning underway.
Walter handled himself a lot better than the situation called for, perhaps losing his best pitching performance ever as a Mountaineer in what well could be the final game he pitches on that call.
“I thought it was good but it was a ball,” he said. “I had to work through that. That’s pitching, part of the game.”
No, part of the game is being rewarded for throwing what may be the best pitch you’ve ever thrown in the most difficult situation you ever faced.
If you do that and the batter turns on it and hits it six miles you say, “Fine, that’s part of the game.”
But that … well, Walter deserved something more.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.
Whoever said baseball was a game of inches was wrong.
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