OMAHA, Neb.: Even during an NCAA run of close calls and heart-pounding endings, the Kent State Golden Flashes had never seen anything like this.
Facing elimination from the College World Series in a loser’s bracket game Monday, they hung on to shock top-ranked Florida 5-4, although two relief pitchers barely got the ball over the plate in the ninth inning at TD Ameritrade Park.
With the bases loaded in the ninth on two walks and a hit batsman and one out, KSU pitcher Josh Pierce had a 3-1 count on No. 6 hitter Casey Turgeon. It appeared the Gators were going to tie the game, if not take the lead.
But Pierce got a gift strike-two call from home-plate umpire Phil Benson on a pitch that appeared outside on replay. Then Turgeon checked his swing and Benson hesitated — with KSU coach Scott Stricklin coming out of the dugout to appeal — before consulting third-base umpire Jeff Henrichs.
Henrichs ruled Turgeon had swung, giving Pierce the strikeout and earning a lifetime spot on Stricklin’s Christmas card list.
Before anyone had taken a breath, Pierce induced Justin Shafer to fly out to left field on the first pitch to end the game.
In its first CWS appearance, Kent State (47-19) advanced to an 8 p.m. game Wednesday against South Carolina, which lost 2-1 to Arkansas in Monday’s second game. The Gamecocks (46-18) are trying to win their third national title in a row.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan refused to indict the umpires afterward, instead pointing to the Gators’ miscues that staked the Golden Flashes to a 4-0 lead after two innings.
“The game was not decided by the umpires,” O’Sullivan said. “The game was decided by both teams. We made a couple errors in the first and second and they capitalized and got [three] runs in the bottom of the second. That was the difference. Simple as that. The umpires had nothing to do with it.”
Kent State used two pitchers against the top of the Gators’ order in the ninth, but lifted Michael Clark with a 2-0 count on Mike Zunino. Sixteen of the first 19 pitches from Clark and Pierce were balls, including four-pitch walks to Preston Tucker and Zunino.
“To be honest, this was the first time I’ve ever been nervous pitching,” said Pierce, a redshirt freshman from Avon. “I had to come out and clear my mind.”
Asked what he was thinking on the 3-2 pitch to Turgeon, Stricklin said: “Throw a strike. Throw a strike. I saw a full swing, and everyone else saw it, too, especially on the third-base side. I don’t know if the home-plate umpire blinked. I was surprised he didn’t call it, and it worried me. I jumped out there because he didn’t react right away.
“The longer you wait on those calls, the longer that third-base umpire has to wait, the tougher it is for him to call a strike. I haven’t seen the replay. I just saw it with my naked eye, but he swung in my opinion, so I reacted.”
In the dugout the Golden Flashes were sweating, and not from the 95-degree heat at game time.
“I was more mad and annoyed,” senior shortstop Jimmy Rider said.
“I was getting annoyed,” catcher David Lyon said. “Throwing high fastballs and hoping they were throwing it down the middle and wouldn’t hit it over the fence.”
Zunino was on second base and had a good view of the called second strike to Turgeon and the check swing.
“Phil [Benson] was great back there the whole game. He made the right call,” Zunino said of strike two. “On the check swing, he didn’t get to see it. My gut instinct was hoping it was going to be ball four. They appealed, and it wasn’t. I thought they were good calls.”
After the elimination of Stony Brook on Sunday, the Golden Flashes are the tournament’s only remaining Cinderella.
“It seemed that all of Omaha has adopted us and is rooting us on,” Lyon said.
“We definitely feel like we deserve to be here and hopefully we showed that out there today. After Saturday night, we probably left a lot of doubt in people’s minds. We kind of used the Cinderella story to our advantage. [The Gators] got caught thinking about their next game. We had to jump on them early and kind of shock them.”
Stricklin acknowledged how excruciating the last inning was, even for those who love an underdog.
“I don’t think many people gave us much of a chance today,” Stricklin said. “It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the end. It was gut-wrenching. Even if you weren’t rooting for anybody, that was tough to watch. But we found a way.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.