How the Ducks fell to Kent State
EUGENE - The baseball floated up into the air against the blue-gray sky.
The white sphere went so high - 50 feet, maybe 100 feet. Once the ball reached its apex, it began falling. The laws of physics state that an object will descend toward earth at 9.8 meters per second, minus air-drag. But this ball seemed to come down much slower than that.
Perhaps the speed of gravity is only relative to the lives that will be altered once the object reaches the earth?
The falling baseball in the ninth inning Monday night at PK Park contained the hopes and dreams of the College World Series for the University of Oregon and Kent State. Once the ball landed, the lives of more than 50 ballplayers, dozens of coaches and thousands of fans would be changed forever.
Oregon closer Jimmie Sherfy had been pitching phenomenally.
In Sunday's game two of the NCAA super regional best-of-three series, Sherfy entered to the song 'Wild Thing' in the ninth inning. He was unhittable, fanning both batters he faced on nine pitches to preserve a 3-2 Oregon lead and give the Ducks a chance to play in the decisive third game.
After throwing only nine pitches, Sherfy was ready to pitch again, less than 24 hours after his two-out save.
'Jimmie only threw nine pitches last night, and he felt good (on Monday),' Oregon coach George Horton said.
Sherfy entered Monday's game in the bottom of the eighth with one out and the score tied 2-2. Sherfy looked every bit as good as he had been the previous night. He struck out Kent State third baseman Sawyer Polen on three pitches, then ended the inning by striking out left fielder Alex Miklos on five pitches.
'We all saw how spectacular he was at 93 (miles per hour) and dirty in the eighth,' Horton said.
After the Ducks could not get a run in their half of the ninth, Sherfy went back out to try to preserve the tie ballgame.
He faced Kent State second baseman Derek Toadvine, who is listed at 5-11, 165 pounds and might be, sopping wet.
As the Golden Flashes' No. 9 hitter, Toadvine's job is to get on base any way possible. Kent State may have never needed Toadvine on base more than when he led off the bottom of the ninth.
On the first pitch of the at bat, though, Toadvine jumped out of his shoes trying to swing at a ball over his shoulders. He missed, badly.
'I realized I'm not a home-run hitter,' Toadvine said. 'So I just tried to stay patient.'
Toadvine did just that. He took the next four pitches and earned a free pass to first base.
'He didn't really throw me anything to work with, and I happened to get a walk,' Toadvine said.
An unknown author once said: 'Baseball is the only place in life where a sacrifice is really appreciated.'
Kent State center fielder Evan Campbell's picture may never appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated for it, but he laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt on the first pitch of his ninth-inning at-bat.
The ball rolled to Sherfy, who had nowhere to go with it except first base.
The Ducks had one-out, but Kent State had a runner in scoring position.
Next, Kent State shortstop Jimmy Rider stepped out of the batter's box with a 1-1 count.
Rider looked at Sherfy on the mound for a long moment, then stepped back into the box.
Sherfy's next pitch came in at 91 mph and went way outside. Sherfy's follow-through was very awkward. After the pitch left his hand, Sherfy's right pitching arm seemed to twist out toward first base.
When Sherfy received the ball back from catcher Brett Hambright, he paused.
Sherfy then frantically motioned Hambright to the mound, with both his right hand and his gloved left hand.
Something was wrong.
When he saw Hambright go to the mound, Horton left the Ducks' dugout. After checking with the umpire to make sure that the trip to the mound would be a medical visit, Horton joined Sherfy and Hambright on the one part of PK Field made of dirt rather than artificial turf.
Upon talking to Sherfy, Horton said that he learned that his pitcher had 'tightened up a little bit in the elbow.'
Horton's first instinct was to call on another reliever, anyone who was healthy.
'My instincts were to get him out of there right now,' Horton said.
Hambright returned to the plate while Horton stayed near the mound and watched Sherfy take a practice pitch.
Sherfy's throw came in at 85 mph. It went a little bit high and a little wide, but it was not too bad of a pitch.
'I'm OK, coach,' Sherfy said, to Horton. 'I can do it.'
Horton still had an overwhelming feeling that he needed to bring in a new relief pitcher.
Sherfy convinced him not to.
'He talked me out of it,' Horton said.
Later, when reflecting on his decision to leave Sherfy in, Horton said: 'I shouldn't have.'
The count was full against Rider. With first base open, Sherfy risked throwing a slider.
But Sherfy was not quite the same pitcher he had been.
'His slider became a curveball,' Horton said.
When he saw the flat break of the pitch rushing toward him, Rider lunged for it. He made connection, but he could not make the fat part of his bat meet the fat part of the ball.
The ball ricocheted off Rider's bat and floated down the left-field line, 75 feet past the third-base bag.
'I thought it was a sure out - just a little looper,' Rider said. 'I wished I could've put more barrel on that and got it down the line or something.'
As Rider took off running toward first base, he saw the way the white sphere was floating in the air.
'That's good placement,' Rider thought to himself as he continued running.
Then, he asked himself a question: 'Can it get down?'
As the ball flew, Toadvine took in everything that was happening in front of him.
'The first thing I thought about was tagging up,' he said. 'Then I saw the third baseman kind of go (a little way out for the ball) and no one was covering third.'
Toadvine began creeping toward third base. Then, as the ball continued to fall, Toadvine started running as hard as he could.
'I realized it was a shallow fly ball,' Toadvine said. 'Everyone was going for it, so I got off the bag, and then I just took off.'
It was a borderline reckless decision. If the ball was caught, Toadvine would not be able to get back to second base.
'If they had caught it, I would have been doubled off at second,' Toadvine said. 'But I just trusted my instincts and took off.'
Just beyond the high wall enclosing PK Park, the setting sun cast a wicked glare into left field.
Rider's pop-up went right into that setting sun, and Oregon left fielder Brett Thomas could not see the ball.
'I lost it in the sun,' Thomas said.
Unable to track the ball, even with his glove shielding his eyes, Thomas looked at Oregon shortstop J.J. Altobelli - the only other player on the field with a chance of making the catch.
'I kind of read J.J. and saw where he was running and ran toward that,' Thomas said.
When the ball began to get close to the ground, Thomas saw where it was. He was about three strides too far away, though.
Thomas and Altobelli both dove for the ball just before it landed. Altobelli was the closer of the two and the only player who could have saved the Ducks' season.
'We both gave it our all, the best that we could,' Thomas said. 'I thought J.J. was going to get there.'
As Thomas and Altobelli dove, Toadvine rounded third base.
The Kent State dugout suddenly realized that the ball could fall in for a hit. The players swarmed to the top step, trying to get onto the field. Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin stopped watching the play and tried to keep his players off the field so that his team would not be called for interference.
'If we get a hit, you can't be out of the dugout and be in play when the ball is still in play,' Stricklin said. 'I was on the top step and I was holding guys back. I was playing defense in the dugout.'
The ball landed between Thomas and Altobelli just inside the left-field foul line.
Toadvine touched home plate.
The game was over.
Kent State had won 3-2.
The Golden Flashes had punched their ticket to the College World Series. The Ducks' season had ended, if not unfairly, then in heartbreaking fashion.
Thomas and Altobelli lay on the turf, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
'It was a clean hit,' Thomas said. 'It fell. It's not an error. It's just baseball. Unfortunately, it had to end like that.'
Stricklin finally let his players rush out onto the field, and they jumped into a dog pile at home plate.
It was a joyous moment for the coach, and a slightly unnerving moment at the same time.
'I got in the middle of that one,' Strickland said, of the dog pile. 'It was a lot of fun, and it's just a great feeling.
'But I do have to say for the record, and I never say it to the guys because I always worry about jinxing them, dog piles scare me to death. They absolutely scare me to death. They're a way for someone to get hurt, and I'd like us to stay on our feet to celebrate. But as long as no one gets hurt, that's fine. But, man, they scare me to death."
As the Oregon players stood, or lay on the field in various poses of despair, Horton walked out to the mound and met Sherfy.
'I feel bad that I let Jimmie, when he wasn't 100 percent at that particular moment, have that devastation,' Horton said.
Horton told Sherfy 'how courageous it was for him to try to get two more outs for us.'
The veteran coach knew that he had made a mistake by leaving his pitcher on the mound with a bad wing.
'I need to be the professional and get the emotions out of it,' Horton said. 'But, for all of our sake, he talked me into it.'
For all of the beauty and grace that fills the sport of baseball, it is a game designed to break your heart. Sometimes the game breaks your heart in ways that you expect. Sometimes it breaks your heart in ways that you can never imagine.
The unimaginable was how the Ducks' hearts were broken on Monday when the baseball sailed into the blue-gray sky and came back down to the earth.
'There's some irony for me that we lost the ball in the sun in Eugene and it ended our season,' Horton said. 'Baseball is a very cruel sport sometimes.'