Chess match goes to Mississippi State over Beavers
OMAHA, Neb. -- The game of baseball can be a lot of things. It can be a slugfest. A pitcher's duel. A blowout.
And sometimes, it's a chess match, as it was Saturday in Oregon State's painful 5-4 loss to Mississippi State in the opening game of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Coaches make educated guesses, and their pawns and knights and bishops and rooks work the board, positioning for checkmate.
Oregon State's Pat Casey, as good as it gets when it comes to strategy, made some moves with the wrong results against the Bulldogs.
With OSU ahead 4-3 and starter Andrew Moore about spent after 105 pitches in 80-degree heat and 70-degree humidity in the eighth inning, Casey went to left-hander Matt Boyd, the Beavers' Friday night starter through a glorious senior season.
Boyd, who had closed out Oregon State's 4-3 super regional-clinching victory over Kansas State on Monday in Corvallis, then yielded a two-out, two-run double to Mississippi State's Wes Rea.
Three things about that.
Casey chose not to use freshman southpaw Max Englebrekt, who had suffered back spasms in OSU's super regional opener a week ago. Englebrekt, the Beavers' closer throughout the latter part of the season, indicated to me prior to Saturday's game he felt healthy and good to go. Not good enough, Casey decided.
"I wasn't prepared to put him in the game," said Casey, who made the decision before the game. "When a kid tells me he's 90 percent, he's probably 80 percent. We don't want to get him hurt.
"We had the right guy in the game. Matt's the right guy, a senior guy. 'Mo' (Moore) got us to where we should be. He pitched well enough to win, and we didn't finish."
Also, Casey brought on Boyd in a one-out, one-on situation with two right-handed hitters -- No. 3 man Hunter Renfroe and No. 5 man Rea -- among the Diamond Dogs' next three batters. Casey said statistics show "he hits 75 points higher against right-handers than left-handers."
"His splits are better against righties, so we went lefty," Boyd confirmed.
I believe the reference was to Renfroe, who came into the game hitting .360 with 15 home runs and banged a one-hop single off Boyd's back. Not so sure about the 6-5, 275-pound Rea, who came in batting .288 with seven dingers.
Finally, Boyd shook off catcher Jake Rodriguez's signal -- relayed from the bench -- on the first pitch to Rea.
"We called a fastball in, and he threw a changeup away," Casey said. "I asked for vanilla and he gave me chocolate."
Rea pounded the pitch to right-center field for a game-winning two-run double.
"Matty has a good changeup," Casey observed. "But it's a dangerous pitch if you leave it up, and Rea wrecked him."
Do Oregon State's pitchers have the option to shake off pitches?
"'Matty' certainly does," Casey said. "He just made a mistake. Had he shook the pitch and made a better pitch, we could have lived with it.
"There's not a pitcher who has ever taken the mound who hasn't made a bad pitch. That one came at a difficult time, but Matty will be back."
"I had full confidence in the pitch," Boyd said as he walked to the team bus. "It was working good for me today. I left it a little up. Unfortunately, that mistake determined the game."
There were other coaches' decisions that figured into the final verdict.
In the bottom of the eighth, with Mississippi State now ahead 5-4, Oregon State had runners at first and second with two outs and its No. 9 hitter, Max Gordon, scheduled to bat. Gordon went into the at-bat with three hits in his previous 34 official trips to the plate. Casey pinch-hit center fielder Joey Jansen, whose last at-bat was against Stanford on May 12. Jansen struck out.
Tyler Smith singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Casey chose to sacrifice with Andy Peterson, the team's best bunter. Peterson failed to get one down, striking out.
The tactic didn't make sense, anyway. Had Smith been sacrificed to second, the Diamond Dogs would have intentionally walked the next hitter, Michael Conforto, who had Oregon State's first 4-for-4 game in CWS history. As it was, Jonathan Holder pitched carefully to him and walked him.
"If we had to throw a ball 50 feet, he wasn't going to beat us," said Cohen, who made a visit to the mound to tell Holder just that. "I said, 'The next guy's our guy.' "
That was cleanup hitter Dylan Davis, who struck out.
Oregon State's shortcomings hurt them Saturday. There was no reliable pinch-hitter for Casey to use in place of Gordon when one was sorely needed. Englebrekt, 5-1 with a 1.30 ERA and five saves in 22 appearances this season, wasn't available.
"When you're without a guy you've been finishing games with the last five weeks, it's tough," Casey said. "We're trying to makeshift our way into it."
So many difficult decisions.
Casey was right to protect Englebrekt, who sounds as if he might be healthy enough to pitch Monday when the Beavers face an elimination game. Err on the side of caution when you're talking about a young pitcher's health.
Normally, the coach would have been right in pinch-hitting for Gordon. There's nobody on the bench, though, who inspires confidence that he might get a hit in that situation. If he had it to do over again, I'm sure Casey would have stuck with the plucky Gordon, whose on-base percentage is a reasonable .376 this season.
Casey and pitching coach Nate Yeskie have lost confidence in most of the relief corps, including junior Scott Schultz, the closer through the first two-thirds of the season. Schultz finished Saturday's game, retiring the two batters he faced.
Schultz's statistics this season are outstanding -- 2.03 ERA and 10 saves in 40 innings, 27 hits, eight walks and 32 strikeouts with a .184 opponents' batting average entering Saturday play. He had two poor outings, allowing three hits and four earned runs without recording an out against Washington and giving up three hits and four earned runs in 1 1/3 innings innings against Washington State. That caused his ERA against Pac-12 opposition to swell to 6.57.
But Schultz has a live fastball, and he throws strikes. He's the guy who threw 8 2/3 superb innings against Louisiana State in the regional last year. He is going to be needed if the Beavers are going to stay alive in the losers' bracket.
Now Casey turns to Ben Wetzler as Monday's starter. The junior left-hander, like Moore and Boyd, was a first-team all-Pac-12 selection. He is 9-1 with a 2.11 ERA and should be plenty good enough to help the Beavers advance, should they get him enough runs.
On Saturday, they left 10 runners on base, six in scoring position. Peterson couldn't get a bunt down. Davis, another first-team All-Pac-12 choice, went 0 for 5 and didn't hit a ball out of the infield. The Diamond Dogs made some mistakes, too, especially early in the game. They made the most of their chances near the end, though, when it counted most.
"If you do the little things right, you give yourself a chance to win," Casey said. "If you don't do them, you create an opportunity for the other team to beat you."
Come Monday, another chess match. Another chance for the players to make their coaches' decisions look smart, or not so smart.