To start our countdown of some of the top postseason moments in NCAA Baseball history, we have one of the greatest pitching duels to ever occur on a baseball diamond in an NCAA Tournament game between Yale and St. Johns.
When: May 21, 1981
Who: Yale vs. St. Johns
What: NCAA Opening Round
Where: Yale Field
The setting of the game hardly seemed like that of a postseason contest, as the two squads set to clash at Yale, with a modest crowd of 2,500 settled into the wooden bleachers set around the small field. But the pitchers that took the mound both had a reputation for being among the most feared hurlers in the game that year. Ron Darling took the ball for the Yale Bulldogs. An All-American, Darling was a two-way stud that year, having hit .386 and also pitched to a 4-3 record that didn’t do justice to his blazing fastball and sweeping slider, widely regarded as the best pitch in college baseball. Meanwhile, Frank Viola flashed a devastating curveball that led him to a 26-2 career record and a sparkling 1.67 ERA. In the Northeast regional, the loser of the opener game would have to make a four-game crawl out of the loser’s bracket, making this upcoming dual a pivotal one.
Viola was excellent that day for the Red Storm, scattering seven hits and four walks. Although there was a Yale base runner or two in most innings, Viola rarely flirted with danger, with no Bulldog even touching third base until the ninth inning. On nearly any day, such a performance would be plenty enough to win with ease, but Viola had a worthy counterpart on the rubber.
Darling had undoubtedly the tougher task, matched up against St. Johns, whose 31-2 record was largely fueled by one of the best, if not the best, offenses in the country. But Darling was up to the task – his only slip ups in the first nine frames were five walks, which he nullified with ten strikeouts. Not a single Red Storm batter recorded so much as a single against Darling, who was nearly untouchable. But, much like Viola, his extraordinary performance was not enough to win in nine innings, as the two teams battled on into the tenth inning.
Both pitchers went out and put up another two scoreless frames, with Darling continuing to fire no-hit baseball. He tacked on four more strikeouts to his total, and the game entered the 12th inning with the 0-0 score still flashing on the scoreboard.
In the 12th, the Red Storm finally broke through with a base hit, blooping a single over the shortstop’s head and into left field for a soft single. One out later, Darling was victimized by an error that put two men on and one out. While Darling was busy striking out the next batter, the Red Storm signaled for a steal of third base, putting runners on the corners. There, with two outs, St. Johns decided to go for it, figuring another hit against Darling may not come easily. They called for a delayed double steal.
Darling said later that the play shouldn’t have happened because Yale normally doesn’t throw down to second base on such a steal. But with Darling falling off to the side after delivering a brutal slider, and the crowd making tons of noise as the tension rose, the Yale hurler failed to recognize that the runner was stealing and wasn’t in position to cut the throw to second. St. Johns scored on the delayed steal and took a 1-0 lead. Darling polished off the hitter with his 16th strikeout, and he exited to a standing ovation from the crowd at Yale field. Remarkably, Viola also emerged from the dugout to applaud Darling. Viola later called Darling’s performance the most dominant outing he ever saw. Viola’s day ended with 11 scoreless innings, as he gave way to the Red Storm’s bullpen, which easily retired Yale to secure the breathtaking 1-0 victory.
Yale’s tournament ended in their very next game. A lack of offense proved to be the fatal flaw for the Bulldogs as they scraped just two more runs against Central Michigan and fell 7-2, leading to an unceremonious exit from the NCAA Tournament.
St. Johns went 2-2 in the rest of the tournament, losing to the University of Maine and beating Central Michigan, setting up a championship with the Black Bears. After beating Maine 10-5 to set up a winner-takes-all finale, St. Johns faded badly, losing 15-0.
However the real story of this game, evidently, was the pitchers, and their paths crossed again in the years to come. Both were high draft picks in that year’s MLB Draft, and by 1987, they had both won World Series; Darling started for the Mets in Game 7 of the infamous 1986 World Series, and Viola won the ‘87 World Series MVP a year later with the Twins. In 1989, Viola joined Darling on the Mets’ rotation.