Little-used freshman pinch hitter steps to the plate, with his team down 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth, having done absolutely nothing offensively all game. With the bases jammed, facing one of the best pitchers in the country and down to his final strike, the freshman golfs a 1-2 pitch over the right field fence for a walk-off grand slam. It sounds like something out of a movie, but UC Santa Barbara can assure it is not. And Louisville, although they’d rather forget, can also confirm its reality.
UC Santa Barbara was a 2-seed in their region, and they went 3-0 en route to reaching the Super Regionals for the first time in program history. They were lucky enough to not have to take on top-seeded Vanderbilt, getting to face 4. Xavier twice instead. However, they received no such luck in their inaugural Super Regional, having to take on Louisville, who finished the year ranked second in the country. Louisville had also cruised their regional, dispatching each of the three teams in their pool with relative ease, giving up just five runs along the way.
Game 1 was a good one, as the Gauchos shocked the Cardinals 4-2 to open the series, putting them one game away from a College World Series berth. But it was Game 2 that provided one of the best moments in college baseball history. Drew Harrington took the mound for the Cardinals and looked very comfortable from the get-go. He scattered six hits and a walk over seven dominant innings, shutting out the Gauchos with a dozen strikeouts. He did not allow a hit until the fourth inning, when he had been staked to a 3-0 advantage. He allowed the first two batters of the eighth to reach and left the game. Departing after 7+ innings and 92 pitches, Harrington looked in line for a well-deserved win. Louisville’s bullpen escaped the eighth-inning mini-jam with ease, and the Gauchos were down to their final three outs.
The toughest part of their comeback was that it was going to have to come against Louisville’s stud closer, Zach Burdi. Burdi had been one of the best pitchers in the country. There was no reason to expect that Burdi, a first-round draft pick with a career 1.92 ERA, would fold. He had 11 saves on the year, and the Cardinals were 47-0 when leading after eight innings. Those were the odds that UC Santa Barbara were facing, so you can forgive anyone who was already mentally prepared for a Game 3.
Burdi started the ninth with a strikeout, but ultimately, it would only be the only out he recorded. JJ Muno singled for the Gauchos, and Burdi unraveled, uncharacteristically issuing two walks to load the bases, allowing the Gauchos to bring the winning run to the plate. They elected to do so in the form of freshman Sam Cohen, a little-used substitute with all of 26 plate appearances on the season. He had appeared in 19 games for a team that had never been to a Super Regional against the nation’s best closer – it was the unlikeliest of postseason match-ups.
Burdi fired a ball and whipped in a 96mph offering for a strike. Cohen fouled off another heater, putting him in a 1-2 hole. Burdi elected to deliver a changeup that spun down and in on the left-handed hitting Cohen. The freshman reached down and got a hold of the pitch, pulling it high and deep down the right field line. It stayed fair easily and cleared the fence for a walk-off grand slam, sending the Gauchos to their first ever College World Series.
UC Santa Barbara didn’t make any lengthy run in Omaha, but they did collect one more stunning victory. They lost 1-0 to Oklahoma State in the opener before shocking Miami, the #3 team in the country to survive for one more game. There, the Gauchos fell to eventual NCAA runner-ups Arizona, ending their Cinderella Run.
The Gauchos saw ace Shane Bieber taken in the 4th round of the MLB draft. Bieber now pitches for the Indians, and he was the MVP of the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. Sam Cohen played with UC Santa Barbara for three seasons, hitting .246 over three seasons, with his final two as a starter. He played out the last of his eligibility with Hope International, but he is no longer playing baseball.