Greatest NCAA Baseball Moments Countdown – #7: Darling and Viola fire 22 scoreless innings

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. 

The Aftermath
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.

Big East Game Recaps and Takeaways

There was very little Big East action on Saturday, so here’s a quick summary and takeaway from the two conference games that were played. 

Villanova 64 Providence 60

The Game: Collin Gillespie scored 18 points and notched 8 rebounds to lead the Wildcats to victory at Providence – holding off a Friars comeback bid for their 12th win in 13 games. 

The Takeaway: Providence Needs A Signature Win. The Friars have lost four of five in Big East play, and despite being competitive in each contest, they have not locked down a big win yet, which they will likely need to do to earn an at-large bid in March. 

St. Johns 79 DePaul 66

The Game: LJ Figueroa was a beast for the Red Storm on Saturday, dropping 28 points on DePaul as St. Johns won handily in a battle of Big East cellar dwellers. 

The Takeaway: Butler is in trouble. I know, this takeaway is about a team not involved in the game. But this game highlighted many DePaul deficiencies as they were slapped around on their home-court by another team in the basement of the conference. That Butler lost to this DePaul team is embarrassing and says a lot about the state of their team right now. 

Friday Games

Butler 89 Marquette 85

Sundays Game

Xavier @ Creighton

Big East Status Report: Seton Hall On Top, Butler Crashing Hard

Last week, I listed Butler and Seton Hall as co-title favorites, and this week, I believe the Pirates have separated themselves. I don’t think too much has changed within in the conference as a whole, but here’s a quick look at their biggest risers and fallers.

Biggest Risers: Seton Hall

  • The Pirates are essentially the conference’s biggest riser due to their 9-game winning streak and head-to-head win over Butler, last week’s co-favorite. While I don’t think their conference championship odds increased tremendously, they have separated themselves from the field with a 7-0 Big East record, and so they earn the honor of biggest riser this week.

Biggest Fallers: Butler, St. Johns

  • The Bulldogs are the new Ohio State of college basketball. After achieving a top-5 ranking, Butler has lost three straight games, one at home, and another one to an unranked opponent – quite possibly the worst Big East team in DePaul. It has been a horrific stretch for the Bulldogs. They’re still getting in the tournament, but I regard them as a clear second to Seton Hall in the conference with Villanova closing in behind them.
  • St. Johns prospects in the Big East were already pretty glum, and they dropped again this week. The Red Storm have lost another three straight Big East games after finally taking down DePaul for their first conference victory; they have kept some big games close, but ultimately, the lack of results is going to doom this team. Sitting at 11-2 entering conference play, St. Johns has crashed to 12-8 and is now looking like an afterthought in both the conference and national picture.

Quick Hits

  • Right now, my prediction is for 5 teams from the Big East to make the tournament, with Seton Hall, Villanova, Butler, Marquette, and Creighton representing the conference.
  • 3 teams are on the wrong side of the bubble, but still have a path to the tournament: Xavier, Providence, Georgetown.
  • I am declaring 2 teams officially dead in the NCAA tournament race: St. Johns and DePaul.

Biggest Games

  • Marquette @ #13 Butler
  • #9 Villanova @ Providence
  • Xavier @ Creighton