Just before the comeback began, William & Mary’s Josh Smith started crying.
His team was down 8-1 with three outs left, facing its second loss in a double-elimination event. This would be the last half-inning of the last baseball game of his career, and when he saw a teammate tearing up, “that made me break down on the spot,” Smith said.
Sometime over the next few minutes, he stopped crying enough to participate in a seven-run ninth inning that gave way to an absurd series of events: a tropical storm, a 27-and-a-half-hour rain delay, a looming NCAA deadline for completing the game, the possibility of ending the season while sitting in a hotel lobby, a 12th-inning triumph, and then Smith’s grand slam in the resulting CAA final that sent his team to the NCAA tournament.
“It was honestly just surreal,” as one teammate put it.
First, though, there was the ninth inning against top-seeded UNC Wilmington, the sort of event that reminds you never to leave a baseball game early. (Guilty!) The Seahawks had, to that point, allowed six runs in 27 CAA tournament innings. They had allowed seven runs in their past 35 innings against the Tribe. William & Mary was deader than Jon Snow, when he was actually dead.
“Did I think we had a shot? Not really,” William & Mary Coach Brian Murphy said.
“I pretty much accepted that this was the last ride,” pitcher Joe Gaouette said.
“I was kind of a sobbing mess,” Smith said.
And then, as Tropical Storm Bonnie began pelting Charleston with rain, the last ride started going in circles. Two singles and a double brought in a run and forced a pitching change. The next batter doubled in two more runs to make it 8-4, and the William & Mary dugout started stirring.
After a strikeout, two more singles brought in another run. Coaches told hitters to focus on taking good at-bats, not to be a hero. The weather kept getting worse; “like a perfect storm for a big inning,” Gaouette said, pun intended.
“You could kind of feel it building,” said Murphy, the coach. “You just try to stay in the moment as much as you can.”
A walk and consecutive hit batters made it 8-7 with the bases still loaded. A sacrifice finally tied the score and set off bedlam.
“I think I screamed for about five minutes straight,” Smith said. “The dugout was just electric.”
College baseball isn’t the same sport as the pros, but a seven-run ninth-inning lead is a seven-run ninth-inning lead. Software engineer Gregory Stoll has analyzed the game-event data from 58 MLB seasons since 1957; no visiting team in those 58 seasons rallied from down seven in the ninth. And as with most magical sporting events, chance helped push this one along.
“A lot of things could have ended that inning,” Murphy said. “You could hit a rocket at the shortstop, he fields it and it’s a double play, season over. And then nobody cares what we’re doing today.”
Instead, the Tribe clawed into the bottom of the ninth still tied. Wilmington went down in order, and officials finally stopped the game due to the deluge.
“It wasn’t really a choice,” Murphy said.
Which put the team on the brink again. Players were told they had until midnight Sunday to complete the tournament; if not, regular season champion Wilmington would get the league’s automatic tournament berth. So they went to the hotel to kill time and stare at weather reports. Smith said players “were more pessimistic than optimistic about the chances of playing this game,” and their coach started working on the speech he would give them after their season ended with a phone call.
“That would have been a tough conversation, and one I wasn’t really looking forward to having,” he said. He planned to tell them nobody knocked them out of the tournament, that they could learn from their approach in the ninth inning, that they should be proud of the way they finished. “If that was the end, there was something to be said for fighting all the way to the end,” he said.
Charleston set a record with 2.4 inches of rain Saturday, and another record with 2.4 more inches of rain Sunday. Coaches checked the weather all night, even as they listened to the pounding rain. Players distracted themselves playing Mafia between looking at radar maps on their phones; “a pretty helpless feeling,” as Smith put it.
Charleston’s field drains well, though, and the rain stopped, and William & Mary’s players were shocked when they went to help the grounds crew drag the tarp off early Sunday. The dirt was hard; the grass looked like it had just been under a sprinkler.
“It was remarkable, actually,” Gaouette said. “The field was very, very playable even in a tropical storm.”
Players stayed to help the crew prepare the field, and then went through their normal three-hour pre-game routine, knowing that their season could be over after an inning, that every Wilmington at-bat had walk-off potential. “Sort of playing without a safety net,” as their coach put it.
The Tribe finally broke the tie on a solo homer in the 12th inning, held off Wilmington in the bottom of the 12th, and then went into the winner-take-all finale with a depleted pitching staff but a sense of inevitability.
The Tribe trailed by three early, but finally broke open the game on a grand slam from Smith, a Fairfax County kid. Starter Nick Brown, a Prince William County native, threw 80 pitches Sunday, three days after a 108-pitch outing. Reliever Charlie Fletcher, from Ashburn, threw for a fourth day in a row and got the win. And after throwing a season-high 4 2/3 innings on Saturday, Gaouette, another Northern Virginian, threw a scoreless ninth.
“It felt like the ball was exploding off my hand like it hadn’t really done the whole year,” he said. “I could not explain to you why it felt like that. It felt electric, honestly.”
If this had been a professional game, we’d all be talking about how Wilmington choked up an un-loseable lead; I can already imagine the gifs of flailing seahawks with Crying Jordan faces. Don’t cry for Wilmington, though; they still got an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
William & Mary, meantime, will face reigning champion Virginia on Friday in Charlottesville, almost a full week after its players already bid a tearful farewell to their season. They’ll bring with them a lucky Charleston traffic cone — worn by a supporter during that ninth-inning rally — and the confidence from having dodged seven or eight kill shots.
“Coming back from something like that, you’re kind of playing with house money,” Gaouette said. ” We think we can do pretty much anything against anyone at this point.”