The Columbus State baseball team made it look easy in its first two games at the Division II College World Series.
But winning a national championship is never easy.
So it is that the Cougars still have some work left to do in order to advance to the championship round of the double elimination tournament.
Instead of wrapping up a spot in the final, CSU will have to play a winner-take-all rematch with Florida Southern after dropping a 3-2 decision to the top-seeded Mocs at the USA Baseball Training Center on Thursday.
The deciding game will be played Friday at 1 p.m.
“It was a tight ballgame, Cougars coach Greg Appleton said. “Us not putting the ball in play a couple of times when we had runners at third was the difference in the game. Their pitchers did a great job and canceled out our left-handed hitting. That was kind of the story of the game.”
The Cougars (47-14) figured to to be the fresher team in the game, which was rescheduled to an early 10 a.m. starting time because of concerns over the weather. While they were enjoying a day off on Wednesday, Florida Southern was sweating out an elimination game just to be able to play again.
It was the Mocs, however, that got the early jump by scoring a run on three hits in the bottom of the first.
CSU answered back in the fourth to tie the score on a walk to Mason McClellan and singles by Chase Brown and Frank Wager. It wasted an opportunity to do more damage by leaving two runners on base.
Getting the the timely hit was a problem for the Cougars all day, as they stranded multiple runners three times.
It happened again in the fifth after Florida Southern had regained the lead at 3-1 by scoring runs on a passed ball and a sacrifice fly.
McClellan got one of the runs back with an RBI single that scored Drew Webb. But with runners on first and third with only one out, Mocs’ starter Logan Browning struck out Austin Pharr and Brown to end the threat.
“Our whole lineup wasn’t seeing the ball and staying back,” said McClellan, who had two hits, drove in a run and scored another. “We just didn’t get that big hit when we needed it.”
Browning struck out 11 CSU hitters in just six innings of work.
The Cougars had just as tough a time against reliever Cole Crowder, though not before loading the bases with one out in the eighth on a single by McClellan and consecutive walks to Brown and Robert Brooks.
This time, at least, CSU got a hard-hit ball out of the opportunity. The problem is that following a strikeout by Wager, Gunar Drinnen’s line drive to left came one out too late to get the tying run home.
“I don’t think we ever thought we were out of the game,” McClellan said. “It was one run. We’ve gotten one run in a lot of innings in a lot of games. This was kind of surprising.”
The fact that the Cougars only needed that one run to the the game for so long was a tribute to pitcher T.J. Clark, who settled down after a tough start to go the distance, allowing no more runs after the fourth while striking out six and walking only one on 131 pitches.
“I didn’t have my best stuff and I feel like they capitalized on my mistakes,” Clark said. “But I started settling in and getting my fastball and slider working.”
The good news for CSU is that despite the loss, it is still just one win away from playing for the national championship. With ace pitcher Kolton Ingram waiting in the wings, Appleton likes his team’s chances.
“We did everything we could to win the ballgame and we’ll do the same (today),” the veteran coach said. “I feel good about this team every time we come out on the field.”