They came from four runs down in the ninth inning. They came from one run down in the 10th inning. And they loaded the bases in the 11th inning, setting the stage for another epic rally.
Once again, Kansas State showed its resiliency at the Big 12 baseball tournament.
But, for once, the Wildcats couldn’t finish the comeback.
Oklahoma reliever Kyle Hayes ended a wild and crazy game Saturday at Bricktown Ballpark with back-to-back strikeouts, lifting the Sooners to a 7-6 victory that advanced them to Sunday’s tournament championship game and sent K-State home.
When it was over, everyone involved seemed exhausted.
“I would have liked to have been an innocent bystander watching that game. That would have been a lot of fun,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “But we had to be in it. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. You could have written us off for dead a long time in that game. At the end we just fought and battled.
“We had two-strike hits, big hits and a lot of hits. We weren’t able to win the game, unfortunately, but we still found a way. We didn’t quit, and competed the whole way through. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. I’m just so proud of these guys and how they fight and claw and never think they are out of the game.”
No one would have blamed them for doubting themselves in this one.
The Wildcats routinely have to score in bunches to overcome inconsistencies on the mound, and they have become quite effective at winning high-scoring games. But the pressure to produce runs appeared too great when No. 1 seed K-State learned that scheduled starter Joe Flattery was suffering from shoulder stiffness and wouldn’t be able to play.
That meant freshman Jordan Witcig, who had eight innings of experience, would be making his first start in a win-or-go-home scenario.
Oklahoma, coming off back-to-back shutout victories, had an advantage from the get-go. The No. 4 seed Sooners chased Witcig after 3 2/3 innings and jumped all over reliever Jared Moore to take a 4-0 lead in the fourth and a 5-1 lead in the fifth.
It was a familiar start for the Wildcats, who rallied from early deficits to win their first two games at this tournament, but they weren’t able to come back this time.
They certainly came close by scoring four runs in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings and matching a run from Oklahoma to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th.
“The whole year we have kind of fought through adversity and found a way to get the job done,” said Mitch Meyer, who tied the score with a two-run single in the ninth. “We have a lot of faith in each other and everyone going up. The attitude in the dugout was still positive. We thought we had a chance.”
They might have won if not for stranding 13 runners and striking out 11 times against five Oklahoma pitchers.
“We just couldn’t get that one hit to swing the momentum,” Hill said.
Oklahoma cruised into the ninth inning with a 5-1 lead. But no lead is safe against the Wildcats.
After struggling to drive in runs all game, they pounded the ball in the ninth. K-State quickly put runners on the corners and pulled to within 5-3 on a Shane Conlon double. Then Meyer sent the game to extra innings with a clutch single.
It could have won the game in regulation, but Ross Kivett was out trying to go first-to-third on Meyer’s hit. Oklahoma then strung together a double and a single to take a 6-5 lead in the 10th, only to watch K-State answer with another run in the bottom of the inning.
The stage was set for another K-State comeback when Oklahoma took a 7-6 lead in the top of the 11th inning and the Wildcats loaded the bases with one out. But it wasn’t to be. Meyer and Alex Bee both struck out swinging against Hayes.
Oklahoma advances to the championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday, where it will face Kansas, TCU or West Virginia. It hopes it has enough left for a title push.
The Wildcats were hoping to do a little more and play for another trophy after winning the regular-season championship last week with two wins over the Sooners.
But they can take solace knowing they have plenty left to play for. They are a lock to receive an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament and may host a regional at Tointon Family Stadium.
“It’s out of our hands, but I think we should host,” Hill said. “I think the Big 12 champion should be the host of a regional … I would think we deserve that opportunity from going through the Big 12. Week in and week out it is just a battle.”
No matter what seed the Wildcats receive, or where they get sent, they are looking forward to what comes next. Even after a physically draining loss in the conference tournament.
“There is nothing to feel bad about today,” Meyer said. “We played hard. If anything, it gives us a little bit of a boost going into next week. We want to win that much more. I think our team is going to respond well.”