Patterson: One pitch on opening night determined this year's College World Series champion (2024)

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Tennessee baseball's press conference after winning the College World Series. Provided by the NCAA

It's not unusual for the College World Series to be determined by one game or one play.

Or even one pitch, which happened on opening night — 10 days before the championship final.

Tennessee was playing Florida State on June 14 and the Volunteers were in trouble. They trailed 11-9 with two out in the ninth and Blake Burke one strike away from being the final out.

Seminoles reliever Brennen Oxford fired a pitch and Burke started to swing before holding up. Or did he?

Home plate umpire Grady Smith ruled that way and so did base ump Shawn Rakos on the appeal.

Replays showed the call was very close and could have gone either way. Fortunately for Burke and Tennessee, it was ruled a check swing and the count went to 3-2.

He then belted a two-run single to center field to tie the game. After Billy Amick singled, Dylan Dreiling brought home the winning run with a single to cap the four-run rally and keep the Vols in the winners bracket.

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The rest is history as Tennessee went on to capture its first championship while giving the SEC its fifth consecutive winner.

But what if that pitch had been ruled a strike? Believe me, that changes everything.

The Vols would have immediately dropped into the losers bracket and reaching that championship series would have become much more difficult.

A loss on that opening Friday night would have meant a game Sunday afternoon and then three more must-win games just to reach the final.

Instead, Tennessee won two more games in the winners bracket and had its pitching set up for that best-of-three final against Texas A&M.

Florida State coach Link Jarrett didn't address the check swing directly in the postgame press conference, but did say this:

"You guys saw the game. I need to watch every pitch of the game again. There's factors in this that affect the outcome of the game. And I can't tell from 90 feet away on the side what was going on with some of the things that occurred."

He added that "every pitch matters" and left it at that.

Not surprisingly, Burke was more forthright about the play.

"It was a check swing and I didn't go," he said. "I kept battling after that. I just kept battling, kept battling and that was the result."

Understandably, Seminoles fans weren't happy about the call. There were several tweets on "X" that showed a still frame of Burke with his bat appearing to break the imaginary plane that would indicate a swing.

As always, it's a judgment call. And that judgment went in favor of the Vols.

If not, everything might have changed. And perhaps, no Tennessee championship.

Longtime umpire Chris Franck said the check swing is the toughest call an ump has to make.

"There's a lot of gray area in baseball," he said. "Even with definitions, it's hard to define."

Franck said he was at the game and understood the importance of the call.

"That turned out to be a huge play," he said. "When I saw it the first time I thought he went, but then on the replays you see what a close call it was."

Many of the scribes in the press box felt the same way. After the appeal was made to the base ump and he ruled no swing, it brought a loud response that reinforced the fact that was one close call.

It's not impossible to come back and win the CWS after losing that first game, and 12 teams dating to 1950 have accomplished that difficult feat. It's only happened four times since 1980, with Oregon State the most recent squad to get it done in 2018 after losing to North Carolina.

Perhaps the most impressive turnaround happened in 2006 when Oregon State got thumped 11-1 by Miami in its opener. The Beavers somehow regrouped and won the title, as they would 12 years later.

LSU won the series last year after dropping its second game against Wake Forest.

It's immaterial now and all umpires deserve credit for doing a tough job that none of us would want. It just goes to show the fine line between a championship and perhaps an early trip home.

That's one reason why we love the CWS, where one play can make all the difference.,



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Patterson: One pitch on opening night determined this year's College World Series champion (2024)
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