It’s tough enough to come back from an opening-game loss in a Regional playoff tournament. But USF is facing the toughest test of all, having played 24 innings over its first two games at the University of Oregon.
The Dons have twice gone to extra innings – first in a 3-2 loss to Rice in 11 innings Friday, then in a 4-3 win over South Dakota State in 13 innings Saturday – and now USF ’s best-case scenario is to win three games in two days.
With no margin for error, USF has its sights set on a Sunday doubleheader. The Dons are set to play an elimination game Sunday at 2 p.m. against the loser of the Rice-Oregon matchup. Should the Dons win, they will play the winner of the Rice-Oregon matchup Sunday at 7 p.m. in a doubleheader nightcap. If the Dons sweep Sunday’s doubleheader, they will play for the Regional championship Monday at 7 p.m.
“If we can get our offense going just a little bit, we can win games right now,” Dons manager Nino Giarratano said. ”Because we’re pitching well enough to do it.”
USF just hasn’t been able to break through with the bats. With the exception of a half an inning on Saturday after taking a 2-0 lead over South Dakota State in the second, the Dons have played within one run of the opposition throughout the tourney. Four times they have led by one run, and have relinquished three of those leads. The only lead to hold up was Sunday’s 4-3 final.
“Offensively our guys haven’t given us a comfort level ever, the entire  innings we’ve played,” Giarratano said. “So it’s been rough.”
USF’s pitching has been exceptional, however. The Dons have used six pitchers in each of the first two games, but still have their most electric arm, right-hander Alex Balog, available to start Sunday. After that, the Dons will likely turn to senior Andrew Pulido and freshman Thomas Cox to anchor the rotation.
“I think we’re going to be fine with pitching,” Giarratano said. “We haven’t overused anybody. We’ve got a couple guys, [Haden Hinkle and Christian Cecilio], will be down. But the rest of those guys are still pretty good.”
Despite reliever Abe Bobb taking the loss Friday against Rice, the USF bullpen didn’t surrender an earned run through four innings of work. Rice runners reached in each of the final five innings, but Dons relievers neutralized the Owls offense out of the stretch. Rice eventually won by plating an unearned run in the 11th on a routine fly ball to left field that got lost in the sun. And this came after Geoff Perrott reached on a passed ball after striking out on what would have been the third out of the inning.
“We made two really bad mistakes back-to-back,” Giarratano said. “We were disappointed. But it was time to pick up and move on, and our guys did a great job of doing that.”
USF bounced back Saturday, winning on a manufactured run by virtue of some defensive miscues by the opposition. Deadlocked in the top of the 13th inning, Bradley Zimmer reached on an error by South Dakota State second baseman Al Robbins. Zimmer stole second, and after a walk to Zack Turner, both runners advanced on a passed ball. Then after a walk to load the bases, Bob Cruikshank lifted a sacrifice fly to left to score the go-ahead run.
But with runners at first and third and one out, USF still failed to go large, as Harrison Bruce grounded into a double play to end the inning. And when South Dakota State’s Daniel Marra reached base in the bottom of the frame, it seemed as though one run might not be enough.
“I was frustrated,” Giarratano said. “We had bases loaded, no outs, and we scored one run. Then all of a sudden they get the second hitter on and then he gets to second base, then all of a sudden here we are in another high-stress inning.”
USF called upon Bobb once again though, and this time his defense came through, as the junior right-hander induced two groundouts to end it.
“Our [relievers] came out and did their job,” Giarratano said. “They’ve been doing that all year. They’ve been coming out and throwing strikes as soon as they get to the field. And they’ve been getting big outs for us all year. So it was really nothing different.”
This year marks the third time in program history USF has advanced to the postseason. The Dons previously did so in 2006 and 2011, and have never advanced past Regional play. Now they are faced with having to win three games in two days to do so. Despite his team playing too tight and not being able to keep the ball out of the air in the spacious confines of PK Park, Giarratano remains optimistic.
“I think we’re going to be inspired,” Giarratano said. “The kids are here, they’re resilient, they’re tough enough. I’m really proud of how they’ve played and how they’ve responded. I don’t think anything will change [Sunday]. I think they’ll respond great.”