WESTWOOD, Calif. — Watching their team trail 3-0 entering the bottom of the ninth, the UCLA faithful rose to their feet and delivered their loudest U-C-L-A chant of the night. It was so loud that it drowned out the songs blaring from the stadium’s speakers.
Unfazed, junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann sprinted to the rubber, himself encouraged by the thundering “Let’s Go Blue” chant making its way around the first base side of the stadium.
Rather than facing nine-hole hitter Matt McClain for a third time, Kauffmann now found himself staring down pinch hitter Jaron Silva, a mere three outs away from a game one victory.
After missing the first two pitches wide of the plate, Kauffmann came back with a fastball on the black for a strike. However, it was met with a collective, “No!” from the UCLA crowd. Meanwhile, cheers rained down from the Michigan dugout.
On a 2-1 count, Kauffmann flipped in a slider for strike two, but then put a change-up in the dirt for ball three. Amidst a cry of people telling him to win the at-bat, Kauffmann lost the battle, delivering ball four and giving the Bruin crowd a jolt of energy.
Now on its feet, the crowd watched nervously as star center fielder Garrett Mitchell strut into the box. On the first pitch, he ripped a hard ground ball that appeared destined for a double play. Breaking towards the bag at second base was senior second baseman Ako Thomas. However, Kauffmann deflected the ball with his glove. Despite an effort to salvage an out at second by Thomas, UCLA now had runners on first and second bases with no outs.
The “Let’s go, Bruins,” chants intensified as Bruin shortstop Ryan Kreidler dug into the box.
Just like Mitchell, Kreidler unleashed a swing on the first pitch fastball he received. As Kreidler’s rocket carried out towards deep center field, Bruins fans belted out of their seats to their toes and a child nearby yelled, “tie game!”
But luckily for Kauffmann, the infamous Los Angeles marine layer had just settled in and ensured Kreidler’s frozen rope stayed in the park for out number one. The ball, to the dismay of the UCLA fans, was secured by sophomore outfielder Jesse Franklin. Nonetheless, smart reads by the Bruins’ two baserunners now pitted Kauffmann into a second and third situation with one out.
Next up was UCLA second baseman Chase Strumpf, who was the No. 64 pick in this year’s Major League Baseball Draft. On the first pitch, he saw a fastball buzz by his belt, prompting a woman in the stands to lament, “That was the one.”
One strike in, Strumpf laid off a tumbling slider that began in the zone and ended up in the dirt. After just missing a fastball on 1-1 that a young fan proclaimed he, “had to go yard on,” Strumpf hit and beat out a dribbler between short and third base.
With the bases loaded, Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter called a meeting. After a few quick words, Kauffmann saw his first pitch to the next batter, Michael Toglia, laced over the head of Ako Thomas and into right field for a hit. Silva and Mitchell both scored easily, and the Wolverine lead was cut to just one. With runners now on 1st and 3rd, the home crowd began to sense a miraculous comeback.
To turn the tide, Michigan coach Erik Bakich turned not to his bullpen, but instead to sophomore Jeff Criswell who had dominated all season long as a starter. Kauffmann’s walk off the field was met with a standing ovation from the Wolverine supporters, but also with a growing sense of excitement from Bruins fans.
The blend of nervous energy and excitement seemed to flow through Criswell too. On his first pitch, he nearly hit UCLA outfielder Jake Pries square in the mouth. The pitch was met by a chorus of boos from the home fans.
Down a run, several different results would have scored the tying run for the Bruins. After waving through a silky smooth slider, Pries skied the next pitch into shallow left field. There, sophomore shortstop Jack Blomgren settled under it for out number two.
“That was the worst possible outcome,” some fans jeered. Slowly, the Bruin crowd subsided, as the Michigan faithful rose to their feet.
As outfielder Jack Stronach walked up to home plate, sophomore catcher Joe Donovan called a defensive play in case Toglia attempted to steal second. After letting the moment simmer, Criswell took a deep breath and toed the rubber.
The stadium was silent and on the first pitch, Criswell bounced his first pitch into the ground. He followed it up with a beautiful frontdoor change-up that ran from right to left as it stuck the inside half of the plate and evened the count at one.
Criswell then missed with his fastball, making the count 2-1. Recognizing a prime hitter’s count, a fan announced, “Square one up, baby,” as he expected a fastball from Criswell on the next pitch. So did Stronach, whose knees buckled at the sight of another change-up by Criswell that stuck the black for strike two.
Climbing the rail with anticipation, the Michigan dugout was ready to erupt. After a fouled off fastball that dropped in between two Wolverines, Criswell bounced back with his best change-up of the night. Stronach’s head flailed to the side as he waved through strike three. Ballgame.
In Michigan’s most important pitch of the season, Jeff Criswell delivered and put the Wolverines one win away from their first trip to Omaha since 1984.