(photo by Craig Jackson)
OMAHA, Neb. – The summer after his freshman season, Thomas Hatch felt something in his elbow. Several doctors and many uncertain feelings later, and the Oklahoma State sophomore was diagnosed with a sprained UCL and shelved for the 2015 season.
A year later and Hatch has returned with a vengeance, steadily becoming one of the best pitchers in the nation and leading the Cowboys to their 20th College World Series, but first since 1999.
In their return Saturday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park, the Cowboys rode the right arm of Hatch, who turned in a splendid performance in allowing five hits and striking out seven in a 1-0 victory over Shane Bieber and UC Santa Barbara. Before a crowd of 20,956, Bieber nearly matched Hatch pitch-for-pitch, but three singles in the fourth – the last, a run-scoring liner to center from Garrett Benge – provided just enough punch for Oklahoma State.
“It’s pretty clear that both the young men that took the mound today were dialed in,” Cowboys coach Josh Holliday said.
That Hatch was even in the position to be dialed in at the College World Series after missing an entire year is remarkable.
“I’ve said it a lot: I really couldn’t have imagined this year being like this,” Hatch said. “My focus was just being healthy. I just took it one start at a time. It builds. When you simplify things, it makes things a lot easier.”
Holliday said he couldn’t envision the kind of year Hatch has had, a year in which he was named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and was a third-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, and being on college baseball’s biggest stage.
“I mean, when a kid misses a season due to injury, you’re hopeful they can get back and resume their careers and get back to contributing and having fun and enjoying the game again,” Holliday said. “For a kid to return from injury and become a conference pitcher of the year, a first-team All-American and put together some of the outings he’s put together, that’s exceptional.”
Holliday added, “And he’s been exceptional. To think you could have anticipated that, I don’t see how you could have.”
Saturday marked Hatch’s 18th start. It also marked the 13th time he’s gone seven or more innings and 14th time he’s allowed two or fewer runs. In the NCAA Tournament, he’s made three starts spanning 23 innings with no runs – earned or unearned – with 15 hits, five walks and 20 strikeouts. At a time when he’s been facing some of the top teams in the country, he’s improved his season’s ledger to 9-2 with a 1.89 ERA and four complete games.
After not throwing off a mound for the better part of 15 months, Hatch changed his arm slot last June.
“It felt natural, it felt good,” he said. “I had more sink on the ball. And it came out hotter.”
Mixing a low-90s two-seam fastball – Hatch said it’s the same velocity as his four-seamer but has more movement – change and slider, he wiggled out of a few testy spots early against the Gauchos.
In the second, JJ Muno doubled to left-center before Hatch got Kyle Plantier to line out to short and struck out Josh Adams. The next inning, Andrew Calica reached on an error. Clay Fisher couldn’t hit a ball any harder, hitting a laser right at Benge at third, where he snared the ball and fired a strike to first to double-up Calica. In the fourth, Austin Bush singled with an out but was stranded, starting a stretch when Hatch retired 12 in a row, four by strikeout.
“The first couple of innings, he wasn’t on his game, I would say,” Muno said. “And then he kind of settled in in the fourth and he was just a three-pitch mix, locating in and out with the fastball.”
Bieber (12-4), for his part, cruised through the first three innings before Corey Hassel and Donnie Walton led off the fourth with singles. Benge, fresh off his slick play in the top half, got a pitch up and lined a single to center to score Hassel.
Bieber, who allowed six hits and struck out six, was aided by Fisher at short, who leaped to rob a hit from Conor Costello and doubled up Benge at second. That started a binge where Bieber retired 14 of 15 from the fourth to the eighth inning, giving him his 11th start in 18 in which he allowed two or fewer earned runs.
“The big thing was leaving my pitches up, offspeed especially,” Bieber said. “[I was] falling behind with my fastball, and when I tried to mix up my pitches with the offspeed behind in the count, I was leaving them up and they saw them pretty well.”
UCSB, making its first appearance in Omaha, falls into the losers’ bracket and will meet the loser of Arizona and Miami. Oklahoma State awaits the winner.
“This is our 20th trip to Omaha,” Holliday said. “And for a long time, we were a fixture here. And that was something our program and players who played here and our fans took an amazing amount of pride in. So, trying to get back into that mode is something that we’ve been very determined to try to do.”
The determination of Hatch has a lot to do with that.
Holiday cited pitching coach Rob Walton, whom according to ESPN’s Jeremy Mills was the last Cowboys pitcher to throw a shutout at the College World Series, and trainer Eli Williams for helping Hatch get back on the mound.
“A lot of people showed a lot of care, a lot of time and a lot of effort in that young man,” Holliday said. “And the return for the team and the kid has been exceptional.
“So, it’s a great story.”