Laden with injuries and driven by the memory of last year’s bitter disappointment, a depleted but determined Wichita State baseball team clawed its way to the 1989 College World Series title Saturday afternoon in Omaha.
With a 5-3 victory over the Texas Longhorns, the Shockers capped a season that saw them constantly fighting to survive.
“Playing with our backs to the wall” practically became the team motto as WSU faced elimination a total of six times in NCAA postseason play, three times in the West II Regional in Fresno, Calif., and three times in Omaha. But the Shockers won each time to get to Saturday’s final.
In the CWS alone, the Shockers twice defeated top-seeded Florida State to stay alive before downing second-seeded Texas.
Saturday’s victory also helped ease the nightmare of last year’s College World Series. In 1988, the Shockers were within one strike of the title game but didn’t make it, suffering a pair of crushing losses to runner-up Arizona State. But junior catcher Eric Wedge told Gene Stephenson last Christmas that WSU could win the national title in 1989. And with a stern game face, Wedge told anyone who would listen that he would not be satisfied with anything less.
Saturday afternoon, Eric Wedge finally smiled.
Standing on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium Saturday afternoon, amid hugs and cheers and more than a few tears, he knew that his team finally had done it.
And the smile he wore was like sunshine breaking through the cloudy, gray afternoon.
“Eric Wedge is finally completely satisfied right now,” he said. “This is everything we’ve ever worked for, ever. Anything less than a national championship would have been a disappointment.
“There’s not a team that works harder or a team with more heart. It’s just incredible.”
And WSU coach Stephenson, almost overwhelmed by emotion, agreed. His Shockers, 68-16, had overcome a Texas Longhorn team that had thus far skated through the NCAA tournament undefeated.
“I just can’t say enough about these guys,” Stephenson said. “There is just no label to describe them. I am so happy, I have no idea what to do. This is just fantastic.”
Powered by a gutsy complete-game pitching performance by WSU starter Greg Brummett and a fifth-inning, two-run home run by shortstop Pat Meares, the Shockers – playing before a national television audience and cheered by a contingent of about 500 Shocker faithful who traveled to Omaha – won a game packed with drama, touching moments and enough memories to last a lifetime.
For senior left fielder Mike McDonald, it was almost too much to believe.
“What am I supposed to say? We’re the best team in the United States this year and it’s incredible,” McDonald said. “I’m fully satisfied. This is the top of my college career and this is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Saturday afternoon, every time WSU needed a lift, somebody provided it. And as had been the case all season for this team, there were different somebodies providing the spark all the time.
By the bottom of the third inning Saturday, WSU had worked its way to a 3-0 lead on two hits and three Texas errors. But the Longhorns returned the favor and scored two runs in the top of the fourth inning on three hits and two Shocker errors.
So, with a 3-2 ball game going into the fifth inning, the Shockers were looking for a little inspiration. And Bryant Winslow provided a lot of it.
Texas center fielder Lance Jones laid down a bunt to third baseman Mike Jones, who bare-handed the ball and threw it to Winslow. Winslow, playing with a stress fracture in his right leg, had to stretch across the basepath to catch the ball and Jones ran into him full bore.
Winslow tried to play despite the pain but had to give up when he found he couldn’t stand on his injured leg.
Joey Wilson came in to play left field and McDonald moved to first, and the Shockers seemed to rise from that point. In the bottom of the inning, Wilson dropped a one-out single into shallow center field, and Pat Meares launched a 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall, near the scoreboard. WSU led 5-2.
Although the Longhorns would score one more run in the sixth inning, WSU had received all the boost it needed to claim the school’s first NCAA championship in any sport.
“Meares’ home run was a tremendous lift because there’s a lot of difference between a one-run game and a three-run game,” Wedge said. “It brought the momentum back our way.”
For Wedge, the empty feeling of last year’s heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in the CWS winners bracket final at long last has disappeared. In its place is an engaging grin.
“I get hit on quite a bit for not smiling and not showing any emotion,” Wedge said. “But I try to keep a game face on and keep my poise until the very end.
“It’s all right to smile now. This is the very end.”