Tucson, AZ (KOLD) –With two outs, Jay Johnson sends the baserunner. It's what he does. Especially in a one-run game. Better not to worry about getting another hit. Roll the dice on the relay throw being bobbled. Let there be a play at the plate. Either way, send the runner.
Except at the exact moment Cody Ramer rounded third, Johnson threw up both hands. Ramer stopped and scrambled back to the bag.
"There was no shot," Johnson said.
No shot because in the most crucial moment of the most crucial game of the 2016 College World Series, the ball had already made its way into the infield, this despite the fact that Ryan Aguilar's bat had sent it all the way to the left field corner.
And it was thanks to Coastal Carolina left fielder Anthony Marks. Or more specifically, Marks' cutoff throw.
"For about a week to two weeks it literally was the very first thing that I thought about when I woke up in the morning," said Johnson.
Moments after Marks' throw stopped the potential game-tying run from scoring, the ESPN commentator made this observation:
"That play in left field by Marks is one that's not going to show up in the book. But if they can get an out right here, that just won Coastal Carolina the national title."
"It was one of those things where everything had gone right," said Johnson. "And there was an expectation in my mind coming up into the 9th inning. We were going to do what we needed to do to find a way to win the game or go into extra innings."
The Wildcats entered the 9th down 4-2. With one on and one out, Ramer singled to right field, advancing Louis Boyd to third. Zach Gibbons followed with a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Boyd.
The Cats were now just down one run. Two outs. Gibbons on first. Power hitter Ryan Aguilar up to bat.
"Right before the pitch," said Johnson, "I thought the only place that we can score the guy from first base is in the right field corner or the left field corner. And he hit it there."
Aguilar swung on the 1-1 pitch and sent it screaming to that corner. Ramer, a strong baserunner, took off from first. Watch the replay. Just as Ramer rounds third, Chanticleer shortstop Michael Paez receives the cut-off throw.
"To get the ball into Michael Paez, who has one of the best throwing arms of any short stop in college baseball, I had to stop him," said Johnson. "There was no choice."
With Ramer representing the game-tying run on third, pinch hitter Ryan Haug came to the plate.
First pitch: Ball
Second pitch: Ball
Third pitch: Strike
Fourth pitch: Strike
Fifth pitch: Ball
Then on the sixth pitch, Haug struck out swinging. Coastal Carolina had completed the come-back having lost game one only to sweep the next two and win the 2016 College World Series.
They can thank Marks' cut-off throw for the dog pile on mound.
Seven months later and on the verge of his second season as Arizona's head baseball coach, the throw doesn't haunt Johnson nearly as much as it once did.
"Most of the reflection at this point is, what did that team do to become successful?" he said. "What things from that team do we want to emulate? And then what are the ways of moving past it?"
Moving past it means acknowledging the accomplishment then forgetting about it – advice Johnson heeded from Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay. Johnson takes the advice literally. He doesn't refer to the 49-win 2016 team as "us" or "we." He refers to it as the 2016 team.
"There's a completely different challenge or set of goals in front of this team which will be extremely difficult," said Johnson. "I'm excited for that challenge. The margin for winning or losing in our sport, in our conference, is as small as you could get. And I think back to some of the games that went our way or didn't go our way and they're often defined by a pitch or a play. Like the National Championship game."
Like the National Championship game - a game that was all the drama you'd expect from a College World Series Game 3. Even if the outcome wasn't desired.
"The team that deserves to win usually does," said Johnson. "In those two games, Coastal Carolina deserved to win, the way our team had executed forty-nine times and won. So I leave it to baseball to decide the winner."
Johnson and the Wildcats begin chapter two at home against Eastern Kentucky on Friday February 17th.