LOUISVILLE — It looked like the University of Louisville baseball team was Omaha-bound for the College World Series. The Cardinals owned a 2-1 lead heading into the ninth inning and had normally-untouchable closer Trystan Magnuson on the mound against Oklahoma State in the NCAA Super Regional Saturday afternoon.
As UofL athletic director Tom Jurich noted at the start of the inning: "These are the three biggest outs in Louisville baseball history, and we've got the right guy on the mound."
But the celebration will have to wait for at least one more day. OSU tied the score at 2-2, then pushed across a run in the 12th inning to squeak past UofL 3-2 in front of another record crowd of 4,138 in Jim Patterson Stadium and force a decisive third game in the best-of-seven series at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Now, UofL coach Dan McDonnell said, it's time for the Cards to loosen up again and get back to having fun.
"It was a great atmosphere and a great game," McDonnell said. "We just didn't do enough to win and we didn't play as loose as we had been. We wanted to stay aggressive; that's been our style all year. Maybe we were living in a 'what if'? world in the ninth. What if we get three outs? I challenged the kids not to live in that world tomorrow. Our goal is to get them to be loose and relaxed."
UofL freshman left-hander Justin Marks allowed just one hit — a home run — in 6 1/3 innings before Kyle Hollander finished the seventh and handed over a 2-1 lead to Magnuson in the eighth. But Magnuson (3-2), who hadn't lost a game since April 7 against Pittsburgh when he allowed three runs in a 6-2 defeat, surrendered a leadoff homer to Ty Wright — his seventh of the season — over the left field fence in the ninth that tied the score.
"I got a fast ball up and in," Wright said. "I was looking for that pitch, but I didn't know if it was going to get out or not. That was a big lift for us. It instilled a lot of confidence, and hopefully we can carry it over to tomorrow."
It stayed deadlocked until the 12th, with Magnuson retiring nine batters in a row. But with one out, Tyler Mach reached base on third baseman Chris Dominguez's throwing error, the Cards' first miscue in four games covering 38 innings, and Rebel Ridling followed with a bloop single to right field. Then Keanon Simon smacked an RBI single to right for the decisive run. Simon, a .341 hitter, said he had promised his teammates before going to the plate that he would deliver.
"I was just up there trying to get the job done and get that big hit," he said. "After telling the guys that, I didn't want to look like an idiot and make a liar out of myself, so fortunately it worked out for me."
Magnuson worked five innings, his longest stretch of the season. His previous longest stint was four innings, which was the only time this season he had been on the mound longer than three innings, but McDonnell didn't think the senior right-hander ran out of steam.
"We made an error and errors magnify everything," McDonnell said. "I couldn't say that Trystan was losing a whole lot. Baseball is a strange game. It wasn't like balls were being hit to the wall."
UofL threatened in the bottom half of the inning when Pete Rodriguez hit a one-out single up the middle and pinch-runner Chris Pelaez reached second on a passed ball. But OSU reliever Jordy Mercer, who had come on in the ninth inning in relief of starter Justin Friend, struck out pinch-hitter Justin McClanahan and got Chris Cates on a pop-up to end the game.
"It was a game where we felt like we grinded it out," said OSU coach Frank Anderson, whose club was out-hit 8-4. "We were just scrapping and doing the best we could. Their pitchers did a good job. I was really impressed with Marks' composure for a freshman and the way he handled things."
The Cowboys (42-20) took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on Corey Brown's 22nd home run over the centerfield wall, but the Cards (45-22) eased ahead 2-1 with a two-out rally in the sixth. Daniel Burton was safe on a throwing error, Isaiah Howes walked, then Jorge Castillo extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a two-run double to the wall in right field. But that was all the offense UofL could muster against Friend and Mercer (3-1).
"I think we came out just hoping to win rather than coming out ready to swing the bats," Castillo said. "We've just got to keep at it, come back tomorrow and be ready to play. We have confidence in ourselves."
McDonnell and Anderson both said they hadn't decided on their starting pitcher for the rubber match. UofL will probably send either James Belanger (1-4, 4.15 ERA) or Colby Wark (3-3, 3.53), both junior right-handers, to the mound, but McDonnell also mentioned senor lefty Skylar Meade (8-4, 4.64).
"I don't know when I'll decide," McDonnell said. "We've got three guys who could start, and I feel pretty good about all of them."
Said Anderson: "It's not rocket science. You have a gut feeling and you go with it, just like I did with Justin today."
Castillo said he believes most of the pressure will be on the Cowboys Sunday because they're the highest-ranked team at No. 11 to UofL's No. 21 and are playing on the road in front of a hostile crowd. But Wright disagreed. "There's no pressure on us," he said. "Pressure is what you put on yourself. We're just going to go out there and have fun."