This weekend the Bulls baseball team reached a point where what they're doing no longer makes any kind of sense. In South Bend to face Notre Dame, with an opportunity to boost their fledgling NCAA Tournament at-large resume, USF pulled out two more extra-inning wins to take two of three from the Irish.
Friday night's game lasted 19 innings, the longest game in school history. It almost ended on schedule, though, because the Bulls entered the top of the ninth trailing 2-0. (Pat Connaughton, not content to merely kill USF in one sport this year, started the game and pitched seven shutout innings.) After a single and two strikeouts, Kyle Teaf singled to put two runners on. Then Alex Mendez delivered with a two-run double to tie the score. All this came off Notre Dame's closer, Dan Slania, who came into the game with an ERA of 0.25.
On to extra innings. Many, many, many extra innings, all scoreless. This is the first game I've ever seen where a closer threw 140 pitches. Slania threw a total of nine innings, from the 8th to the 16th, and ended up with 52 more pitches than Connaughton did. Meanwhile, USF matched Notre Dame inning for inning with Chad Taylor (two scoreless innings), Janick Serrallonga (3 1/3 IP), Adrian Puig (three innings) and Steven Leasure (the last three).
Finally in the 19th, the Irish cracked, and USF made sure that crack turned into a rupture. James Ramsay drove into the go-ahead run with an RBI single (a run that was only on base because Teaf ran to first after the catcher mishandled his third strike). Then USF loaded the bases, and with two outs, pitcher Donnie Hissa threw away an inning-ending ground ball. Two more runs scored. The Bulls followed that with a two-run double by Kyle Copack that sailed over the head of left fielder Mac Hudgins. Zac Gilcrease finished the scoring with an RBI single, giving the Bulls a 9-3 lead. Leasure shut Notre Dame down in the bottom of the 19th to finish a remarkable win.
Saturday's game was only somewhat less crazy. This time it was the Irish with the late rally to force extra innings. USF led 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but Chad Taylor's two-out passed ball allowed Notre Dame to tie the score.
Fortunately this game didn't take 19 innings. The Bulls got three runs in the top of the 10th, thanks to some more mistakes by the Irish, including two passed balls of their own and a fielding error in center field that turned an RBI single by Jimmy Falla into a two-run play. USF added a third run on a sacrifice fly and took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the inning.
And they needed all of those runs because Taylor made a mess out of the Irish half of the 10th, giving up three hits and two walks, including one with the bases loaded that cut USF's lead to 4-3. Strittmatter was called in to put out the fire and got a comebacker to the mound with the bases loaded to end the game. (Taylor still got the win, which is a reminder that wins are the most garbage pitching stat in baseball.)
USF couldn't get the sweep on Sunday -- the Irish pounded them 10-1 -- but the Bulls left town with a 15-3 record in Big East play, tied with a Pittsburgh team that USF handed all three of their conference losses. They've also qualified for the conference tournament in Clearwater at the end of the month (only the top eight get in).
This run the Bulls are on almost defies description. Since dropping two of three against Georgetown and falling to 14-14 on the season, USF is on a 17-2 streak that includes seven extra-inning wins in a row, and nine one-run wins in a row. They're like a mix of last year's Baltimore Orioles, which kept dancing between the raindrops all season and made the playoffs, and the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who won the World Series playing the same kind of low-scoring, excruciating baseball that USF is playing. We're very saber-inclined here, and well aware of the concept of regression. It means that eventually, a player or team will regress to its long-term mean, whether that means their results get better or worse. Baseball teams rarely win this many close games in a row, and if they do, it doesn't keep up for long. You'd think regression will kick in at some point. But in a college baseball season, which is less than half as long as a MLB season, the regression may not have time to happen. How far can USF ride this wave?
A makeup game with Bethune-Cookman will be played on Tuesday night before the Bulls hit the road for a crucial series with Seton Hall (30-16, 13-5 Big East) this weekend.