‘There’s no Lombardi speech’: Texas A&M won Game 1, but there’s still plenty baseball left
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OMAHA, Neb. — And that is why they play the games.

On paper, Tennessee should not have had any trouble with Texas A&M in Game 1 of the Men’s College World Series finals.

The Volunteers are the nation’s No. 1-ranked team and have been since early May. Entering Saturday evening’s contest, the Vols had posted a nearly perfect 8-1 NCAA tournament record, this following their Big Orange ground scorching of Hoover, Alabama, during the SEC tournament on the way to the title. After blowing through their side of the MCWS bracket, they entered the best-of-three title fight with a healthy and ridiculously well-rested roster that includes at least two players whose names will be called in the first round of next month’s MLB draft. Las Vegas oddsmakers rightfully had UT installed as their favorite.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M was bounced from the SEC tourney in two games, including a 7-4 loss to Tennessee, lost its surefire first-rounder for the remainder of the postseason due to a broken ankle, lost its No. 2 pitcher to an arm injury the very next day, had its leading home run hitter tweak a hamstring running the bases and saw its catcher/spiritual leader and designated hitter wear more ice packs than a rookery of penguins. Whenever the Aggies walk through the lobby of their hotel adjacent to Charles Schwab Field, they look like a TV commercial for an EMT supply store. During Friday’s pre-finals news conference, Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle kept apologizing for it all, repeating over and over, “Man, I really wish we were at 100 percent. Sorry.”

So, naturally, it was A&M who handed the Volunteers a Texas-sized 9-5 upset loss on Saturday night. Suddenly, it’s the Aggies who are one win away from a first MCWS title and the Vols who are tending to their wounds. Mental wounds.

“You find out different ways to respond,” Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said after his first MCWS finals game. “You can either get frustrated that tonight went that way or you can get more determined … and where determination kicks up, play kicks up.”

Moments later, in the hallway, he added, “And if you don’t come away from a night like this more determined, then you don’t kick it up. You get kicked down again.”

Because this isn’t Strat-O-Matic. The Men’s College World Series isn’t played on paper or even in a sports book. It’s real life. With real life lessons. Now, we find out who learns what and how they use that in a Sunday afternoon Game 2 that will either anoint the Aggies or set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday evening.

“We will get on the bus and I will congratulate them on the win,” Schlossnagle said of his plans on how to handle his team after the victory puts the Aggies in the MCWS drivers’ seat — that easily explained but psychologically challenging “it’s just another game” mentality ahead of the biggest game of their lives. “They know it’s one game. We all know what’s at stake. There’s no Lombardi speech. We just try to keep it as loose as we can. We’ll hit in the cages and get our ground balls tomorrow and play. I know that sounds coachy, but if you start thinking about things other than that, Tennessee’s going to blow you out of the ballpark.”

For Vitello, the relatively good news from a bad night is that his team overcame the seemingly unconquerable doldrums of a 7-1 third-inning deficit and a 7-2 score that carried all the way into the seventh, somewhat soothed by more characteristic back-to-back homers that cut the lead to four and started finally pushing A&M through a bullpen it had been able to ignore for a week. Then another flourish of hits had the potential game-tying run on deck in the bottom of the ninth. Even more importantly, a bench that in years past has struggled on big stages to keep its cool continued its 2023-24 upward trend of not letting adversity become an unnecessary emotional issue at decidedly inconvenient moments.

On Saturday night, it came close to the boiling point, on a couple of occasions, but the Vols found the knob to turn down the heat.

“I think you just play baseball,” Vitello said of his message when he saw his team — and himself — start moving their emotional tachometers into the red. “You make sure you don’t put so much weight on how big the crowd is and things like that. You lose sight of fundamentals. The important things that go on in a game, like communicating, focusing on whatever the certain task is. It’s true in whatever in life you’re talking about, simple is better.”

For Schlossnagle, there are the good vibes of the hot start, the initial big lead, and, of course, the victory itself. But there also is his team’s ability to keep its composure when Tennessee threatened to rally and that — even in the middle of that mess — he still managed to use only four pitchers on the night and none for more than the four innings worked by ace Ryan Prager. The last of those hurlers, reliever Evan Aschenbeck, dug himself out of that ninth-inning hole, striking out the final two batters with runners on the corners, the last of the A&M staff’s 17 K’s — the most recorded in a MCWS nine-inning finals contest — against America’s most lethal college baseball offense.

“We held maybe the best lineup in the country to five runs with the wind blowing out and in the middle of such an awesome setting,” the coach said of the Aggies’ efforts in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 26,498.

As he started his exit from that night, to take that low key ride on the bus, one win away from Texas A&M first MCWS title, he added, still gripping the final stat sheet with that limited Tennessee output: “Man, if I can take positives from this, I need to find another job!”

“We all do this to be in this position,” Aschenbeck said. “All you ever want is a chance to do something special. But taking care of business one night doesn’t guarantee you’re just going to do it again the next.”

Again, that’s why they play the games. Is there only one more of those games remaining, or two, before this national title is determined? If we learned nothing else on Saturday night, it’s that it is useless to assume that we know what will happen until the games are actually played.



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