Kent State entered the final day of the regular season a half-game behind Buffalo in the race for the Mid-American Conference regular-season title and the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
The Golden Flashes and Bulls had 19 wins apiece, though Buffalo had one fewer loss after a rainout wasn’t made up. That meant KSU had to beat host Akron, which it did 4-1, and needed Bowling Green to upset Buffalo.
As it turned out, both games entered the bottom of the ninth inning at the same time, 3:15 p.m. KSU had a three-run lead it needed to protect and the Bulls held a one-run lead.
Since these two teams played in late April — Buffalo won all three games by one run — Kent State has been on an 11-1 run to stay alive in the race for the regular-season championship.
Still, KSU needed help, and it wasn’t coming. Buffalo had led the entire game. As Kent State closer Brian Clark took the mound to finish the ninth, players in the KSU dugout were being made aware of what was happening in the final inning of the Buffalo game. KSU coach Scott Stricklin was, too, and through all of them the players on the field were being alerted as well.
Before Clark had recorded the first out of the inning, the Falcons tied Buffalo at 4-4.
“You’ve got guys whispering down the dugout, ‘It’s tied, it’s tied,’ ” Stricklin said.
Once Clark had two outs in the ninth, the big news hit at 3:22 p.m. Bowling Green’s Patrick Lancaster won the game with a walk-off triple, completing an improbable comeback. KSU starting pitcher Casey Wilson put his fingers in a “W” to Evan Campbell, and several players jumped up to the front step of the dugout.
There wasn’t much time to get the word out beyond that. Almost at precisely the time that news came down, Clark got Akron second baseman Derek Sheltrown to hit a weak ground ball back to the mound. Clark bobbled it but made the throw. In a flash, the MAC regular season was over and the trophy was headed to KSU.
Seven minutes earlier, the situation for Kent State was bleak, the hot streak to finish the season not enough. Then there was hope. And then they had done it, before anyone caught their breath.
“We were kind of following it in the dugout to see what was happening and coach Strick said, ‘This out’s for a ring,’ ” said Wilson, who threw six scoreless innings and allowed three hits. “Then Brian [Clark] got the groundout. It was just so crazy at the time it happened like that.”
The two games ending together allowed Stricklin to relieve some pent-up stress. After last season’s historic ride to the College World Series, high expectations had been heaped on the KSU program this year.
“It’s very satisfying to win it just because of everyone expecting us to win because of what we did last year,” he said. “This is a whole new team, whole new group of kids. With those expectations, it can be a heavy weight to bear. ... It’s a relief. The last two weeks we knew we had to be near perfect. I’m just proud of them.”
It’s the third consecutive regular-season title for Kent State and the seventh in eight years.
Left fielder Alex Minklos led KSU offensively, going 2-for-4 with two RBI and hit his second home run in as many days.
Campbell came through with a two-run single that put KSU ahead 3-0 in the third inning.