MCWS Final Game 1: Texas A&M is in prime position to win MCWS, but don't count Tennessee out

OMAHA, Nebraska — And that's why they play the game.

On paper, Tennessee should have had no trouble with Texas A&M in Game 1 of the Men’s College World Series Finals.

The Volunteers are the No. 1 ranked team in the country and have been since early May. Entering Saturday evening's contest, the Vols had compiled a nearly perfect 8-1 NCAA Tournament record, after tearing up the Big Orange grounds of Hoover, Alabama during the SEC Tournament on their way to the title. After blowing out their side of the MCWS bracket, they head into the best-of-three title fight with a healthy and extremely well-rested roster that includes at least two players whose names will be called in the first round of next month's MLB Draft. Vegas oddsmakers rightfully have UT as their favorite.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M was knocked out of the SEC Tournament in two games, including a 7-4 loss to Tennessee, lost its sure-fire first rounder for the remainder of the postseason to a broken ankle, lost its No. 2 pitcher to a hand injury the very next day, its leading home run hitter injured a hamstring while running the bases and its catcher/spiritual leader and designated hitter wore more ice packs than a flock of penguins. Whenever the Aggies walk through the lobby of their hotel adjoining Charles Schwab Field, they look like a TV commercial for an EMT supply store. During Friday's pre-championship press conference, Texas A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagel apologized for all of this, repeating over and over, “Man, I really wish we were at 100%. Sorry.”

So, naturally, it was A&M that handed the Vols a Texas-sized 9-5 upset loss on Saturday night. Now suddenly, it's the Aggies who are one win away from a first-ever MCWS title and Tennessee that is nursing its wounds. Mental wounds.

“You find different ways to respond,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said after his first MCWS finals game. “You can either be disappointed that this happened tonight or you can be more determined … and where there is determination, there is also play.”

Then, a few moments later in the hallway, he added, “And if you don't come out of a night like this with more determination, you can't get back up. You just fall back 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. This is real life. With real life lessons. Now we find out who learns what and how they use it in Sunday afternoon's Game 2, which will either give the Aggies a win or set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday evening.

“We'll get on the bus and I'll congratulate them on the win,” Schlossnagel said of his plans for handling his team after a win that put them in the MCWS driver's seat, an easily explained but psychologically challenging “it's just another game” mentality before the biggest game of their lives. “They know it's a 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 it sounds coach-like, but if you start thinking about things other than that, Tennessee will knock you out of the ballpark.”

For Vitello, the relatively good news from a bad night is that his team overcame the seemingly unconquerable frustration of a 7-1 third-inning deficit and a 7-2 score that continued into the seventh, tempered somewhat by one of the more typical back-to-back homers that cut the lead to four and finally started pushing A&M through a bullpen it had been able to ignore for a week. Then another flourish of hits put the potential game-winning run on deck in the bottom of the ninth. Even more importantly, a bench that has struggled to keep its composure on big stages over the past few years continued its upward trend in 2023-24, one that certainly doesn’t let adversity become an unnecessary emotional issue at inconvenient moments.

It got close to boiling point a couple of times on Saturday night, but then the knob was turned down to reduce the temperature.

“I think you just play baseball,” Vitello said of his message as he watched his team — and himself — move their emotional tachometers into the red. “You make sure you don't focus too much on how big the crowd is and things like that. You forget the basics. The important things that happen in a game, like communicating, focusing on a particular task. It's true, what you're talking about in life, simpler is better.”

For Schlossnagle, there are the good feelings of a great start, a big early lead and, of course, a win. But also, his team kept its composure even when Tennessee threatened to rally and the fact that, even in the midst of that chaos, he managed to use only four pitchers on the night and none of them lasted more than the four innings pitched by top pitcher Ryan Prager. The last of those pitchers, reliever Evan Eschenbeck, dug deep to dig himself out of a ninth-inning hole, striking out the last two batters with runners on the corners, the last of the Aggie staff's 17 K's on the night against America's most lethal college baseball offense, the most ever recorded in an MCWS nine-inning finals contest.

“We held probably the best lineup in the country to five runs in a strong wind, and that was in such a great venue,” the coach said of that night in front of 26,498 spectators.

As he sat on the bus that night to quietly make the trip, one win away from Texas A&M’s first MCWS title, he said, still holding the final stats sheet with Tennessee’s limited output: “Man, if I can learn anything positive from this, I’ll have to find another job!”

“We all do this to stay in this position,” said Eschenbach. “You always want to have the opportunity to do something special. But getting the job done one night doesn't guarantee you'll do it the next night.”

Again, that's why they play the games. Are there only one or two of those games left before this national title is determined? If we learned nothing else Saturday night, it's that it's pointless to assume we know what will happen until the game is actually played.

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