Sam Houston would have to win five games in a row in three days to overcome the curse of the No. 1 seed. Only twice in the tournament's 20-year modern history (2004 and 2011) has the No. 1 seed won the event. In only one of those championships (in 2011) did the top seed battle through the loser's bracket to win.
The Bearkats, however, knew exactly what they needed to get done and they were up to the task. They nearly pulled it off.
In a pair of hard-fought battles, Sam Houston, after coming off a 4-3 walk-off win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, fell just short in the semifinals as fourth-seeded UT Arlington rallied to beat the Bearkats 7-6 to move on to the tournament's championship game today at 5 p.m.
The Mavericks will play either Southeastern Louisiana or Stephen F. Austin, which defeated the Lions 4-3 to force an elimination game before the tournament title game, at 5 p.m.
The emotions after Friday's rollercoaster day were intense.
"It hurts and it's not fun," Kats sophomore left fielder Luke Plucheck said after the team's loss to UT Arlington. "I'm proud that we didn't back down. The better team won today and we can't hang our head about that."
Trailing 5-3 in the eighth inning, the Kats were hurting for some runs in a big way as they were staring elimination straight in the face.
Freshman center fielder Colt Atwood jump-started the inning with a single through the right side of the infield. Plucheck attempted to lay a sacrifice bunt down the third-base line, but beat out the throw from Mavericks closer Adam Boydston. The ball fell out of first baseman Jordan Vaughn's glove, which allowed Atwood to advance to third base.
With a prime opportunity to do some damage without any outs, junior third baseman Kevin Miller waited for the right pitch, and once he got what he was looking for, he launched it over the left-field wall to give the Kats their first lead of the game after trailing by as many as three runs.
"Every time we come in, we tell them that we're going to follow the leader and one person's going to get on and the next person's going to get on," Miller said. "(Mavericks reliever Collin Reynolds) left a changeup up and I left my hands back and the ball went from there."
The Kats couldn't make that lead stick as UT Arlington rallied to tie the game. A pair of two-out singles set the stage for third baseman Travis Sibley, who drove in left fielder Preston Morrow to knot the score at 6.
In the top of the ninth, the Bearkats put together their own two-out rally as freshman shortstop Corey Toups singled up the middle, Atwood doubled down the third-base line and Plucheck drew a walk to load the bases.
Miller had another chance to be a hero. He drilled the ball up the middle, however, Mavericks shortstop Ryan Walker made a spectacular diving snag. Walker flipped the ball to teammate Michael Guerra a split-second before Plucheck reached the base, which prevented the go-ahead run from scoring and ended the inning.
"Kevin hit that ball about as hard as you can hit it and the guy knocked it down," Plucheck said. "You can't control what the umpire's going to do. He felt like I was out and he called me out. You've got to give UTA credit."
Just as quick as the wind came out of Sam Houston's sails, the Mavericks ended the Kats' hopes of a tournament championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament in one fell swoop as UTA right fielder Preston Beck, who was 0-for-4 going into the ninth, hung a low-flying liner that just cleared the right-field wall for the walk-off win.
Missing out on the opportunity to take care of business themselves in the conference tournament, the Bearkats will now have to hope that the NCAA Tournament selection committee feels they have done enough to earn one of 34 at-large bids to the NCAA regionals, which get under way next Thursday.
"We're playing next week, though, we're hoping," Miller said. "We can't control our fate, so we have to let things play out. We're ready to get back to practice and get ready for next weekend."
The selection show will air Monday morning at 11 a.m. on ESPNU.
"I feel like we made a pretty good argument to get an at-large bid for a regional. We've been playing well all year and we won the conference outright," Plucheck added.
In the earlier elimination game against A&M-Corpus Christi, the score was knotted at 3 going into the bottom of the ninth when Sam Houston's sophomore designated hitter Anthony Azar uncorked the first pitch he saw and sent it soaring over the left-field wall for a walk-off home run.
"I was just wanting to give my team the best chance to win. I just wanted to hit the ball hard and put it into play and ultimately just try to get on first base," Azar said. "I ended up getting a fastball and I hit it pretty well."
The win not only knocked the Islanders of the tournament, but also allowed the Bearkats to stave off elimination for a few hours.
Bearkat closer Michael Burchett did an outstanding job in the late innings closing down the Islanders at the plate.
"Michael did a good job. He just left one pitch up and it hurt us," Sam Houston head coach David Pierce said. "Allen Scott and Burchett were great. That's exactly what we needed. We were able to get deep enough in the game and we didn't burn any bullpen."
Sam Houston State stood No. 49 in last week's NCAA Division I RPI ratings, a major factor in the NCAA Selection Committee's process.
The Kats built an impressive resume in their first 50 games this season. Sam Houston defeated Rice (No. 11) and Dallas Baptist (No. 22) in midweek games, while winning series San Diego (No. 28) to open the season, Texas State (No. 60) and Southeastern Louisiana (No. 56). The Bearkats own a 10-8 record against teams currently ranked in the RPI top 64.
Inversely, losses against Houston , A&M-Corpus Christi , McNeese State and Central Arkansas could hurt the Kats' case as well. Sam Houston faced some later season injury problems and struggled at times, going 8-9 in May. Two of those losses however came at the hands of top 20 teams Rice and Texas A&M.
"The San Diego series was definitely early, but it really has helped us to stabilize our RPI right now. At the same time, with them doing as well as they have that's definitely documented by the committee," Pierce said.
"Playing some better RPI teams like DBU and Rice and getting wins from those is great. Southeastern, Texas State and even UT Arlington are all in the top 60 to 65, so those are all good wins. The other part of it is seeing how the automatics play out. If the right schools win the automatics, it can definitely help you as well as if the wrong schools win the automatics, it can definitely hurt you. Hopefully we've done enough to get some consideration."
2012 Southland Conference Baseball Tournament
Bobcat Ballpark, San Marcos
UT Arlington 6, McNeese State 2
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 9, Sam Houston 2
Texas State 11, Stephen F. Austin 1 (7 innings)
Southeastern Louisiana 6, Central Arkansas 3
Sam Houston 7, McNeese State 1 (Cowboys eliminated)
Stephen F. Austin 7, Central Arkansas 2 (Bears eliminated)
UT Arlington 10, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 5
Southeastern Louisiana 7, Texas State 1
Sam Houston 4, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 3 (Islanders eliminated)
Stephen F. Austin 9, Texas State 7 (Bobcats eliminated)
UT Arlington 7, Sam Houston 6 (Bearkats eliminated)
Stephen F. Austin 4, Southeastern Louisiana 3
Stephen F. Austin vs. Southeastern Louisiana, 1 p.m.
Stephen F. Austin- Southeastern Louisiana winner vs. UT Arlington in championship game, 5 p.m