As David Olmedo-Barrera walked up to the plate to start the 11th inning of the third and decisive game in the Super Regional matchup between Cal State Fullerton and Louisville, a sea of red-clad fans that had for three days turned Jim Patterson Field in Louisville, Ky., into a madhouse, shook the stadium.
Olmedo-Barrera, a native of La Canada and a St. Francis High grad, calmly watched as the first two pitches sailed outside for balls, followed by a strike. And then, on a 2-1 count, he connected with a fastball left high and over the plate.
In an instant, the crowd was silent.
The ball sliced down the left-field line, just grazing the foul pole as it flew over the fence. As the home crowd screamed foul ball, the third-base umpire waved his finger to signal home run. After an agonizing five-minute replay review, the call was upheld.
Olmedo-Barrera’s homer — his second of the game — pushed Cal State Fullerton ahead 4-3 and proved to be the game-winning hit as the Titans punched their ticket to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time since 2009.
“The home run, when I hit it, was just unreal, a surreal feeling,” Olmedo-Barrera said. “When the umpires had to review it, I did get nervous. I was very, very nervous, and it felt like an eternity, just waiting for the umpires to make the call.”
Olmedo-Barrera’s shot will also go down as one of the most controversial in college baseball history. This is the first time that a series-clinching postseason hit has been decided by a replay review.
Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook said that he has never seen a crazier finish to a baseball game in his career.
“Never, never. Because I’ve never had to use instant replay ever in a game before that,” he said.
Cal State Fullerton (39-23) opens play in Omaha on Sunday at 5 p.m. against defending national champion Vanderbilt (47-19). The Titans, four-time national champions, are making their 17th appearance in the College World Series, but this season’s squad may be one of the most unlikely in school history to make it to this point.
The Titans returned only one field player that had taken at least 100 at-bats the previous season, and the Titans showed their inexperience early this season, losing five of their first seven games.
“If you would have told me at the midpoint of the season that we would be going to the College World Series, I would have said that you’re crazy,” pitcher Thomas Eshelman said.
However, behind Eshelman, a second-round pick by the Houston Astros in this week’s MLB Draft, and Olmedo-Barrera, who leads the team in home runs (10) and RBIs (45), Fullerton was able to turn around its regular season, finishing with a 34-15 record the rest of the way and qualifying to host an NCAA Regional as the Big West Conference champion.
Eshelman will leave college baseball after this season as one of the most accurate pitchers in the history of the NCAA. He set the single-season NCAA record for walks per nine innings (0.23) his freshman year. In 370 career innings, he has issued just 18 walks, and this season he has tallied a video game-like 18.7/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while posting a 1.58 ERA.
“You can’t coach that,” head coach Rick Vanderhook said of Eshelman’s control. “Our theory here when we recruit is that you can teach arm strength and you can teach them to throw a breaking ball or a changeup, but you can’t teach command.
“You can’t teach guys who can throw quality strikes all the time. That’s something that you have, and he’s going to go down in college baseball as the best ever at doing that.”
For Vanderhook, who won two national championships as an assistant coach for the Titans and one as a player, this will be his first appearance in Omaha as a head coach. This is his fourth season at the helm.
The Titans will be a decided underdog once play starts in Omaha, coming in with the second-lowest national ranking of the eight teams in the field. However, for a team that had to play the spoiler to top nationally-seeded Louisville in the Super Regional, the position is familiar for the Titans.
“As far as going to the World Series and what we’re trying to do, I mean, we’re trying to win it all and we’re trying to shock the world,” Olmedo-Barrera said. “No one thinks we can do it, and that’s where we’ve been all season, and that’s where we feel most comfortable.”