With one swing of the bat, Sam Cohen became a legend at UC Santa Barbara.
The freshman catcher, who graduated from JSerra High School last year, swatted a pinch-hit grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning June 12 against Louisville, giving the Gauchos an improbable 4-3 victory and advancing them to their first College World Series in school history.
The home run off one of the best closers in college baseball was replayed throughout the day by major sports networks and publications, and will be relived for years to come at UC Santa Barbara.
“It really, really hit me right before I hit first base,” Cohen said by phone the following day from Louisville, Ky. “I looked back in the dugout and saw everybody coming out. Right then, I was like, ‘We’re going to Omaha!’’’
What magnified the feat was Cohen’s inactivity most of the season. He was the back-up catcher for the Gauchos, starting just five games and stepping to the plate only 27 times before manager Andrew Checketts asked him to pinch-hit against Louisville.
The man on the mound was hard-throwing right-hander Zack Burdi, a first-round major league draft pick just days earlier by the Chicago White Sox. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, Burdi had just thrown a fastball the inning before that was clocked at 103 mph.
Louisville was playing on its home field, but was the visiting team in the second game of the best-of-three series. Burdi struck out the first batter of the ninth, but then allowed a single up the middle. That seemed to rattle him, as he walked the next two batters to load the bases and bring up Cohen representing the winning run.
“I just wanted to put a barrel on the baseball and hit it as hard as possible,” Cohen remembered.
Burdi threw a ball on the first pitch, then consecutive strikes to bring the count to 1-2. Cohen, a left-handed hitter, figured Burdi would come back with his best pitch, the fastball, but he was wrong. The catcher called for a changeup on the outside corner, but Burdi missed on the inner-half of the plate.
Cohen was ready.
“Right when I hit it, I was like, ‘Alright, I hit that hard enough to get over the [right-fielder’s] head,’ but I just didn’t know if it had the height on it [for a home run],” Cohen said. “I looked up and it just wasn’t there.”
Cohen knew the game was over, but still had two bases to touch and then home plate, where his entire team was waiting in a half circle to greet and then bury him in a dog pile.
A day later, the adrenaline had worn off and the soreness of the dog pile had set in. The Gauchos stayed in Louisville another day and then flew directly to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
The extra day gave Cohen more time to soak in his historic home run, but all he could think about was how his teammates set up the moment.
“We were down 3-0 going into that last inning, and the at-bats leading up to me getting up to the plate were really the highlight of the game,” Cohen said. “I did as much as I could up there, just trying to get a pitch, and it was really my teammates doing all that before me that really stood out.”