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College World Series: Solid Pitching Puts Texas A&M One Win From An NCAA Championship

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Jun 23rd, 2024 1:41am EDT

Ryan Prager of the Texas A&M Aggies delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Tennessee Volunteers during the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship on June 22, 2024 at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

OMAHA, Neb. – It was the type of matchup you’d expect to see on the biggest stage: an elite pitcher facing what might college baseball’s most powerful offense in game one of the 2024 Men’s College World Series final.

The pitcher, Texas A&M’s Ryan Prager, had to face a Tennessee lineup that hit 178 homers, the most in the nation, as twilight fell on Charles Schwab Field.

Would Prager be able to shut them down? Would the Aggies offense be able to provide enough run support if Tennessee got to him?

The second question was answered, at least partially, on the third pitch of the game, when A&M leadoff man Gavin Grehovac launched an 0-2 fastball into a stiff breeze that carried and carried until it was over the right field wall, giving A&M a 1-0 lead. After Jackson Appel scored from second on Hayden Schott’s single, Prager went to the mound with a 2-0 before he threw a pitch.

Tennessee was able to scrape out eight hits against Prager and got five runners into scoring position, but only were able to muster two runs, as the Aggies’ starter remained poised and attacked, throwing 60 of his 81 pitches for strikes. The Aggies pitching held up, as they took game one 9-5 on Saturday evening.

It’s easy to be confident behind a lead, and confidence is something that Prager and the A&M pitching staff have worked on all season with Max Weiner, who came to A&M after five seasons with the Seattle Mariners organization, where he served as pitching coordinator, helping to develop a staff that includes the likes of Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller.

“What he’s done, I think he’s just instilled confidence in guys,” Prager said on Friday. “Not that guys didn’t have it before, but it’s a new level of it. He’s given you the evidence and helped guys get better, whether it’s stuff. But really the mentality of it, he makes sure everybody is confident in themselves over confident in their stuff.”

By the time he stepped to the rubber to start the bottom of the third, the A&M lead was 7-1, after the Aggies sent nine batters to the plate and scored five runs in the top of the frame.

It’s also easier to be confident when you’ve faced an opponent before and Prager has – recently, too, throwing 2.1 innings to open Texas A&M’s 7-4 loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament on May 23. He allowed one run on three hits, taking a no decision, and Tennessee went on to win the SEC title.

“The first thing he obviously talks about is dominating the zone because we have to be in the zone first to give us a chance,” Prager said of Weiner at Friday’s press conference.

By dominating the zone, Prager is referring to Weiner preaching to his pitchers to throw first-pitch strikes and throw strikes on 1-1 counts, and Prager did just that Saturday night. Facing 20 batters, Prager threw 16 first-pitch strikes, and managed to throw strikes twice in four 1-1 counts.

“Max has done just an unbelievable job with our pitches out and getting them to believe in throwing the ball in the strike zone,” said A&M head coach Jim Schlossnagle after the game. “…Especially against Tennessee, there’s going to be some damage, but you’ve got to limit damage by not giving up free bases.

The Texas A&M pitchers did limit the damage, giving up just three walks, and while Prager allowed three hits in both the second and third innings, he escaped each frame having allowed just one run. When Prager left the game in the top of the fifth after surrendering a double to Tennessee’s Blake Burke to open the inning, Weiner greeted him at the dugout steps with a hug.

“We were in pole position several times to knock him out earlier than we did. And it kind of seemed to be a theme on offense — one more quality at-bat or guy on base could have altered some things or changed things the way they use their bullpen,” said Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello.

And then the Aggies bullpen locked down the win, allowing three runs on four hits using three pitchers – Josh Stewart, Brad Rudis, and Evan Aschenbeck – to throw five full innings.

“[My] Mindset was just win, do anything that do anything that I can to help this team win,” Aschenbeck said following the game. “At the end of the day, that’s what all postseason is about is doing things and doing my best ability to give my team the best chance to win. And so when I get the opportunity to go out and pitch, I just want to throw strikes, limit free bases. If they get hit, they get hit. Like, it’s baseball, it’s going to happen.”

Pitching got the job done for Texas A&M in game one. What’s the plan for game two against Tennessee, who will likely be putting Drew Beam on the mound?

“We’re facing a great team. We’re facing a great pitcher tomorrow,” Schlossnagle said. “And I have no idea who we’re going to pick. So we’ll put it together, but we’ll just do what we do. It’s all we can do.”

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network