By Riley Zayas
“Don’t play for the moment, play in the moment.”
Texas baseball head coach Augie Garrido’s words were all that Travis Tucker was thinking about as he stepped up to the plate. He was living every kid’s dream. The game was on the line, and he had a chance to bring home the game-winning run. He was facing the sixth opposing pitcher of the game, his legs feeling like Jell-O. The game had lasted more than seven hours, yet with the adrenaline going, thousands of fans on their feet cheering, and his heart beating through his sweat-stained grey jersey, he felt like he had only played about seven minutes.
Such was Tucker's mindset on the night of May 30, 2009 in Austin as he stepped to the plate in the 25th inning of a regional semifinal against Boston College, the game tied at 2-2, in what is still the longest college baseball game ever played. Tucker knew what was on the line. He was familiar with the success of the Longhorns' 2005 College World Series-winning team. He knew exactly what it would feel like to walk off the field in front of the loyal home crowd, having been upset by a No. 3 seed from 2,000 miles away — especially because the Texas faithful had endured a 25-inning contest, cheering and urging their Horns to continue to fight on in what closely resembled a chess match.
Connor Rowe drew a walk. A few at-bats later, Tucker stepped to the plate ... and with a 3-2 count promptly singled under the outstretched glove of the BC second baseman, scoring Rowe from third base. It is a moment Tucker said he will never forget.
“I just happened to get a ball over the plate, a 3-2 count, and knew I could hit it to right field,” Tucker told Horns Illustrated. “I was just trying to do a good job and it got through the infield. The fans showed up and showed out, just like the Longhorn community does, the entire time. I felt like I had the game-winning hit in Omaha.”
Tucker said all the coaches used to teach from a philosophy of “don’t play for the moment, play in the moment.” They taught the UT hitters to take everything pitch by pitch, inning by inning, and to control the things they could control; routine, process and approach.
(video credit: Chris Cole Youtube Channel)
“If you try too hard, most of the time you fail,” Tucker said. “If you stay within yourself, with what you’ve practiced and been taught, you’re going to succeed more than you fail.”
In the bottom of the 25th, the Eagles went quietly — three up, three down. The final two batters hit ground balls straight to Tucker at second base, and on both occasions, he got credit for the putout ... so not only did he drive in the winning run in the top of the inning, he also closed out the game with his glove.
“The funny thing is, and not a lot of people know this, but I caught the final two groundballs to end the bottom of the 25th,” said Tucker. “They hit me back-to-back ground balls to finish it.”
Texas had secured a spot in the regional final, where they would face No. 4-seed Army. The concession stands might have completely run out of food and water over the course of a game that surpassed the time of a typical doubleheader, but the hype surrounding Texas baseball had far from diminished.
Looking back on that evening, it is a night relief pitcher Austin Wood said he will never forget. It is a game he never expected to happen. After all, when the Horns suited up and took the field in front of 7,104 fans, it was expected that Texas would overpower the Eagles, who had posted a record of 34-20 on the season. That was partially due to the No. 1-ranked Longhorns' tremendous amount of power at the plate, in a lineup boasted two future major leaguers in Brandon Belt and Cameron Rupp and a pitching staff that included Wood and starter Chance Ruffin, each of whom was selected to that year’s Big 12 All-Conference First Team. In Tucker’s opinion, and the opinions of many others who witnessed that 2009 squad in action, the Texas pitching was the best in the nation, with four future big league pitchers.
From the get-go, the Longhorns showed why they had been so tough to beat in conference play (17-9 record) and easily had taken down Missouri to win the Big 12 Tournament title. UT put up two runs in the first, and held that lead until Boston College responded by scoring in both the fourth and sixth frames to tie it up at 2-2. That second run by the Eagles set the stage for Wood, who came in to relieve Ruffin.
Wood said his arm was killing him, but he did not let up. As a closer who typically threw only one or two innings each outing, Wood had not been prepared to stay in the game this long. A day after throwing 30 pitches, Wood lasted 13 innings before his curtain call came. With 169 pitches, he came just 20 short of the NCAA record set in 1981 by Oklahoma State's Darren Dilks.
Tucker said the 2009 Longhorns' team chemistry got them through that game against Boston College. It is what put them in the College World Series. It is what earned them a 10-7 record in games decided by one run. Team chemistry made a great team even better. That is the difference between those that reach the top, as Texas did in 2009, and those that do not.
“We had an unbelievably talented team and we played, not baseball, but we played for each other,” Tucker said. “We had unbelievable chemistry and it was a special, special period of time that we came technically one out away from winning the College World Series. But I wouldn’t change the relationships and what we’ve done and where we’ve all grown up to be.”
Enduring a 25-inning game was quite a challenge, but it did not set the Longhorns back — it boosted them forward. It was not over a highly ranked opponent, or with Big 12 championship on the line, but it said more about Texas than most of the other games that season combined. It showed an indomitable spirit that could not be shaken even when things were not going the Longhorns' way offensively, or when errors were committed in the fourth, fifth and seventh innings. It showed the nation what the words, “Don’t play for the moment, play in the moment” truly meant.
By taking it inning by inning, out by out, pitch by pitch, the 2009 Longhorns won a game that ultimately was decided in the 25th inning and fueled their momentum to reach the College World Series, setting multiple records along the way. To this day, that victory still stands as the longest game ever played in NCAA history and longest game ever in the postseason. Tucker said he will remember the joy, the excitement and the experience of that contest for the rest of his life.
“It was truly a fun game to play and one of those things you’ll never forget,” Tucker said with a laugh. “I was telling someone the other day, it didn’t seem like seven hours, it just felt like an extra-inning game. Then you look up and it’s like ‘Wow, there’s 25 of those.'”
(photos courtesy of texassports.com)