OKLAHOMA CITY – Carson McCusker wasn’t going to let his junior season end Monday night.
Whether it was highlight reel catches in left field or driving in the pair of game-winning runs, the Sparks, Nevada, native gave everything he had to help the Cowboys defeat Connecticut.
McCusker’s line drive in the bottom of the sixth inning separated what had been a tie game. It became the game-winning hit in a 3-1 victory in the winner-take-all NCAA Regional game at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
“Carson delivered the first big, clutch, multiple- RBI hit that we’ve had in a couple of games other than the rally the other night,” OSU coach Josh Holliday said. “A number of kids, at that time, slowed their heartbeat down enough to deliver, and I’m really proud of them.”
The Cowboys’ win clinched a Super Regional berth against Big 12 foe Texas Tech – to be played later this week in Lubbock, Texas. It’s their first Super Regional berth since 2016, when they advanced to the College World Series.
It took OSU an if-necessary game to do it after winning its first two regional games. The last victory came against a UConn team that racked up 71 hits in the tournament.
“I knew I was going to have to be nails, and I knew I was going to have to be locked in,” OSU senior Joe Lienhard said, who earned the win on the mound. “They got a few guys on early, and my defense did a great job. Pitching with these guys behind me really makes it easy.”
McCusker’s defense was a big reason for the OSU victory. In the first inning, he made a leaping catch at the wall, in foul territory, to record the third out, with a runner on base.
Three innings later, McCusker caught the leadoff batter’s blast to the left-field wall. He caught it while jumping into the wall.
His final highlight was a mistake at first. UConn’s Christian Fedko hit a line drive to left field, but McCusker got a bad read on the ball. However, he corrected course and dove forward for the snag. It saved another leadoff batter from reaching base.
“There’s a white tarp on the second deck right in that sight line from the conference tournament to this tournament, and the ball can – for a split second – travel into that white tarp and come out,” Holliday said. “It’s part of learning to play the field. We struggled with that a little during the conference tournament, but when we got here, he worked his tail off the first day of finding that sweet spot and seeing the ball. So compliments to him for making that adjustment.”
Both teams scored a run in the fifth inning. The Cowboys (39-19) scored on an Alix Garcia solo home run. Garcia was 2 for 3 at the plate in the win.
In the sixth inning, McCusker put his Cowboys on top with a line drive double off the left-field wall. Trevor Boone earned a one-out walk right before Bryce Carter hit a single to right field that advanced Boone to third. Carter briefly stopped at first, but sprinted to second when the throw from right-fielder Kyler Fedko was mishandled by first baseman Chris Winkel.
Two pitches later, McCusker made the Huskies (39-25) pay.
“I knew that guy was going to pitch to me, because Al had a great swing earlier that day and a home run,” McCusker said. “So, I just went up there and told myself not to do too much, and came through.”
The Huskies brought in closer Jacob Wallace after McCusker’s double. Wallace threw 2 1/3 innings Sunday night and struck out all seven OSU batters he faced. On Monday, he didn’t allow a hit in 2 2/3 innings, while striking out five of eight batters.
OSU was also led by strong pitching … once again. Lienhard threw six innings and allowed five hits and one run, with one walk. He struck out four batters.
Peyton Battenfield closed the game, throwing the final three innings. He didn’t give up a hit, and struck out five batters.
“Joe Lienhard saved his best outing as a Cowboy for that moment in time,” Holliday said. “I’m really proud of him. What an up and down season for him. He wasn’t great early, got sore and had to spend the month getting his arm back in shape, and was so determined to come back strong. We’re not sitting here unless he does what he did tonight. And then, Peyton was sensational behind him.”
Lienhard also made a highlight reel catch – not to be outdone by his left fielder. With runners on first and second in the fifth inning, UConn’s John Toppa popped a bunt into the air. Lienhard dove, full extension, toward the third-base line and caught the ball.
The catch saved at least one run as Anthony Prato followed with an RBI single. Had the runners advanced on the bunt, the Huskies would have done more damage, but Lienhard was determined to leave it all on the field in what could have been his last game.
“In an elimination game, being a senior, I just want to do anything I can to help our team win,” Lienhard said. “I just went for it.”
McCusker said Lienhard’s catch surprised him a bit.
“The best catch of the game was Joe’s catch,” McCusker said. “I honestly didn’t know he had that in his arsenal, but he proved me wrong.”
The dates of the Lubbock Super Regional haven’t been announced. It will likely begin either Friday or Saturday.