OMAHA, Neb. — This is a story about a pitcher who cried in his Omaha hotel room. The head coach with the trust to put the season in his hands. And the pitching coach who had a weekend to help repair a young man’s battered psyche.
This is a story about how the past often doesn’t matter in baseball. Matter of fact, sometimes it just lies. Texas A&M started a guy Tuesday with a 37.80 earned run average in this Men’s College World Series. And now he’s a folk tale in Aggie-land.
Nathan Dettmer. The pitcher who put up all the Notre Dame zeroes Tuesday afternoon. The struggling Texas A&Mer who in seven innings gave up three hits, no runs, and created a day he will remember the rest of his life. The Aggies play on in Omaha after beating the Irish 5-1, and the pitcher who led them there is the sophomore who was so crushed by what happened only four days before — when he didn’t get out of the second inning against Oklahoma and gave up seven runs — he went back to his room and wept.
Standing in a Charles Schwab Field hallway Tuesday, Texas A&M pitching coach Nate Yeskie tried to put the moment into the context of his sometimes-cruel sport.
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“You think about however many hours ago it was, he was sitting in the dugout feeling like he let his team down. Now he’s on cloud 9 in there. The same guy, the same ability. Sometimes it’s the breaks, but it’s just baseball.”
Not far away, the hero of the hour was just beginning to comprehend what had happened to his team – and to him.
“I just felt so little. I felt like I let everyone down,” Dettmer said of the Friday shellacking by Oklahoma. “So I went into my hotel room and I cried. I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost.
“But to come back and have Coach give me the ball just two games later, all that confidence just flowed through me . . . My teammates believed in me. My coaches believed in me. I just had to believe in myself. It was all up here.”
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With that, he pointed to what was suddenly the most famous head in College Station.
So here was the situation. Texas A&M vs. Notre Dame in an elimination game with no margin for error, especially for the man on the mound. Win, and the Aggies would be in the final four of the College World Series for the first time in history. If there was any anxiety and doubt among the maroon masses, well, you’d understand. Their starting pitcher had been living a nightmare.
Dettmer had started three games in the NCAA tournament before Tuesday. In 10.1 innings: 18 hits, 17 runs. His ERA his past seven appearances was just south of 11. He was positively thrilled when he was named the starter for Game 1 here. Why, he’d even be throwing the first pitch of the 2022 College World Series and how cool was that? But the walls quickly caved in, as the Sooners were all over him with seven runs in 1.2 innings. Hence, the Omaha ERA of 37.80. A small sample size to be sure, but pretty hard to miss on Tuesday’s stat sheet.
But among other things, the CWS is a chance to make bad memories go away. With each fastball he blew past the Notre Dame bats Tuesday, with each sinker the Irish futilely swung over, all the recent bad news faded away. Dettmer didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning. When he left after the seventh, he had struck out six, walked none and had never blinked from start to finish. His first pitch was 94 miles an hour. So was his 99th and last.
Watching with growing pleasure from the dugout were head coach Jim Schlossnagle and Yeskie, a pitching guru who is now with his third different program in the College World Series – including Arizona and 2018 national champion Oregon State.
Their soothing of Dettmer began almost immediately after the Friday blowup. Yeskie had the first conversation in the dugout.
“I told him he was going to pitch again. It’s baseball, you’re going to have some rough patches. Be ready to go again. At this point there’s not a lot of physical adjustments that players are going to make. Just keeping the mind right, keeping him focused on understanding that it’s good to get the bad one out of the way.”
Yeskie would have other conversations over the following days, with a theme similar to one he has used with other pitchers from other teams in Omaha.
“How many times in the backyard have you played in the seventh game of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth? Now you get to do that. You’re playing in the World Series, so everything you did when you were a little kid playing with your friends, you’re here now, so enjoy it. Really just be present and be in the moment. I think the kids that understand what that means, it takes away some of the perceived pressure, whether it’s people’s expectations or the ones you put on yourself. It gives you a chance to just go out and play, because it’s still a game.”
Dettmer listened and heard. But when would he get his next chance?
“It felt like forever,” he said of the wait from Friday night. “That one game I got pulled, it felt like a 20-inning game.”
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Schlossnagle studied his pitching situation for Tuesday. He needed to win this game, but he also had to think ahead and not totally drain his staff. Dettmer had thrown only 44 pitches Friday before he was knocked out. He could be the man who not only started but maybe put up some innings and save the bullpen arms for later tasks.
“I honestly didn’t think we had an option,” Schlossnagle said.
So he gave Dettmer the word on Monday. The pitcher’s reaction: “Let’s do it. Let’s go. I want it.”
It didn’t take long Tuesday to see he was ready for atonement. Yeskie quickly perceived that Dettmer was commanding both sides of the plate with his fastball, landing his breaking ball, effectively using his change.
“When you can pitch ahead with something off-speed that’s running two different directions, use your fastball to both sides of the plate, constantly, driving the count, I think you’ve got a pretty good chance,” Yeskie said.
“Honestly, I don’t want to seem cocky, but I felt like I could throw any pitch in any count,” Dettmer said.
His teammates could see it, too.
“I would look up at the big screen and see guys completely swing over the sinker,” third baseman Trevor Werner said. “It was starting in the right spot and finishing in the right spot. They obviously didn’t have fun with it.”
No, they didn’t.
Notre Dame’s Brooks Coetzee III: “His pitches had depth. He had the sinker going, He had the fastball going. Had the change-up going. Nothing was going straight. And he was pitching everybody differently. Didn’t fall into tendencies. My first AB was different than my second AB. You just tip the cap.”
By the seventh inning, all the Aggies understood they were watching something truly memorable. After a two-out Notre Dame single, Yeskie went to the mound and told Dettmer the next batter would be his last, no matter what.
“I told him, `I’d rather see your face in the dugout after the third out as opposed to after a pitching change. So just go ahead and empty the tank right here,’’’ Yeskie said. “He just put a smile on his face and kind of made me feel comfortable at that point.”
One last ground ball, and that was it.
Texas A&M would be playing Oklahoma Wednesday. And Nathan Dettmer’s world had turned 180 degrees in 96 hours.
“Just to kind of redeem myself and again to know that he trusted me with the ball, and to know my guys behind me believed in me. It was amazing,” he said.
Said Yeskie, “It’s why we coach. We coach to motivate kids and get them to push beyond boundaries they may have set for themselves or limitations people in our industry put on them.”
Dettmer thought back to that dark Friday night; the tears in his room and the text he got from fellow Aggies pitcher Micah Dallas, telling him that one baseball game did not define him as person. And the prayers to God.
“He’s got a plan for me,” Dettmer said. “And that one game wasn’t it.”