Show time had arrived, and Evan Justice was ready.
Actually, he was this-is-what-you-prepare-your-whole-life-for ready.
A 6-4, 205-pound senior relief pitcher for N.C. State, Justice locked down the hot bats of top-ranked Arkansas on consecutive nights this past weekend to propel the unseeded Wolfpack to victory in the Fayetteville Super Regional and enable them to punch their ticket to the College World Series in Omaha for the first time since 2013.
“Having confidence in myself and my team has helped me throughout the season, especially that moment, the biggest moment I’ve ever pitched in my life,” said Justice, a 2017 Collegiate graduate, the Richmond Times-Dispatch player of the year as a senior, and a third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection this spring. “Being in the elimination game in the Super Regional is a huge stage. I’m fortunate to pitch to a great catcher in Luca Tresh. I have an amazing infield and outfield behind me, so it makes my job that much easier.”
Playing before a highly partisan and spirited home crowd at Baum-Walker Stadium Friday night, the Razorbacks won the first of the best-of-three series 21-2.
“The message from Coach (Elliott Avent) was to completely forget about it,” Justice said. “Nobody wants to lose 21-2, but it happens. Our mindset was, We have a clean slate. Let’s go out and play the best we can and see what happens.”
Undaunted and resilient, State rallied the next day behind freshman righthander Sam Highfill, found its offensive rhythm, and took a 6-2 lead in the 7th inning before Arkansas’s Brady Slavens homered with one out and Charlie Welch drew a walk.
A lefthander with a four-pitch repertoire (mid-90’s fastball, curve, change-up, slider), Justice forced the first batter, Robert Moore, to pop up to short, then surrendered a sharp single up the middle to Cullen Smith moving Welch to third.
With two outs, Casey Opitz reached first on an infield throwing error allowing Welch to score and moving Smith to second.
The Hogs’ Jalen Battles followed with a single to centerfield scoring Smith as Opitz hustled to third.
With the tying run 90 feet from the plate, the Pack on the brink of elimination, and 12,000 Arkansas faithful doing howling with all their might to rattle him, Justice calmly struck out Christian Franklin with a 2-2 fastball on the outside half of the plate to end the inning.
“You can’t let the energy of the crowd or the momentum they have in that brief moment get to you,” Justice said. “Take deep breaths. Trust yourself. Yeah, they got a couple across, but let’s have a big mindset and not let them get anymore.”
Now firmly in control, Justice retired the side in the 8th and 9th. On his watch. he faced 11 batters, threw 48 pitches including 33 strikes, struck out four, and allowed two hits, no walks, and no earned runs.
Had State poked the bear, though? Were the Wolfpack in for another game-one type shellacking, especially with NCAA player of the year Kevin Kopps (12-1, 0.90 ERA, 131 strikeouts) on the mound for the home team?
In the bottom of the 8th with the score 2-2, Justice relieved Chris Villaman, who had pitched three strong innings after relieving starter Matt Willadson. Poised, confident, and possessed of a one-pitch-at-a-time mindset, he struck out Franklin swinging, forced Moore to fly to left, and stung Smith with a slider inside for a called third strike.
“I generally don’t put Evan into a tie game,” Avent, the veteran coach, said at the post-game press conference, “but I thought, if Arkansas is going to beat us, they’re going to beat our best.”
In the top of the 9th, Jose Torres smacked a home run over the left centerfield wall to put the Pack up 3-2 and, momentarily at least, quiet the crowd.
Then, in the bottom of the inning with the tension palpable and the din now mind-numbing, Justice ignored the distractions and forced Welch to ground out to second and Opitz, the next batter, to short. With two down, Battles dinked a checked-swing roller on a 2-1 count down the first base line which Tresh, the catcher, chased down and fired to Austin Murr a step ahead of the runner for the final out.
Predictably, an effusive celebration and dog pile ensued.
“I just tried to soak up the moment,” said Justice, who’s 5-2 with a 4.09 ERA and 11 saves and has allowed 38 hits, 27 runs, and 25 earned runs, and 24 walks and struck out 68 in 55 innings. “It’s a little bit of a surreal feeling, having that realization that we’re going to compete with seven other teams for the national championship.”
Arkansas, the Southeastern Conference tournament champion, finished 50-13. State, the ACC runnerup, takes a 35-18 mark to Omaha where it opens a three-game series with Stanford Saturday at 2 p.m. EDT at TD Ameritrade Park.
“We’re a really good team,” Justice said, “but everybody in Omaha is good. There’re no givens. Our mentality is to keep rolling and try to play our best baseball every time we take the field.”