Walk-offs, big flies and crying in baseball: 3 days at the men’s College World Series

OMAHA, Neb. — They call it the greatest show on dirt.

Every summer, eight fan bases make the pilgrimage to the plains of Eastern Nebraska, seeking shared experience through comradery, ballgames and booze. Under an unrelenting heartland sun, they congregate, in the tens of thousands, around a three-block radius in downtown Omaha. For 10 days each summer, the mid-size city is swarming with college sports fanatics decked out in school colors.

Concurrent youth travel baseball tournaments in the area serve to only amplify the childlike atmosphere. The entire event is a glimpse into contemporary American baseball culture: the uniforms, the haircuts, the sunglasses, etc. The good, the bad, the deflating and the inspiring, all in one place, at one time.

Young ballplayers sit in the stands at Charles Schwab Field, munching on popcorn as they stare onto the diamond and see a desired future. Next to them, parents and grandparents watch the same game but see the past, the golden glow of college days. Many of the players on the field are in some of the happiest, freest days of their lives. To be young, athletic and skilled is to feel unstoppable, almost superheroic.

This 2024 edition, which features four teams each from the juggernaut SEC and ACC, is the most top-heavy, most unbalanced in the sport’s history. Over the past few seasons, the advent of NIL money and the transfer portal have, thus far, made the rich only richer. There is cash in this thing now, with advertising dollars and television revenue, sell-out crowds and a whole lot of eyeballs.

Still, the College World Series retains its essential charm.

Here, there is crying in baseball — a whole lot of it. Emotion reigns supreme, as it should. Ends of games are ends of seasons are ends of careers are ends of childhoods. Don’t be mistaken: This is not the sharpest-played baseball. But it is some of the purest. And certainly, it’s some of the most thrilling.

Three days and six games have come and gone in this year’s dueling, double-elimination tourney. There have been three walk-offs, one team sent packing and a whole host of dramatic, unforgettable moments.

If you need a primer or a refresher, check out our MCWS preview.

It was a pitchers’ duel in the opener. UNC string-bean right-hander Jason DeCaro, who turned 18 only two months ago, faced off against Virginia’s Evan Blanco. Those two, and then the bullpens, kept things close, with the score 2-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Tar Heel pinch-hitter Jackson Van Den Brake led off the inning with a double down the right-field line and eventually found himself on third base with two outs. UVA opted to not intentionally walk All-American UNC center fielder Vance Honeycutt, who will be a first-round pick in next month’s MLB Draft.

Honeycutt made them pay, lacing a walk-off shot down the left-field line to send a wave of light-blue joy hurdling out of the home dugout.

One for the ages. Billed as the ultimate showdown between the best offense (Tennessee) and the best starting pitcher (FSU’s Jamie Arnold) remaining in the tournament, this game lived up to the hype.

The Seminoles jumped all over Volunteers hurler AJ Causey and raced out to a commanding 9-4 lead after three-and-a-half frames. Tennessee battled back, led by Brooklyn-raised second baseman Christian Moore, who recorded the MCWS’ first cycle since 1956. His sixth-inning home run to complete the feat was one of the most jaw-dropping longballs in recent memory, a 440-foot, 117.4 mph, rocket-powered zipline to dead center.

Entering the bottom of the ninth, Florida State clung to an 11-8 lead. That wouldn't last long. Tennessee rallied, helped by another extra-base hit from Moore and a controversial no-call on a check swing, and eventually walked things off on a gap double by outfielder Dylan Dreiling. This game was unrelentingly exhausting, odd and captivating — everything great about college ball.

Three games, three walk-offs.

Kentucky’s Ryan Nicholson roped an opposite-field, game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth before infielder Mitchell Daly sent Lexington into jubilation with a walk-off tater to left.

The Wildcats’ high-energy, wonky dugout circus was in full effect all afternoon.

A four-hour rain delay dampened the energy, but a strong Saturday night crowd still made its way to Charles Schwab Field for an SEC showdown. Texas A&M put three on the board through three innings, which held up for a nail-biting win, thanks in large part to electrifying Aggie reliever Chris Cortes.

Florida two-way dynamo Jac Caglianone ripped a 117 mph double and came to the plate as the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth. He walked after a long at-bat, and his fellow Gators couldn’t push one across.

A&M’s win was somewhat overshadowed by some despicable in-game behavior from two of its fans, who were escorted out by police. The hooligans, now forever banned from MCWS games, made their way through the stands to the Florida dugout to personally berate Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

The Cavaliers became the first team sent home when they suffered a midday defeat against a resurgent FSU team. Florida State’s offense pounced on Virginia’s bullpen after starter Jay Woolfolk was pulled after 3 1/3 pretty effective innings due to discomfort in his leg. UVA scraped a few back but couldn’t land a big enough blow and was sent back to Charlottesville winless for the second straight year.

At this stage of the season, any season-ending loss is cause for long goodbyes and bleary eyes, and UVA’s defeat was no different. Woolfolk was incredibly emotional in the postgame media conference, fighting through tears to heap praise upon his head coach, Brian O'Connor.

While Woolfolk retains one year of eligibility, he spoke like a man destined for the riches, glories and tribulations of professional baseball. Yet in that moment on the podium, the previous three years of his life rolled down his face at once. All the early mornings, the late nights, the workouts, the travel, the struggles and the successes; it’s all of those things, and it’s more than that, too.

While at Virginia, Woolfolk matured and bettered himself thanks in part to a meaningful relationship with a caring mentor. He was molded by adversity on the field into a better version of himself off of it. This interaction is the bright side — the whole point, in a way — of collegiate athletics.

If we’re being real, this winner’s-bracket game was kind of a stinker, at least by this year’s incredibly high standards. Tennessee’s Drew Beam was better than UNC’s Shea Sprague. Volunteers center fielder Hunter Ensley slammed into the outfield wall for an all-time sensational grab. Kavares Tears ripped a three-run blast in the fourth to open the scoring and give the Orange Army some breathing room.

The Vols never looked back and are now firmly in the catbird seat at 2-0. UNC will face FSU in an elimination game Tuesday.