When pinch runner Anthony Diaz scored the game-winning run on a dramatic suicide squeeze play against Pittsburgh on Saturday, the USF bench emptied as the team celebrated the victory it needed for any chance of making the Big East tournament.
The odds of USF reaching the tournament in Clearwater were good, as long as the Bulls could beat the Panthers on the final day of the regular season. A USF win – paired with a loss by Cincinnati, Seton Hall or Notre Dame – would have sent the Bulls to play for a conference title.
Yet a 4-3 win wasn’t enough. For the first time since 2004, USF failed to qualify for its conference championship tournament. It is also the first time in coach Lelo Prado’s career, which has also included positions at the University of Tampa and Louisville, that he will not coach a team in the conference tournament.
Trailing 3-1 headed into the bottom of the ninth at the USF Baseball Stadium, the Bulls needed two runs to have a chance to make it to Clearwater.
Shortstop Sam Mende was hit by a 3-2 pitch to lead off the inning before Daniel Rockhold, the potential game-tying runner, reached base on a walk and gave the Bulls both of the base runners they needed with three outs to work with. Pittsburgh brought its closer Alex Caravella into the game, but he immediately yielded a bunt single to Alex Mendez that loaded the bases.
Todd Brazeal drew a walk, scoring Mende and cutting the deficit to one. The comeback was on. Rockhold was thrown out at the plate after a fielder’s choice by Chad Taylor, but a throwing error by the catcher trying to throw Taylor out at first, allowed Mendez to score and Brazeal to move to third.
Prado replaced Brazeal with Diaz in hopes that the speedy runner could score the winning run.
Second baseman Luis Llerena set down a bunt, which allowed Diaz to score on a suicide squeeze and set off USF’s wild celebration.
There was only one problem: Seton Hall beat Georgetown 6-3, Cincinnati upset conference regular-season champions Connecticut 7-4 and Notre Dame held off Louisville 2-1. USF’s chances of making it to Clearwater were ended with Mendez standing in the batter’s box.
USF ended its first season in its new ballpark with a home record of 15-12, book ended by a walk-off home run by Brazeal in the first game at the park and a walk-off bunt by Llerena in the last home game of the season.