All they needed was one win.
When USF hosted Louisville with a chance to advance their season and go to the Conference USA tournament, the team hadn’t been swept by an opponent at Red McEwen field all season.
Even after they dropped the first two games of the series, the Bulls were up 7-1 in the ninth inning Saturday, three outs away from a win, and it looked like they would make their ninth consecutive C-USA tournament.
But in the ninth, things fell apart.
Three different USF pitchers gave up eight runs in the top of the ninth, including a three-run home run that put the Cardinals on top for good.
“We had a six run lead with three outs to get and the guy on the mound that we wanted and we didn’t get it done and I don’t know why. I don’t know what happened, but it happened. It’s very unfortunate,” coach Eddie cardieri said.
Chase Lirette was trying to close out the game in relief for starter Nick Manganaro. He came in and got the final out of the seventh inning and then cruised through the eighth.
Lirette stood atop the mound in the ninth three outs away from a USF victory.
But when the first four batters he faced reached base safely and one run crossed the plate, Cardieri made the call to the bullpen.
Enter Joey Livingston, whose 30 career saves lead the school and C-USA. The senior leads the conference in saves this season with nine.
With two on and a five-run lead, it still looked good for the Bulls. But two singles and a wild pitch put three more runs across the plate before Livingston left the game.
“The tables turned and they got some momentum and they went with it,” senior second baseman Mike Macaluso said.
When Matt Ingram came in, two runners were on and the go-ahead run was at the plate.
Third baseman Jeff Baisley couldn’t handle a sharply hit ball and one more run scored, making the score 7-6 with runners at the corners.
Louisville second baseman Logan Johnson came up with the opportunity to tie the game; instead, he put Louisville on top.
Johnson turned on an inside pitch and blasted it to right field; the ball was still rising when the entire Cardinal dugout emptied in celebration.
When the Bulls couldn’t get anything going in the bottom of the ninth, Louisville earned a berth to the C-USA tournament in Houston and USF’s season was over.
Three seniors on the field had to watch in disbelief as their collegiate careers ended.
“You’re not up there throwing the ball across the plate, so you do kind of feel helpless. It’s tough,” Macaluso said. “It’s a heartbreaker. It’s unbelievable. I mean, when you’re up six runs in the ninth inning with three outs left you think you’ve got it, but baseball is a funny game. I give them all the credit in the world. They played well. In the last inning I guess we just fell apart. I would have loved to have gone to the conference tournament and played in that one last time, but unfortunately we can’t do that, so I think it’s definitely tough on the seniors.”
Missing their first C-USA tournament was symptomatic of more than just losing the final game of the season.
After the Bulls started 7-2 in conference play, they won only five of their last 20 conference games.
“I feel bad for our players because for eight innings they battled as hard as they possibly could,” Cardieri said. “They played as good a game as they possibly could and in the end it didn’t work out. I guess it’s kind of a fitting ending to a disappointing season.”