Dakota Donovan was simply insisting on doing what his coach had told him all season.
"That's the farthest I've ever let a guy go in my coaching career as far as pitch count," Central Arizona College coach Anthony Gilich said Thursday after Donovan threw 113 pitches to lead the Vaqueros past Walters State Community College (Tenn.) 12-5 in 10 innings and into the championship game of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
"Dakota and I had a discussion after the eighth inning and he won. He wanted the ball. He was our closer early in the year and I changed him to a starter, so we prepped him all fall, 'Once I give you the ball don't ever give it back,' so it held through almost the whole way."
After the eighth inning, with the Vaqueros up 5-2 on Walters State, Gilich was ready to go to Lucas Knowles. Donovan had a different idea.
"I just told him in a very friendly way that I'm going to finish this game," the big sophomore right-hander said.
He gave up a leadoff double to Michael Robinson and a pinch-hit, two-run home run off the top of the scoreboard to Alex Bibb before giving the ball to Knowles, who, with two out, surrendered a game-tying home run to center by Drew Haynie.
"We've got a way to make things interesting out there, don't we? We're nothing if not interesting," Walters State coach David Shelton said. "Hats off to Central Arizona, what they were able to do; that's a heck of a ballclub right there.
"Their starter, Donovan, is as good an arm as we've seen all year. I know when we saw him pitch their opening game I was kind of worried if something happened and he'd come back around to us having to face him later in the tournament, because he is a shutdown arm."
Bibb's clutch home run ignited the Senators' dugout, and after Haynie's tying shot, the winning run was on first after Jerry Hammons singled.
A pitch by Knowles bounced off Jake Meyer's shin guard and Hammons, after hesitating, took off for second. The ball rolled right to Knowles, who threw a strike to second to erase Hammons and preserve the tie.
"Before I went up there, Coach Shelton told me this guy's pounding us outside so you might want to sit out there," Bibb said. "He threw two right past me and I said I better not be late this time, he's probably going to do it again and I got a pitch and hit it."
The Vaqueros (49-20, 4-1 JUCO) allowed Walters State, last year's national runner-up, back in the game once, but not twice. Tied 5-5 in the top of the 10th, Central Arizona sent 11 men to the plate and scored seven runs, stringing base hit after base hit.
"I know we have no quit, we've come back from a lot worse than that and we got into the dugout and our mentality was basically, we're not losing," said Clayton Keyes, who drove in two runs in the 10th. "That's where we've been every single game, we just come out and tell ourselves we're the best team out here and it's been working for us."
Early in the 10th, Walters State got a break when, with the bases loaded, Josh Dudden lifted a fly ball down the third-base line. Robinson tracked it from shortstop, but dropped the ball. He alertly threw to the plate, with catcher Max Riemer catching the ball on his knees and lunging to tag the plate before Ernny Ordonez could score.
But Blake Petty hit Brennan Reback to get the go-ahead run across, and was replaced by Zebby Matthews. Meyer singled in another run and Ian Raidy reached on an error for an 8-5 lead. Liam Spence's base hit scored another run, and Keyes and Ordonez followed with a single, and double, respectively, to put the Vaqueros three outs from the title game.
Bryce Hodge led off the bottom of the 10th with a base hit, but Brayden Combs, who hit a pair of solo home runs in the fourth and sixth innings, lined a shot headed down the right-field line, but Ordonez made a diving catch at first and landed on the base for the double play, and Knowles struck out Braydon Runion to end it.
"This team's been through so much adversity this year, every time we're down or something hits us we still believe we're in the game," Ordonez said. "At the beginning of the year we lost a lot of people to injuries and at the end of the year the games started becoming fun. When we got back in the dugout we just said one base runner at a time."
Until Donovan tired, getting one run at a time was enough for the Vaqueros. Their starter struck out 11, giving him 26 for the tournament, and walked only one, his only walk in his 15 innings of work.
"Coming into both games I knew I just had to command that fastball because of how explosive our offense is," Donovan said. "You don't walk people, we're going to have some success."
Knowing they would be playing for the title if they won had the Vaqueros ready, and when it was mentioned in the postgame press conference, all of the players broke out into big grins.
"The whole year the goal has been to win a national championship," said Donovan, who won a Division I national title last year with Oregon State before transferring to Central Arizona, as did Knowles, who played in the CWS last season for Washington. "We've always thought we were that caliber a team and we weren't looking too far ahead to the national championship. We knew we had to win today."