Injuries can’t stop Texas A&M on its run to College World Series finals

OMAHA — Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle remembers how he felt when he saw Braden Montgomery, one of the biggest stars in college baseball, break his ankle as he slid into the plate in the NCAA super regionals two weeks ago.

“Yeah, my heart sank,” he said Friday. “Everything sank in that moment, mainly just for Braden.”

The Aggies’ problems were just beginning. Their No. 2 starting pitcher suffered a season-ending arm injury the next day, the right fielder who made a game-saving catch at the wall in their College World Series opener tweaked his hamstring running the bases earlier this week, and their catcher and designated hitter have powered through nagging injuries for weeks.

Schlossnagle and his staff have had to get creative with their lineup and pitching plans, and everything they’ve tried has worked.

Now they’re two wins away from Texas A&M’s first national championship in baseball. The Aggies (52-13) open the best-of-three CWS finals on Saturday night against Tennessee (58-12). Both teams went 3-0 in double-elimination bracket play.

The Volunteers are the first No. 1 national seed since 2009 to reach the finals and are trying to become the first to win the championship since 1999. It also would be the Vols’ first title in baseball.

Tennessee is the favorite, according to BetMGM. The Volunteers are minus-185 on the money line, meaning a bettor would have to wager $185 to win $100. The Aggies are plus-140, meaning a $100 bet would return $140.

It’s the second straight year, and third time in four years, that the finals have matched teams from the Southeastern Conference. The SEC has had at least one team in the finals in 15 of the past 16 years.

Texas A&M will start Ryan Prager (9-1) against Tennessee’s Chris Stamos (3-0), whose role has been as an opener before AJ Causey (13-3) takes over early in games.

The teams haven’t met in a regular-season series since March 2023. Their only meeting this season came in the conference tournament last month, a 7-4 Tennessee win in Hoover, Alabama.

Vols coach Tony Vitello said it’s probably a good thing for both teams that the finals are being played at a neutral site.

“Their place has their own unique brand, how they do things. And you’d be remiss if you didn’t say it gets rowdy in that ballpark,” Vitello said, adding that his team’s stadium was “absolutely bananas” during the super regional-clinching game against Evansville.

Texas A&M’s Montgomery, a projected top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft next month, had started every game in right field since he transferred from Stanford after last season and was batting .322 with 27 homers when he broke his right ankle against Oregon on June 8.

No. 2 starting pitcher Shane Sdao was 5-1 with a 2.96 ERA when he injured his left (throwing) arm in the second game of the Super Regional.

Jace LaViolette tweaked his hamstring running the bases against Kentucky on Monday. LaViolette was the player who reached up with his back against the wall to make the catch that robbed Florida’s Cade Kurland of a two-run homer in the ninth inning when the Aggies were ahead by a run in their CWS opener.

Designated hitter Hayden Schott has been playing on a torn meniscus and All-SEC catcher Jackson Appel has been “really banged up,” Schlossnagle said, though the nature of Appel’s injury wasn’t disclosed.

“I think from a team standpoint you just rally around it,” Schlossnagle said. “That’s all you can do. You can’t control it, so you ‘out team’ the other team. That sounds coachy, but that’s the way we talk about it.”

With Montgomery out, second baseman Travis Chestnut moved to center field and LaViolette, who usually plays center, slid over to right. Kaeden Kent, son of ex-major leaguer Jeff Kent, has started three games at second and freshman Jack Bell has started one.

The loss of Sdao prompted Schlossnagle to bring back Justin Lamkin as the No. 2 starter. Lamkin had been a starter until May 11 and then made two appearances out of the bullpen. He got two starts against Florida in the CWS and allowed no runs in a combined eight innings.

“The other pitchers have been prepped over and over and over again that this is going to fall to more than just the three or four guys that have pitched to this point,” Schlossnagle said. “It’s going to take a village to get through the next two or three days.”