Herculean pitching performances propel Oregon State

How did Oregon State win its first NCAA baseball title? Look no further than some Herculean arms.

Updated: June 27, 2006, 5:01 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, but that's old news. Today's headline: The Oregon State Beavers left their arms in Omaha.

The arms can stay here, because the College World Series trophy is going home to Corvallis. The Beavers are perfectly willing to make that trade.

Besides, arms are overrated appendages. Ask Venus de Milo.

Behind a trio of Herculean pitching performances, Oregon State won the second national title in school history and the first in any sport since a cross country championship in 1961.

For a school that was never supposed to be able to compete with the warm-weather competition, this was a historic breakthrough. Oregon State becomes the second-most northerly college to win a national baseball championship.

Jonah Nickerson
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJonah Nickerson threw 323 pitches in three games, collecting a CWS championship along the way.
For a team that could never breathe easily in Omaha, this was a spectacular run of do-or-die baseball. The Beavers won six straight elimination games to capture the CWS.

And for a power-deficient squad that had to get by with small ball, defense and the men on the mound, this was a pitching tour de force. Jonah Nickerson, Kevin Gunderson and Dallas Buck threw until their wings were screaming, their legs were burning and their backs were locking up.

Then they threw some more.

"If I could take all their arm pain and put it in mine, I would," first baseman Bill Rowe said. "Because they deserve it."

They wouldn't stop throwing until Oregon State had outlasted North Carolina in an epic three-game championship series, winning a witheringly tense rubber game 3-2 Monday night.

"They came out and bowed their neck and buried the thing in the dirt," Oregon State head coach Pat Casey said. "They played like champions."

Nobody more than the he-man hurlers. There are sweatshops that work their labor more gently than Casey worked his three studs -- but Casey hardly had a say in the matter. Nothing less than a six-point restraint would keep these guys from pitching Monday night.

"They all wanted to pitch," Casey said. "They all wanted to get into the game. It's kind of fitting that it would go Jonah, Dallas, Gundy. ... Those guys have been warriors for us."

Nickerson threw an even 100 pitches Monday, bringing him to a masochistic 323 in an eight-day span in Omaha. The work in the title game came on three days' rest, which was a luxury compared to his previous outing. That one came on two days' rest.

He was the only logical choice for CWS MVP after gritting his way through 6 2/3 innings Monday night, allowing only two unearned runs and giving the Beavers a chance to steal the thing from a more rested Carolina squad.

Pitching coach Dan Spencer went out to hook Nickerson at one point and came back without him.

College World Series coverage
For complete College World Series coverage, check out the College World Series index.

"I'm staying," Nickerson told him.

When he finally cracked and it was absolutely, positively time to come out, in the seventh, the junior got a standing ovation from the entirety of Rosenblatt Stadium. Everyone in Carolina blue stood up, too.

"That's probably something I'll remember forever," Nickerson said. "But I knew I was giving the ball to some pretty good pitchers."

Actually, Casey turned first to Joe Paterson and then to Eddie Kunz, neither of whom were capable of shutting the door. As they struggled, Casey noticed that Buck had shucked his sandals and put on his cleats.

"I'm going down to the bullpen," Buck told his coach.

"OK," Casey said. "Go on down."

Buck entered this season as a hot pro prospect but saw his velocity mysteriously dwindle. Recent media reports said he's facing postseason surgery -- Casey said he didn't know whether that will be the case -- and Buck himself said Saturday night that he hasn't felt good all season.

Casey clearly was concerned about Buck's soundness, resting him a week between starts here. But 48 hours after he pitched in a Game 1 loss to the Tar Heels, Buck was ready to be part of the drama Monday night.

With runners on first and second and nobody out in the Carolina eighth, Buck came in. He got three outs on a ground ball and two strikeouts to save the day, then went three batters into the ninth before giving way to Gunderson.

The little senior -- not much bigger than the championship trophy he lugged around everywhere after the game -- entered the night tied for the national lead in saves. But he was a long way from fresh, too. The closer worked an exhausting 5 1/3 innings Sunday night in the Beavers' 11-7 win.

When he woke up Monday morning, the first words out of roommate Nickerson's mouth were, "How do you feel?"

"I rolled over and touched my arm, making sure it was still there," Gunderson said, smiling. "And it felt good. But my legs and my lower back were really tight."

Kevin Gunderson
AP Photo//Eric FrancisKevin Gunderson's gritty performance in relief defined Oregon State's title run.
Gunderson stretched that morning, loosened up again at the park and bided his time to make one more appearance. When Oregon State scored the winning run on a calamitous error in the eighth (more on that later), the guy they call "The Vulture" had the margin he needed to close down the season.

"When Gundy came in to close that thing down, I knew he wouldn't give up any runs," Rowe said.

Not that it wasn't close. Not that there wasn't a last jolt of drama for Rosenblatt Stadium to deliver.

With men on first and second and one out, Gunderson got Josh Horton to hit into a potential 3-6-1 double play. But Horton narrowly beat the relay to first to keep Carolina's season alive. With the tying run advancing to third, that brought up the hottest stick in the CWS, Heels cleanup hitter Chad Flack.

No problem. Gundy got Flack to fly out to center field, and black hats flew off heads all over the field as the joyous dog pile commenced.

The Carolina dugout was stunned into silence. A team that won the first game of the championship series, led the second game 5-0 and had the pitching matchup it wanted in the third game wound up the loser.

Blame it on four errors, the last of which allowed the winning run to score, and an unfortunate swing of the bat that negated an audacious steal of home in the eighth. But the final error, on what should have been an inning-ending, routine 4-3 play in the Oregon State eighth, will linger longest in Chapel Hill.

Bryan Steed, a seventh-inning replacement at second base, collected a ground ball by pinch hitter Ryan Gipson and prepared to throw to first. But Steed said he hurried the throw a bit, resulting in a Steve Sax special that escaped first baseman Tim Federowicz for an error. Rowe went from second to home with the winning run.

In fairness to Steed, who bravely answered questions after the game, he didn't get much help from Federowicz, normally a catcher who was making just his fourth start of the 68-game season at first base. Federowicz appeared to be slightly off balance when he got to the bag to receive the throw, didn't make much of a stretch toward it and had it skip off the edge of his glove.

The shocking error might have been karmic payback for the Chris Webber timeout of 1993 and the Fred Brown pass of 1982. It also was a flatly unfair way for such a dramatic game to end.

"I don't even think Bryan should be sitting up here at this table," Carolina coach Mike Fox said in the interview room. "He's one of the finest young men you'll ever be around in your life. … We wouldn't be sitting up here if it weren't for Bryan Steed."

As shockingly bad as the play was, it did not define this game. Oregon State's outright defiance in the face of defeat was the story of the night, the story of this College World Series and, ultimately, the story of this college baseball season.

The leaders of that defiance were the Beavers' indomitable pitchers. As exhausted as they had to be Monday night, they still weren't out of energy when they left the ballpark.

"We're going to live it up," Gunderson said, "until we can't live it up no more."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE