Calhoun, Spence power ASU past UNC
OMAHA, Neb. -- The doctor said Josh Spence had a 5 percent chance of playing baseball again in 2009. He switched grips, covered his finger in tape, tried a cortisone shot and even considered acupuncture. That the Australian pitcher was able to come back has been a surprise, nothing short of a miracle, Arizona State coach Pat Murphy says.
So Murphy wasn't about to be second-guessed Sunday when he put a still-mending Spence, not All-American Mike Leake, on his lineup card to face North Carolina in the Sun Devils' College World Series opener. He was so confident in the decision that he casually ate a pulled pork sandwich in the dugout in the second inning. And Spence was so good that he pitched five scoreless innings in the Sun Devils' 5-2, 10-inning win over the Tar Heels in Omaha.
"Brilliance," Murphy deadpanned. "It's mostly about my brilliance.
"The job 'The Mate' did what can you say?"
Spence, an Aussie who missed part of the season with a tendon injury in his left pitching hand, needed a nearly perfect performance in a classic pitchers' duel with Alex White. Carolina's ace left the game after nine innings and 131 pitches, allowing the Sun Devils to finally pounce. Kole Calhoun sealed the game in the top of the 10th inning with a three-run homer off Brian Moran, the second pitcher called from the Tar Heels' bullpen.
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels could've gotten out of the inning when Jason Kipnis sent what appeared to be a routine fly ball to right field with one out. Drew Maggi, who was at first, was nearly rounding second when it appeared that right fielder Garrett Gore glanced over at the runner as he camped under the ball. Gore dropped the ball, keeping the 10th alive for Arizona State.
"I'm not sure what happened," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. "The wind picked up there. I feel bad for Garrett. It happens."
ASU's Carlos Ramirez followed with an RBI single to break a 1-1 tie, before Calhoun's blast put the game out of reach.
It was an unusual ending, one that unfolded as White barely took his seat. He was brilliant for three hours, striking out 12 while scattering seven hits and allowing just one run. Murphy was so impressed with White's outing that he suggested the Cleveland Indians, who drafted him, ought to pay the right-hander a lot of money.
"I went up to him after the game," Murphy said. "I said, 'I know you're disappointed; I know it sucks. But for what my 25 ratty-ass years are worth, you are a hell of a competitor. You are special.'"
White was a no-brainer to start Sunday for Carolina. The Sun Devils' choice took a little more thought. Leake is 16-1, has a 94-mph fastball, and an ERA below 1.40. Before Sunday, Spence, who's 9-1, had pitched just three games since the injury.
But Murphy liked the lefty in part because of Carolina's abundance of left-handed hitters, and the fact that he pitched a nine-inning gem last week in the super regional against Clemson that sent the Sun Devils to Omaha.
Spence struck out eight Sunday, and still looked strong after 122 pitches. Mitchell Lambson got the victory out of the bullpen, striking out five in three innings while giving up one run on three hits.
Murphy said the Sun Devils were lucky in the end, because not many teams strike out 14 times, get picked off twice, commit an error and still win. Even Calhoun said his 10th-inning shot benefited from a wind that may have doomed Carolina an inning earlier.
"I got the 1-1 pitch up in the wind, and the wind took over," he said. "I was trying to have a better at-bat than my ones before, and it wasn't hard."
Calhoun was hitless in his previous four at-bats, something Murphy razzed him about after the game, saying Calhoun spent the first nine innings signing autographs.
The coach, who showed up in a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt at the postgame news conference, was full of one-liners. He said he grabbed the pulled pork sandwich from a concession stand in the second inning because he forgot to eat and was hungry. He said he made a list of all the things to remember about Omaha from the team's trips here in 2005 and 2007.
"The first line says, 'Keep your mouth shut,'" Murphy said. "The second line says, tough sun in right [field]. Big foul territory is No. 3. No. 4 is great pulled pork. No. 5 is Springsteen belongs here."
Just a year ago, Murphy was in the center of controversy, when a former assistant alleged that the coach gave players improper benefits. Murphy has been steadfastly confident that an internal investigation wouldn't reveal any major violations, and said the allegations were a product of a disgruntled employee trying to take him down. One year later, all is quiet in Tempe, Ariz. And Murphy is still going strong.
"Great crowd, great weather," Murphy said. "Great pulled pork sandwich."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.