Oregon State advances to CWS championship series
OMAHA, Neb. -- The season was on the line for Oregon State and Jonah Nickerson wanted the ball -- on only two days' rest.
Coach Pat Casey let him have it for a second start in four days, and the junior right-hander led the Beavers into the championship round of the College World Series for the first time in school history.
Oregon State and North Carolina may have taken different paths to get to the championship series -- Carolina went undefeated, while the Beavers had to fight out of the loser's bracket -- but both teams inevitably got where they wanted to go. They'll meet in the best-of-three series, which starts on Saturday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
To read more of Around The Horn from Thursday night, click here.
"You just saw one of the guttiest performances by any person I've ever seen in the sport of baseball," Casey said.
Nickerson (13-4) pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings in a 2-0 victory over Rice on Thursday night, setting up a best-of-three series against North Carolina starting Saturday night. The impressive outing came after he threw seven strong innings in a 5-3 win over Georgia on Monday.
"You can't really prepare to pitch on two days' rest, but I took care of my arm and did everything I could," Nickerson said. "Everything since the beginning of the year I've done to keep my arm healthy and my body healthy has helped up to this point."
Oregon State (48-15) advanced from the losers' bracket after falling to Miami on the tournament's first day, assuring there will be a first-time national champion: Neither the Beavers nor the Tar Heels have won the College World Series.
"Winning four straight games just shows the character of our club," Casey said. "We just said when we get beat next time in this bracket format, we were never going to get to play together again."
Nickerson allowed two hits, struck out nine and walked three and was replaced by star closer Kevin Gunderson after fanning pinch-hitter Adam Zornes. Nickerson walked off the mound and received a standing ovation from the appreciative Rosenblatt Stadium crowd and got high-fives and fist bumps from his teammates.
"He just came out there and was outstanding," Casey said. "And our guys scrapped to find a run here and there against the unbelievable pitching that Rice has."
Gunderson struck out Tyler Henley and pitched a perfect ninth for his 19th save, tying him with Kansas' Don Czyz for the national lead. After getting Josh Rodriguez to foul out to left to end it, Gunderson pumped his fist twice and hopped on the mound as the Beavers charged out of their dugout to celebrate.
Gunderson boldly predicted the Beavers would return to Omaha when they lost their only two games last year. He was asked to offer his opinion on the teams' chances against North Carolina.
"No," he said, drawing laughs. "I'm keeping my mouth shut."
Rice (57-13) was shut out by Oregon State for the second straight game after falling 5-0 on Wednesday. After scoring a run in the fourth inning of its 3-2 in over Miami on Monday, Rice failed to score in a CWS-record 23 consecutive innings.
"Our bats just went dead," Rodriguez said. "You have to give [Nickerson] credit. He pitched a good game."
The last team to throw consecutive shutouts at Omaha was Pepperdine in 1992, and the last to be shut out in two straight was Cal State Fullerton in 1982.
Oregon State scored all the runs it needed in the second when Bill Rowe hit a leadoff double down the first-base line and moved to third one out later on a wild pitch by Eddie Degerman (13-2). Mitch Canham's sacrifice fly to left made it 1-0.
"I felt like we had a lot of momentum coming into today," Rowe said. "I think one thing I noticed when I looked in the Rice dugout yesterday and today was that they didn't look like they were ready to come back and beat us."
The Beavers knocked Degerman, the right-hander with the unorthodox overhand delivery, out of the game in the fifth with another run but could've gotten a lot more.
Chris Kunda and Shea McFeely both singled down the third-base line to start off the inning, and Darwin Barney drew a one-out walk to load the bases. John Wallace followed with a hard one-hopper that hit off Degerman's leg and deflected to third baseman Rodriguez, whose throw barely beat Wallace to first as Kunda scored.
Degerman, who pitched in Rice's 6-4 win over Georgia on Saturday, stood behind the mound, hands on both knees, as coach Wayne Graham came out and called on Bryce Cox from the bullpen. Cox came in and struck out Cole Gillespie to end the inning.
Degerman allowed two runs and three hits in 4 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked three. Cox was even better, going a career-high 4 1/3 perfect innings.
Rice had its best scoring opportunity in the seventh when Joe Savery hit a one-out double and moved to third on Aaron Luna's long flyout to right. Danny Lehmann hit a high shot into left, but the thick Omaha air kept the ball in the park as Gillespie made the easy putout.
"Well, even the best of teams' bats go cold sometimes," Graham said. "And I've always noticed the bats go cold when the opposing pitching is great."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press