<
>

Around the Horn: Beavers win first title

6/27/2006

FROM THE BOOTH

By Kyle Peterson, ESPN.com | Kyle Peterson Archive

Oregon State's championship can't be attributed to pitching, hitting or even defense. One word describes the Beavers' title run: resilience.

In defeating North Carolina 3-2 Monday night, the Beavers became the first team to win six elimination games in the College World Series. They are just the second team in the last 26 years to win the national championship after losing the opening game in Omaha. The last two teams to do it were also from the Pac-10 (USC '98 and Arizona '80).

Coach Pat Casey did a tremendous job building the Oregon State program into a title contender and guiding the ship in Omaha. It wasn't always pretty -- the Beavers were decimated by Miami 11-1 in their first CWS game -- but Casey's squad never lost confidence. The Beavers never had won a game in Omaha before their elimination game against Georgia, and they had no reason to think they would. Yet after the Miami loss, the Beavers showed no fear. They never thought they were out of a game, and apparently, they were right.

Defense was the big question mark for North Carolina all year, and the game again came down to a fielding error. Coach Mike Fox attempted to shore up a weakness at third base by moving first baseman Chad Flack to third and putting freshman catcher Tim Federowicz at first. An errant throw from second baseman Bryan Steed to Federowicz in the eighth allowed Oregon State's Bill Rowe to score. It's a frustrating situation for Fox. He looked at his infield and tried to fix a weakness, but what he made up for at third, he lost at first.

Although defense plagued Carolina throughout the tournament, it was Oregon State's grit and resilience that won Game 3. Starter Jonah Nickerson, pitching on fumes, threw 6 2/3 innings and struck out seven batters. Nickerson's effort was outstanding, but his stuff wasn't as dominating as it usually is. The Tar Heels were taking good swings but weren't able to convert them into runs. Kevin Gunderson, after pitching 5 1/3 innings Sunday night, came in to Monday's game to get the final two outs. Nickerson won the tournament's MVP award, but if there ever were a time to split it and give half to Gunderson, this was the year. Both pitchers gave about as gutsy a performance as you'll ever see, and they gave it in the same game.

Tar Heels starter Daniel Bard was absolutely dominating -- at one point, he threw 42 straight fastballs, and he didn't throw an off-speed pitch until the fourth inning, something I've never seen done before. Oregon State couldn't solve Bard. The only good hit the Beavers got off him was the only one they really needed -- Shea McFeely's shot to center that scored two runs in the fourth inning. Oregon State went undefeated in Omaha when it had the early lead.

Both teams will lose the heart of their pitching staff next year: North Carolina's Bard, Andrew Miller and Jonathan Hovis won't be wearing powder blue, and Oregon State's Gunderson, Nickerson and Dallas Buck all were drafted in the recent MLB draft. Hovis might be the toughest for the Tar Heels to replace; he was the only senior to get quality playing time and led the nation in ERA, and his presence in the locker room cannot be overstated. You can replace talent, but it's much harder to replace leaders.

Fox and Casey haven't just built title-contending teams; they've built successful programs that will only improve after national exposure at the CWS. No recruit will turn down a phone call from Casey now that he has a title under his belt. Oregon State returns Eddie Kunz, who throws in the mid-90s and shortstop Darwin Barney, who will be the heart and soul of the team next year.

Monday night, both teams exhibited the characteristics that got them to the championship series -- heart, talent and determination. But perhaps the moment that best sums up the College World Series wasn't a play on the field, but a small gesture few people probably saw. In the ninth inning, with the Heels down one run and with two outs, a foul ball was hit up the third-base line, where Fox was standing. Knowing he was facing a loss in the biggest game he has ever coached, Fox took the time to pick up the ball, walk over to the stands and deliver it to an awestruck child. It was the coolest thing I've seen this week. It's what the College World Series is all about.

THE SCORER'S TABLE
Monday's Stat of the Day from ESPN Research
323 The number of pitches Jonah Nickerson threw in a three-game span at the College World Series. He did not allow an earned run in his last 16 2/3 innings.


INSIDE THE NUMBERS

Mound Matchup
Both starting pitchers -- and their bullpens -- did their jobs Monday night. In a College World Series that boasted six pitchers taken in the first round of the draft, it's not surprising that the final game of the championship series featured five heralded aces, including UNC's first-round picks, Bard and Andrew Miller. What is surprising is that pitchers taken in the first round of the 2006 MLB Draft were 1-5 in seven starts against Oregon State this season. This year's College World Series saw the second-fewest runs scored in the past 30 years, with an average of 8.9 runs scored per game. Only 2005's 8.3 average is lower.