Oregon State poised to defend championship in Omaha


CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon State has just beaten Michigan in a super regional to seize a berth in the College World Series. Dog pile, anyone?

Uh, no.

"We figure you only get one a year," said the Beavers' All-American catcher, Mitch Canham, after Monday's super regional-clinching 8-2 victory over Michigan at Goss Stadium. "We're not going to waste it now. We're waiting for the big one."

The big one starts Saturday at 4 p.m., when the Beavers (44-18) open College World Series action against Cal State Fullerton in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium is a familiar place to Oregon State coach Pat Casey and the few veteran players in his 2007 lineup, who will be making their third straight appearance at college baseball's final destination.

And don't think the Beavers will settle for anything less than a title.

"We're defending champs," OSU shortstop Darwin Barney said. "We're not just happy to be there."

Three years ago, to suggest that Oregon State -- which hadn't been to the College World Series since 1952 -- might make it to Omaha even once seemed somewhere between absurd and outrageous.

But in 2005, the Beavers won the Pac-10 championship and wrote their ticket to the Omaha. They went two-and-out but vowed to be back and, after getting there, shocked the nation by claiming the national championship in 2006.

Oregon State's third straight CWS berth is much more surprising than the first two, for two reasons.

One, the Beavers lost nearly all the leaders off last year's national championship club, including All-American pitchers Jonah Nickerson, Kevin Gunderson and Dallas Buck and left fielder Cole Gillespie, the '06 Pac-10 player of the year. Two, after an excellent start to this season, in which OSU was 23-3 and ranked second in the nation, the Beavers dropped seven of nine games late in the regular season and found themselves on the outside looking in at a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

They traveled to UCLA needing to win two of three in order to make the tournament, then got their two victories to finish tied for sixth in the Pac-10 with a 10-14 record. Since the Pac-10 became whole in 1999, no team had made the postseason with a 10-14 conference mark. But the Beavers got in based on an excellent overall record and a bevy of impressive nonconference wins while facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

As the No. 3 seed at the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional, Oregon State staved off elimination three times. The Beavers beat host Virginia twice to set up the best-of-three series at home against Michigan, which had knocked off the nation's No. 1 ranked team, Vanderbilt, in its regional. The Beavers swept the Wolverines 1-0 and 8-2 to guarantee a shot at defending their national crown.

"This one is the most unexpected [CWS berth of the three years]," said Casey, the 2006 national coach of the year. "The character of this club matches that of any club I've coached. We had our backs pinned to the wall, and our guys responded in a way that, as a coach, you dream about. You can talk all you want, and if they don't buy into it, it doesn't matter. These guys never panicked.

"There was no comfort at all when you're sitting in the middle of the Pac-10, hoping to get into a regional. Our guys elevated just about as well as any group I've coached."

Canham said the late-season slump was just something the Beavers had to play through.

"Just because we had a little bump in the road didn't change our mind about ending up in Omaha," he said. "We knew we were well capable of getting there. Since the UCLA series, everybody's been on fire. The pitchers have been doing real well; everybody has been playing like we can. It's a great time to get hot."

Pitching and defense is the reason Oregon State got past a Michigan team that entered the series hitting .333, with all nine regulars over .300. In the two games at Corvallis, the Wolverines hit .133, managing just eight hits and two runs -- both on solo home runs by No. 9 hitter Eric Rose.

"[They] pitched extremely well and shut us down," said Michigan coach Rich Maloney. "Unfortunately, we didn't get it done offensively, but a lot of it was Oregon State's pitching."

Oregon State led the Pac-10 this season with a 3.54 ERA. The Beavers have four capable starters: junior right-handers Mike Stutes (10-4, 3.93) and Daniel Turpen (9-1, 3.65), junior lefty Joe Paterson (10-6, 3.77) and freshman righty Jorge Reyes (5-3, 3.13). Reyes pitched seven innings of three-hit, no-walk ball in the first game against Michigan. Stutes came back to shut down the Wolverines on three hits in eight innings of the deciding game, walking one and striking out nine.

"Both of those guys have a really good presence," said Michigan right fielder Brad Roblin. "They attack the zone. [Stutes] had shown he would walk some guys, but today, he was all over the strike zone. He used his curveball effectively, has two really solid pitches, good composure on the mound … he's a competitive kid. He didn't make it easy on us."

The Beavers also have a competent bullpen, led by 6-foot-6, 250-pound closer Eddie Kunz (3-1, 3.00 with 11 saves), who was taken by the New York Mets with the 42nd pick in the June 7 major league draft (Stutes, Turpen and Paterson also went in the first 10 rounds).

Oregon State managed only nine hits -- all singles -- in the two games against Michigan, but the key was patience at the plate. In the Monday affair, the Wolverines pitchers struck out 12 batters, but the Beavers made them pay for 10 walks, one hit batsman, four wild pitches and a balk.

The top Beavers bats are senior left fielder Mike Lissman (.314, 8 HR, 56 RBI), junior first baseman Jordan Lennerton (.321, 7 HR, 47 RBI), junior Canham (.319, 9 HR, 54 RBI) and junior Barney (.298, 4 HR, 51 RBI). Barney and freshman second baseman Joey Wong form one of the slickest-fielding middle-infield duos in the nation.

"You have to tip your hat to Pat Casey," Maloney said. "Three times in a row to the College World Series is an amazing accomplishment, especially in this day and age of parity. There's no one else in college baseball who has done that. Man … I told Pat afterward, 'You got it going.'"

Only two teams finished below Oregon State in the Pac-10 standings. But here the Beavers are, back at the College World Series again.

"I don't think anyone regards us as the favorite going into Omaha," Canham said. "Being out here on the West Coast, in Oregon, everyone's going to keep doubting us. But we've been going back there every year, and last year we made everyone know who Oregon State was.

"It doesn't matter if they think we're big underdogs. We're going to go in there and play the same way we've been playing, do what we can do and finish off with that big dog pile at the end."

Kerry Eggers writes for the Portland Tribune.