Commentary

Superstitious Canes escape elimination game against archrival

Originally Published: June 16, 2008
By Curt McKeever | Special to ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- It's seems silly, really, for Dennis Raben to give in to superstition.

[+] EnlargeDennis Raben
AP Photo/Ted KirkDennis Raben's catch in the sixth inning may have been even more important than his two-RBI single in the third.
The University of Miami junior right fielder, though not in the kind of offensive groove he'd like to be at the College World Series, has the kind of tools that made him a second-round pick of Seattle in the MLB draft.

But as Raben's roommate and Hurricanes' center fielder Blake Tekotte wryly notes, "Hey, this is baseball, man. Everybody's superstitious."

As superstitious measures go, Raben's spikeless mohawk haircut -- something he received from Tekotte after he went 0-for-9 in the first two games of the Hurricanes' NCAA regional in Coral Gables, Fla. -- leans heavily on the mild side.

But don't be surprised if you see some of his teammates rubbing that scalp, looking for whatever magic it is he produced Monday to help keep the nation's top-ranked team's national title hopes alive.

The scoreboard in Rosenblatt Stadium read: Miami 7, Florida State 5.

For the Seminoles, owners of a nation-leading 54 victories, it spelled an all-too-common end for skipper Mike Martin, who, after 13 trips to Omaha, is still looking to drink his first championship toast.

Without Raben, though, the Hurricanes -- who blew a ninth-inning lead for the first time this season Saturday while being knocked off by Georgia 7-4 -- could have been going home 0-2 for the first time in their past 20 trips here.

It was in the third inning, with two outs, when Raben came to the plate with the bases loaded and Miami up 2-1. At the time, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-hander was batting all of a buck 54 in the NCAA tournament, so the Noles had to feel good about getting back in their dugout without suffering further damage.

Instead, Mohawkman mashed a 1-1 pitch from Elih Villanueva up the middle for a two-run single.

Only because Florida State scored three ninth-inning runs off first-round draft pick Carlos Gutierrez did that not turn out to be the winning hit.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State
AP Photo/Ted KirkFlorida State's streak of six consecutive elimination game victories came to an end against its archrival.

But if the Seminoles had to vote for a Most Hated Hurricane award, Raben would have been the hands-down winner.

In addition to his only hit in eight CWS at-bats, he turned a potential big sixth inning by Florida State, which trailed just 4-2, into a quick zero.

With Tyler Holt on first and no one out, Jason Stidham hit a sinking liner to right. Before it could fall in, Raben, leaving his feet on a face-first dive, snared the ball inches from the ground, had the wherewithal to notice Holt had broken toward second on contact, and quickly threw back in to double him off at first.

Just in case the Seminoles weren't already deflated enough, national Player of the Year Buster Posey followed with a single. A hit that became meaningless when reliever Eric Erickson, who had entered the game unexpectedly in the second when starter David Gutierrez took a liner from Tommy Oravetz off his shoulder, retired Jack Rye on a fly ball to Tekotte.

Indeed, the power of the mohawk had struck again.

"We were in Clemson last year and I was about to give myself a haircut in the hotel room, and Tekotte was like 'Hey, man, let me give you a haircut.' I was like, 'What do you mean?'" Raben said. "He was like 'I'm going to give you a Mohawk, and if you do well, you have to keep it for the rest of the series.'"

The whole team has so much confidence to come back. We know after losing that first game, we had to win four games in a row to get to the championship series. We did that so many times throughout the regular season, so we feel like there's no reason why we can't do it now.

--Dennis Raben

Raben hit a home run and pitched shutout relief that night. Over 11 games with the Mohawk, he hit .378.

And so, after a frustrating start to this year's regional, it was haircut time again.

"Blake was like 'Hey, remember last year when I gave you a mohawk, you went on a tear? Let me do it again,'" Raben said.

In the next three games, Raben was 4-for-9 with pairs of doubles and homers and four RBIs, walked seven times, and scored six runs.

It's that kind of karma, along with a roster that includes three first-round draft picks and balance throughout, that has Miami thinking it really can come all the way back through the losers' bracket to make the championship series.

Never mind that the odds are against them even more than they appeared to be before Raben's clutch third-inning hit.

Since the CWS went to a top-eight national seed format in 1999, Oregon State's 2006 club is the only one to lose its first game and come back to win the title. USC had done it in 1998, but before that, the last team to pull off the feat was Arizona in 1980.

Raben is fine with that history.

[+] EnlargeDennis Raben
AP Photo/Hans DerykThe Canes are hoping Dennis Raben's mohawk has at least three more games' worth of luck left in it.

"It wasn't a fluke that we were the No. 1 national seed. We've been ranked No. 1 for most of the year, and that's not just by chance," he said when asked why the Canes should be considered a major threat to win three more games to earn a spot in the best-of-three series that starts next Monday. "Obviously, we would've like to have come through that first game, but it's not time to feel sorry for ourselves.

"The whole team has so much confidence to come back. We know after losing that first game, we had to win four games in a row to get to the championship series. We did that so many times throughout the regular season, so we feel like there's no reason why we can't do it now."

After all, this team was already the first at Miami to lose a super regional game at home.

To clear another hurdle Monday, the Canes had to beat a squad that had won six straight elimination games in the NCAA tournament by getting the kind of inning-extending hits that Florida State, which stranded 17 baserunners (a CWS record for a nine-inning contest) could not.

"I think it was just kind of an eye-opener for us losing that first game," Tekotte said. "Our talent made us get here, but we have a lot more than talent. We have a lot of great guys, and we know how to come together. Hopefully, we can get this thing going."

But just in case they need a little something beyond the talents that have gotten them this far, Tekotte will keep the clippers -- and Raben -- close by.

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.