Baseball is a funny game sometimes.
After posting a 4-8 record in May and finishing tied for sixth in their conference, the defending champion Oregon State Beavers had no momentum entering the NCAA tournament, barely qualifying for the field of 64. The Tar Heels, last year’s runner-up, were rolling through May with an 11-2 record, an ACC tournament title and a No. 3 national seed.
Oregon State (49-18) lost six position players, two-thirds of their starting rotation and the closer from last year’s championship team. Carolina (57-16) brought a good portion of its lineup back to Omaha, including an ace and a dominant closer.
None of that mattered Sunday night, though, as the Beavers defeated the Heels 9-3 to sweep the best-of-three series and become back-to-back national champions. Oregon State players leapt into a celebratory dogpile on the pitcher’s mound in front of 25,012 fans at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.
Carolina was forced to watch the revelry from the dugout, a bridesmaid instead of a bride for the second straight year.
“Obviously I am disappointed, but I have to congratulate Oregon State,” said Coach Mike Fox ’78. “Back-to-back national championships is unbelievable.”
Oregon State becomes the fifth school in history to win titles back-to-back and the first to accomplish the feat since LSU repeated in 1996-97. Carolina becomes the fifth team to post consecutive runner-up finishes.
“Something strange happened,” said Oregon State Coach Pat Casey of his team’s unexpected postseason resurgence. “In the seventh or eighth inning at [the Virginia super regional], something happened in our dugout that energized us and inspired us. Some type of energy followed us from there.”
The Beavers were so energized that they entered Sunday’s game having held a lead in 61 straight innings over its last seven games. Even when Dustin Ackley broke that streak in the bottom of the first with an RBI single that gave Carolina a 1-0 advantage, the Beavers regrouped and snatched the lead back in the next inning. Darwin Barney hit a screaming line drive that cleared the left field wall and put OSU in front 3-2, and the Beavers would never trail again.
On Sunday night, Fox turned everything upside-down, doing all he could not to lose the elimination game. But Carolina couldn’t climb back into the game for a number of reasons: For one thing, the starting pitching was ineffectual. Luke Putkonen (8-2) lasted just 1 2/3 innings Sunday, giving up three hits and two earned runs in the shortest start of his career. It was the third time in the CWS that a Carolina starter didn’t make it out of the second inning.
As a result, closer Andrew Carignan took the mound in the second inning, a whole six innings earlier than he normally does, to relieve Putkonen; in the sixth, Rob Wooten relieved Carignan; and it was Robert Woodard, Carolina’s ace starting pitcher, who closed out the game.
The Heels also gave away runs by committing two errors. In two games against OSU, the Heels made four errors that resulted in five unearned runs, with Tar Heel pitchers accounting for three of the four.
But the main reason that the Heels couldn’t catch the Beavers on Sunday night is that the aluminum bats fell silent in big spots. In Omaha, Carolina went a microscopic 3-for-33 (.090) with runners in scoring position.
“It seemed like we couldn’t get that big hit with runners on,” said Fox, whose team stranded 10 runners on base. “We didn’t take advantage when we needed to. We hit the ball hard, but we just couldn’t get it to fall our way.”
Trailing 4-1 in the third inning, the Heels had a golden opportunity: bases loaded, no outs and the heart of their order coming up. A hit or two would have chased Oregon State’s starter Mike Stutes (12-4) from the game and rallied the Heels. But they could not take advantage of the situation, scoring just one run on a Tim Federowicz fielder’s choice. The last two outs of the inning came on a Tim Fedroff strikeout and a Seth Williams fly-out, and a major opportunity was lost.
The Heels also were on the wrong end of a pair of plays at the plate. Fedroff and Josh Horton were both tagged out at home, effectively taking two runs off the board. In the bottom of the seventh, Coach Fox tried to provide his dugout with a spark, so he sent Fedroff home on Williams’ double down the line. The relay throw was on the money and Fedroff was dead at the plate. The play preserved Oregon State’s 7-3 lead and took the wind out of Carolina’s sails.
It was far from a banner day for the Heels, but there were a few bright spots.
First baseman Ackley, outfielder Fedroff and reliever Carignan were each named to the CWS All-Tournament Team. Ackley also extended his single-season hit record to 119 with his RBI single and solo home run. And with 57 wins, the Heels finish the season as college baseball’s winningest team. The Tar Heels’ 111 wins over the past two seasons are the second most in the nation behind Rice’s 113.
“I can’t begin to explain how proud I am of our players and the season we had,” said Fox. “We have a core of players on our team that have put our program where it is today.
“Hopefully we’ll be back here again next year.”
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