We really couldn't believe it. When we pulled up to Rosenblatt Stadium this evening, we realized that this could be the last game of Going Yard. If North Carolina didn't pull their heads out of their collective you-know-whats, this would be the last game of our journey. This was game No. 80, and it had the chance to be our last.
We've been preparing ourselves for this for the past couple of weeks, constantly reflecting on some of the highlights of the trip while recognizing the impending finish. It seemed fitting that North Carolina, the team we first visited back on March 30, was one of the last two teams left standing. It also seemed fitting that Marcus Ginyard, a forward on the UNC basketball team, could be mentioned in the blog for both our first and last game. If nothing else, we'd have even more symmetry.
I realize Ginyard might seem a little random, but he's a big supporter of Tar Heel baseball. He was in attendance on that fateful Friday in March against Wake Forest, and Evan remarked in our first blog post that "you can't spell Going Yard without G-I-N-Y-A-R-D." Low and behold, he was in the park again tonight, making the trek from Chapel Hill to Omaha to cheer on his schoolmates in the College World Series Finals.
After UNC righthander Luke Putkonen retired the side in order in the top of the first inning and the Tar Heels put their first three runners on base (while pushing across a run), it looked like this wouldn't be our last game after all. But the clutch hitting that has evaded the Tar Heels for much of the CWS continued to do so, and they squandered a chance to take control of the game by only scoring once in that frame.
As is their custom, Oregon State capitalized in the second with a two-run homer from shortstop Darwin Barney. For the third time this CWS the UNC starting pitcher could not get out of the second inning, and Putkonen gave way to closer Andrew Carignan with the bases loaded and two outs with the Tar Heels trailing 3-1.
Using Carignan so early is unconventional, but it seemed like a wise choice. UNC coach Mike Fox could not let this game get out of hand, so he knew he needed his best reliever to stabilize things and Carignan did so by getting out of the jam. It harkened back to the days of Goose Gossage and Mike Marshall, when closers were capable of throwing more than an inning, and were often used in (gasp!) non-save situations.
David Puddy would be proud.
The Heels put two more runners on in the sixth with the red-hot Dustin Ackley at the plate and trailing 5-3. Even though Ackley hit the ball on the nose, it went straight to left fielder John Wallace and the threat was over. At that point, the Tar Heels were 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position during the Finals, and it was too much to recover from.
The Beavers put up two more runs in the top of the seventh, and nine outs (and two more runs) later they were national champions for the second straight year. And after 87 days on the road, we had seen our last game. A champion had finally been crowned, and Beaver Nation was ready to party.
We didn't get a chance to watch the Beavers during the regular season, but we read about their struggles during conference play. Having watched them five times in Omaha, it is hard to believe they had a losing record in the Pac-10. There was no question that they were the best team in Omaha, and deserving champions. For every botched opportunity by their opposition, there were the Beavers properly executing a relay from the outfield, or hitting through the hole on a hit-and-run.
The thrill of victory . . .
Oregon State becomes the first team to repeat since LSU in 1996-97, and they have firmly established themselves as a dominant force in college baseball. After three straight trips to Omaha, some might start to wonder what the "O" in OSU stands for. As Mitch Canham said in his follow-up to "O-State Ballaz," they still ballin'.
. . . And the agony of defeat.
The thing that strikes me most about OSU is that roughly 90 percent of their core guys are from Oregon and Washington. One would expect coach Pat Casey to have to dip into California's talent pool to put together such a run, but center fielder Chris Hopkins is their only regular from the Golden State.
You want further evidence that OSU is a consummate team? How about the fact that they went 5-0 in the CWS even though reliever Eddie Kunz, their highest drafted player at 42nd overall, pitched just 1/3 of an inning.
We're confused, are you No. 1, or are you No. 2?
As hard as it is to believe, North Carolina's loss means that the ACC is still without a CWS title since Wake Forest in 1955.
The head Beaver gets wet.
We'll be back tomorrow with some feel for what Omaha is like the day after the CWS, but we'll finish our road trip having witnessed 80 games in 87 days. There were 945 runs scored, which were powered by a total of 149 home runs, 1,623 hits and 133 stolen bases. Though you might think otherwise because of the record 53 hit batsmen during the CWS, college pitchers do have some control. There were 1,054 strikeouts on our trip, to go with just 536 walks.
As this will be my last blog post (if you knew Evan, you'd know it is appropriate he gets the last word), I wanted to thank everyone for following along on our journey with us. It was some of the most fun I've ever had in my life, and I hope that came across in our product. I'm a self-described baseball junkie, but even I was a little concerned that I might get burned out after so many games in so little time. Fortunately, that never happened. In fact, I am now a college baseball fan for life. If I'm not here covering this next year, you'll find me in the left-field bleachers letting the world know just how much right field sucks.
I feel a bit like I am writing an Oscar acceptance speech, but there are too many people to thank for making Going Yard such a success. Obviously, I appreciate Evan for taking this journey with me, and for tolerating my random neuroses. But what made this trip so special were the players and fans. We were embraced pretty much everywhere we went, and it would not have been the same if not for the willingness of our subjects to open up show us what makes college baseball so great.
From the Rebels to the 'Eaters, Rowdy Knights to the Bleacher Creatures, you made Going Yard live up to its name.
Alright, enough with corny stuff. Thanks again for reading and watching, I'm ready to relax a little now that I have some free time. Therefore, to the girl in the Cardinals cap from the video we made at Ole Miss: If you're reading this, drop me a line.
O-State Ballaz, they still ballin'.