Beavers trip Wildcats, write their ticket to Omaha
CORVALLIS -- Oregon State found a way Monday night at Goss Stadium.
To get to the College World Series.
To get by a Kansas State team that wouldn't die, right down to the final strike.
To come back and win a pair of elimination games after the heartbreak of losing the opener of a best-of-three super regional when within a strike of victory.
And when it was over, after first baseman Danny Hayes clutched in his glove the ball from the pop-out that seemed as if it would never come down to clinch the Beavers' 4-3 win, the emotions ran rampant in full, living Orange and Black.
There was a dogpile on the infield (yes, a dogpile; there is room for another should it be necessary at Omaha), fireworks, cheers and tears as Beaver Nation celebrated along with its beloved players.
There was normally stoic coach Pat Casey, raising his fists in triumph to a sellout crowd of 3,564 that roared back its appreciation for a season superbly managed.
And there was a special nod to Jake Rodriguez, the gutsy little catcher whose father, Tony, had died exactly one year earlier of a blood clot at age 43.
Rodriguez, who had two of Oregon State's six hits along with a major part in the game's biggest defensive play, had texted his teammates Monday morning with a dispatch of love. Then he spoke to them before the game.
"The message was, 'Today's the day. We were meant to play today,' " Casey said afterward. "You think about that, it puts everything in perspective. Jake's a warrior. It was a tough day for him, and a good day for him. We'll take Jake Rodriguez with us every day of the week."
And junior left-hander Ben Wetzler, who milked every ounce of energy out of his career-high 131 pitches. And Matt Boyd, the senior southpaw who came back on one day's rest to close out the victory with 21 well-placed pitches on a day when back spasms kept closer Max Englebrekt out of action.
Don't forget Michael Conforto, who gunned down Kansas State's Blair DeBord at the plate with a sensational one-hop throw to end the eighth inning and prevent the potential tying run. Or second baseman Andy Peterson, who initiated a double play with a heads-up tag (or phantom tag) in the sixth. Or shortstop Tyler Smith and third baseman Kavin Keyes, who collaborated on a heady forceout at third base that warded off more trouble in the seventh. Or first baseman Hayes, who delivered a two-run homer in the second inning on a night when Beaver bats were mostly silent.
"It's a team effort every day," said Wetzler, who improved his record to 9-1 with the most important performance of his career. "It takes everybody, one through nine in the lineup, the guys on the bench and the bullpen behind us. It's truly a blessing to be going to Omaha."
Casey has been there before, of course. In 2005, taking the first Oregon State team in 52 years to the College World Series. In 2006 and '07, guiding the Beavers to back-to-back championships when skeptics said it simply couldn't be done by a team from the rainy, gloomy Northwest.
After Oregon State's crushing 6-5 loss at Louisiana State in the final game of the Baton Rouge regional last June, Casey addressed his players in the locker room.
"I said, 'I don't know when, but guys on this roster are going to Omaha,' " Casey said. "When Matt Boyd called me last summer and said he was coming back (for his senior season), I said, 'We're going to Omaha.'
"I'm not an arrogant person. I don't have anything that makes me feel like I can do something. It's all about the players. These guys busted for us from Sept. 9 until now. We played a very good Kansas State team that just never quit. 'Benny' was tougher than nails, and 'Matty' finishing with Max not being able to throw just a fantastic team effort."
On Sunday night, Oregon State pounded out 21 hits in a 12-4 blitzkrieg of Kansas State. On Monday night, the Beavers were outhit 11-6 as the top four hitters in their lineup combined to go 1 for 16. A 4-0 lead melted to 4-3, but the visitors were able to get no closer, even as they made Beaver Nation sweat bullets to the dramatic last pitch.
In the end, great pitching trumped great hitting. Oregon State entered the weekend with the nation's No. 2 ERA (2.18). Kansas State came in with the nation's No. 2 batting average (.324). The arms bested the bats, albeit barely.
"They shut us down pretty good, no question," said Kansas State coach Brad Hill, ever classy in defeat. "Their starting pitching held us down as good as anybody has all year long."
With Englebrekt out, Casey wanted to go as long as possible with Wetzler. The plan was to use Boyd -- who had thrown 123 pitches in Saturday's 6-2 loss -- in relief, if necessary.
"Matty made it clear to me (Sunday) he'd be ready to pitch," Casey said. "I knew if it was a one-run game, we'd go to Matty and keep him on a low pitch count. He wanted to pitch; we let him pitch."
In the second, Hayes bombed a 2-2 pitch over the fence in right-center, not far from where Conforto and Dylan Davis had parked back-to-back shots a night earlier.
"I got lucky with two strikes," Hayes said. Kansas State starter Jake Matthys "threw one right down the middle with a fastball. Great pitch to hit, and I'm glad I hit it."
Conforto had an awful night at the plate, going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. He stayed in the game mentally, though. In the eighth, after the Wildcats had drawn to within 4-3 and had DeBord at second base on a two-run double, RJ Santigate laced a shot to left field. The ball fell for a single. But Conforto scooped it up and delivered the on-target throw to Rodriguez to nail a sliding DeBord at the plate.
"Coach (Casey) always tells us to stay in the game," said Conforto, the Pac-12 player of the year. "You can affect a game one way or other. I didn't have the best day at the plate. I was a little frustrated. But when you get into these big games and you're playing with teammates you love and care about so much, it doesn't become about your statistics.
"I saw the ball come off the bat pretty low and thought I had a shot to catch it. I dove for it, trapped it, got my head up and saw (DeBord) rounding third. I did my best to make an accurate throw. 'J-Rod' did a great job of holding onto the ball and putting on the tag."
"Our defense was unbelievable tonight," Wetzler observed. "That game could have been flipped around very quickly if those guys didn't make some of the plays they did."
No lead seemed safe against the Wildcats, who came into Monday's game with their first eight batters hitting better than .300. They make a living extending at-bats with two-strike foul balls.
"If they're not the best team we've played all year, they're close," Conforto said. "They absolutely fought to the end. Even (Sunday), there wasn't a time we thought we could let our guard down, because they were still fighting, even down nine runs."
Conforto was at Omaha when Oregon State won its second of consecutive CWS titles in 2007, a high school junior playing in a summer tournament that week.
"At that point, I had no idea where I was going" to college, he said. "I got to see Oregon State win its second championship. That's the vision I had in my head. It's funny how that happens.
"This is like a dream. I'm here, and we have an incredible team with incredible guys, guys who know how to fight, to put extra runs on when you're already ahead. We have the full package if we do everything right. This means everything to me right now. I'm happy I get to experience this with all these guys."
Casey smiled when asked how it feels to be taking this team to Omaha.
"They're taking me," he said. "I've been there. I hope that part of it helps the guys who haven't been there. But they're taking me."