Friday's opening round of the double elimination tournament had St. Johns of the Big East conference squared off against the Virginia Cavaliers of the ACC in the first game, followed by the Beavers versus the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Big 10 conference tournament champions.
In the day's first contest, St. Johns was able to hold off the Cavaliers for a 5-3 win to advance to the winner's bracket.
With the Beavers and the Buckeyes playing to a capacity crowd in the nightcap, Goss Stadium at Coleman Field was the setting for a textbook illustration of the unique tension and pressure that is play-off baseball.
The Beavers jumped to an early 2-0 lead in the second inning when catcher Mitch Canham scorched a two ball, no strike offering into the parking lot behind the left field fence.
CAPTION: OSU pitcher Anton Maxwell gets the sign from catcher Mitch Canham as St. Johns outfielder Greg Thomson awaits.
Oregon State starting pitcher Dallas Buck struggled with a shifting strike zone and a bit with his emotions, but was able to hold the Buckeyes off the board until the fourth when they plated one run on a lead-off walk, a hit batter and a base hit sandwiched around three infield ground-outs.
The Buckeyes tied the game in the sixth inning in much the same fashion. Another lead off walk was plated as the Beavers used a botched squeeze play and two infield ground balls to limit the scoring to the tying run.
Ohio State took a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning. A lead off single and then a Beaver error put a runner in scoring position for the Buckeyes. A ground ball double play brought home the lead run; then Buck closed the inning by striking out the next batter.
The Beavers went quietly in their half of the seventh inning, and in the top of the eighth, the visitors were threatening once again, using another lead-off walk and hit batter to put their first two runners on base. A sacrifice bunt advanced them both into scoring position with one out when Oregon State coach Pat Casey brought in reliever Kevin Gunderson to replace Buck.
An intense, classic seven pitch full count confrontation with the Buckeyes cleanup hitter resulted in a swinging strike out, and following an intentional walk to load the bases, Gunderson was able to entice the Buckeye's designated hitter into a one bounce come backer and the third out of the inning.
With only six outs remaining, the Beavers responded in the eighth. Pac-10 co-player of the year, centerfield Jacoby Ellsbury took a first pitch strike then teed off the next pitch, sending it off the center field wall for a stand-up double. A sacrifice bunt moved him to third and following a hit batter and a walk; the Beavers tied the game at three with a clutch single on a 2-0 pitch by Cole Gillespie. A potential lead run was thrown out at the plate on the play to end the inning.
Gunderson went back to work in the top of the ninth facing the last three hitters in the batting order. A first pitch ground ball to freshman shortstop Darwin Barney took care of the lead off hitter. The next batter also grounded to Barney, but he was unable to field the ball cleanly and the Buckeyes had a base runner. Not for long. Gunderson snapped off a sharp breaking ball that was topped again to Barney, who fielded cleanly, stepped on second for the force and threw to first for the inning ending double play.
CAPTION: OSU First baseman Andy Jenkins digs in for the pitch
With a capacity house using only the front two inches of their chairs, the Beavers sent third baseman Shea McFeely to the plate to open the bottom of the ninth. Mike Madsen, Ohio State's starting pitcher had thrown 116 pitches and the Buckeye coaching staff elected to bring in their number one closing reliever, Rory Meister, to open the ninth. He threw only one pitch. McFeely read fastball, opened his hips into the offering and there was no doubt. 4-3 Beavers and the chant "Ohhh-Essss-Yoouuu" could be heard echoing off the walls of the buildings surrounding Goss Stadium at Coleman Field.
It would be a bit of a disservice to say the rest of the tournament was anti-climatic. But it was. Relegated to the loser's bracket, Ohio State eliminated Virginia the next day, and that evening the Beavers had their way with the Red Storm from St. Johns, battering the visitors from Queens 11-1. Oregon State right-hander Jonah Nickerson handcuffed the Johnnies on seven hits and the Beaver hitters shelled five St. Johns pitchers for 14 hits as they cruised to the victory.
The win left the Beavers as the only unbeaten team in the bracket and allowed them the luxury of facing whichever team would come out of the loser's bracket the next afternoon needing only one win to clinch the regional championship.
On Sunday, St. Johns faced off against the Buckeyes in the afternoon game, winning 7-1 to set up a rematch with Beavers in the evening contest.
With a pitching staff depleted by the pounding of the night before and as a result of the additional game necessary to come back through the loser's bracket, the Red Storm was at a distinct disadvantage. It took only two innings for Oregon State to leverage that advantage into the regional championship.
After a one, two three inning in the first, the Beavers sent 16 batters to plate in the second, scoring 13 runs on 10 base hits. In laying waste to the St. Johns hope of forcing a decisive second game on Monday, Sean McFeely went two-for-two and drove in five runs in the inning, right fielder Danny Anderson blasted a three-run home run – his first of two on the day – and the Red Storm from Queens found themselves inundated in a perfect firestorm of offensive production from the Beaver hitters. After knocking out starting pitcher Anthony Smith, James Lally - the first of three St. Johns relievers - threw 55 pitches and recorded only a caught stealing out as the Beavers spent nearly 45 minutes on offense.
The Beavers batted around again in the fourth inning, adding four runs to their total in the process and two more runs were posted in the fifth. But the game was over in the second though it would be two hours before the team could celebrate their advancing to the Super Regional bracket.
Speaking after the game Coach Casey overstated the obvious in allowing "It feels good." "It was a pretty good night for the Beavers." "I thought we hit the ball extremely hard in that (second) inning and it got a little contagious and off they went".
Shea McNeely explained the key to the Beavers' success, "during practice we put in our hard work. When we come out for the game we are already prepared for everything. So we relax and do the job."
Casey quickly seconded that thought: "We work our tail off in practice then in the game it's ‘let's go'." "If you do things right long enough in practice… go out and have fun and don't put any pressure on yourself cause if you're doing it right in practice you do it right all the time." "I've never had a club (like this one) that comes to every practice trying to get better".
Clearly a formula for success the Beavers will now seek to employ against fellow Pac-10 conference member USC in the Super Regional tournament this weekend. By 9 a.m. West Coast time, the NCAA via ESPN's bottom line will annouce who will host the three game series.
At 8:30 a.m., tickets will go on on sale online and at 1-800-GO-BEAVS. For more details visit OSUBeavers.com.