What they didn't say, their faces betrayed. A series clinching victory over their Pac-10 rivals and a berth in the College World Series had vanished before their eyes and all the clichés allowed was an offer of something in the way of an explanation without having to give voice to their most pressing fear, the fear that was etched deep into their visages – it was very possible they would never be that close again.
Things had started out so much more pleasantly. The regional tournament the weekend before had been a cakewalk after a thrilling opening game against Ohio State. The momentum of that bottom of the ninth win steamrolled the rest of the bracket and the Beavers entered into the Super Regional on top of their games, both on the field and in their sense of self. As the series with the Trojans opened on Saturday, all went according to plan, maybe a little better.
Game action: Mitch Canham breaks for second as Shea McFeely looks to hit and run in Monday's game.
Throughout the season, USC had been a sound defensive team, pickin' the pill to a .970 clip, a respectable fielding average. In the set opener, eight USC errors presented the Beavers with a snappy 10-4 for a final score and the signoff as the day's newly graduated seniors and their families mingled across the campus with a crowd celebrating quite another step forward.
The original Trojan horse was conceived as a stealth maneuver and this version proved wickedly cruel as that good will spilled into game two. After three scoreless innings OSU made a sprint toward the finish line, scoring two, one, two, and then three runs over the next four. USC gave chase with three of their own but were trailing by five, 8-3 with only six outs remaining to the end of their season.
I told you it was cruel. I told you it was stealthy.
Two runs for the Trojans in the eighth, then three and tied in the ninth, and a perfect hinge to the trapdoor of all trapdoors in the 10th. 9-8 Trojans.
That's what was in the faces of those three gentlemen on dais, and they had every right to appear so.
There was something else to be found in those faces, however. Something else was there to be seen, or more precisely… to not be seen. They never blinked. Not once, not one of them, then they won game three Monday playing the game they hadn't had to play in game one, the game they thought they had played in game two.
True to the clichés of the night before, Jacoby Ellsbury started it off in precisely the fashion he did frequently enough to share Pac-10 player of the year honors. A single, a steal of second, then third on USC's number three major league draft pick of a catcher, Jeff Clement. Three batters later OSU first baseman Andy Jenkins drives him home along with Darwin Barney and it's 2-0.
One more in the second, two runs added in the third – those last a response to a three run wrong field home run to left by that number three pick, Clement. A deuce for the Beavers in the fifth is followed by a USC four spot to tie the game at seven halfway through the sixth.
Jenkins – yeah, him again - led off the bottom frame with a sinking tracer to center that whistled beneath the glove of the centerfielders' diving attempt, the ball rolling to the centerfield wall. First basemen generally don't have "triples" speed, but that's where he was standing when the ball got back to the infield, and Jenkins had hit for the cycle. Shea McFeely drove him home with a sacrifice two batters later.
The seventh inning brought another pair of runs, starting with a vintage Ellsbury 10-pitch at bat double. A Darwin Barney single drove him in and the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year was himself driven home on a – everybody now – "JENKINS" base hit, his fifth of the day. 10-7 Beavers and right back out on that trapdoor of the night before as the game entered its last two innings.
Dogpile: "Everybody on Andy" after the Game 3 final out was recorded
A single, a passed ball, a walk, a change of pitchers and a wild pitch later, the hinges to that trapdoor seemed very well oiled. A fly ball to center pushed across a Trojan run but reliever Kevin Gunderson moved the Beavers away from the brink by getting Clement to bounce to second.
Well on their way to an eventual 49 runs allowed over the three games, both pitching staffs were threadbare. USC used Sunday's starting pitcher Jack Spradlin in the seventh. Now, Saturday's starter for the Beavers, Dallas Buck, relieved Gunderson and ended the inning by getting Trojan third baseman Billy Hart to fly to Ellsbury in center.
Fast forward through the uneventful bottom of the Beaver eighth and straight to the ninth where Buck used a calm mindset and electric stuff to throw a seven pitch, one, two, three inning and the cruel ruse of the night before was unfilled.
Speaking after his dose of celebratory ice water, Pat Casey recalled he had spoken to his players earlier in the day "of what it means to test fear. Our biggest enemy was fear. Don't be afraid to get out on the edge. Don't be afraid to wreak some havoc. Be aggressive and have some fun with it. No matter what happens today, there's nobody going to take away from the chemistry and the club that you guys are."
The team followed that advice to the letter and when they found themselves pushed again to the brink of that gallows, there was only amnesia and a dogpile of players near first base where that Jenkins kid had just recorded the final out of the series.
Omaha and the College World Series… with nary a blink.