Omaha, Oh My!

These guys are fast approaching storybook status. If the heart-stopping comebacks against Texas in the Regionals weren't enough, try on a miracle return from eight down to win 13-11 in the 2001 College World Series opener. Heady stuff!

So have you learned your lesson yet? Never, give up. Never, ever, give up. The Cardinal have been proving that several times over in this post-season, with come-from-behind wins, and heart-stopping squeakers. But to come back from eight runs down in the first game of the 2001 College World Series... with their ace pitcher bombed into submission in just the second inning... well, that's an exclamation point to this theme. A young Stanford team predestined to "rebuild" this season still hasn't received the memo that they should fold up their tents. Instead, they are continually surprising the pundits, and even die-hard loyal Cardinalmaniacs™.

To highlight the magnificence of Stanford's opening 13-11 victory over the Green Wave of Tulane, it is worth reliving the agony and blight that created such a dramatic comeback scenario. After an uneventful scoreless first inning, Stanford's second round MLB draft pick in Jeremy Guthrie took the mound to face Tulane in the top of the second. A pair of opening singles put men on first and second, followed by a sacrifice bunt to Guthrie that moved them to second and third base. The usually masterful Guthrie seriously lacked his normal command, as pitch after pitch sat right in the middle of the strike zone for Tulane hitters to slap at. They chopped away, and with a few touches of luck looped singles and doubles just over infielders' gloves and just in front of charging outfielders. All told, Guthrie gave up five straight hits - all singles and doubles - to move the Green Wave around the bases for five easy runs. Coach Marquess was pained throughout the inning, wrestling with whether to yank his top pitcher so early, or risk irreparable damage leaving in a kid without his stuff. After the fifth run came across home plate, and with men on first and third, #9 made the move to the pen and called on once-starter Tim Cunningham. A quick walk from Cunningham juiced the bases with just one out, but a subsequent ground ball was turned for an inning-ending double play.

Just like that, Tulane was up five-zip without any hard-hit balls. Guthrie was gonzo, and a Green Wave squad with a superior team batting average, slugging percentage and home run numbers had yet to honestly knock the cover off the ball.

Worse still, the Wave would add more fuel to the Stanford fire. Tim Cunningham lasted only one batter in the top of the third before Marquess called freshman John Hudgins from the pen. The bases would soon be loaded, and a sac fly followed by a double down the third base line would plate three more runs to give Tulane quite an imposing 8-0 lead. Just as Stanford failed to answer with even so much as a hit in the bottom of the second, so too did the bats stay silent in the bottom of the third. Stanford would put men on first and second with no outs in the bottom of the fourth, but as has plagued the Card so many times this year, a funk stunk up the joint with three straight harmless outs that failed to even move the base runners an inch.

John Hudgins was responsible for two of the three runs given up in that third inning, but he did prove crucial in the efforts of the Stanford pitching machine that day. He retired all six batters he faced in the fourth and fifth innings (nailing four on strikes!), which would later prove far more important than just a tourniquet effort. Tulane would be stuck on their eight runs until the eighth inning, by which time the momentum of the game was completely transplanted to the good guys.

That delicate diamond procedure was executed with the precision of a skilled surgeon in Stanford's fifth inning, storming back from the dead with seven clutch runs. The inning started again with men on first and second with no outs, on a Chris "Uno" O'Riordan walk and Sam "I am" Fuld single. The difference this time was a follow-up Ryan Garko single to right field to juice the bases. "Uno" has some wheels, so you might wonder why he didn't score on the play, but he would have been nailed at home plate on the throw from right field. Chris had hesitated on second base until the ball safely landed in the outfield, and slammed on the breaks after rounding third. Given that Stanford needed baserunners and not chancy scoring plays, down eight runs, that was a crucial decision by the veteran O'Riordan. Freshman All-American Carlos "San" Quentin lifted a fly ball deep enough to right field to bring O'Riordan home, and the flood gates opened wide. Andy "Topper" Topham struck out for the second out of the inning, but Johnny Ash walked to again load the bases. Jason Cooper was next up, but #9 made a move to the dugout as a third freshman would come to the plate in the inning in Brian Hall. Hall didn't exactly deliver a sizzling highlight, but his careful eye drew four balls and the second run of the game for the Cardinal. The next four batters would deliver singles to all parts of the park to drive in five more runs, which proved out Marquess' strategy in pinch hitting for Cooper. While Jason may be the most dangerous power hitter in the line-up, Stanford needed it best chances to deliver as many runs as possible in the comeback effort. Cooper has proven prone to strikeouts and pop-outs with men in scoring position in recent times, so while his upside for a grandiose grand slam was tremendous, the downside of a rally-killing out was too much. Brian Hall's pinch hit walk will not stand as one of the great highlights in this historic game, but it was a decision and an outcome that continued a huge rally.

It is amazing to note that Stanford went through five innings and recorded seven runs without anything beyond a single. While John "Long Ball" Gall and Joe "Bo" Borchard were crushing balls and opponents' hearts in last year's Omaha affair, the Cardinal would go for 13 runs this day without a single home run. The first of just three extra bases hits (all doubles) came in the sixth inning from Johnny Ash. Talk about small ball...

With just one inning slashing their lead from eight runs to just a single run, Tulane was stunned. Ryan McCally and Mike "Woody" Wodnicki would combine to shut out the Wave for the next two innings, allowing just one hit. Marquess was willing to cycle through his pitchers, keeping a fresh arm on the mound at all times now that the contest was there for the taking. By the end of the game, no less than seven Stanford hurlers would touch the pitching rubber. However, the College World Series provides a format more conducive to this tactic than in the Regionals or Super Regionals of the past few weeks. Rather than facing the prospect of playing as many as five games in three days, Stanford would be certain to rest on Saturday and not play again until Sunday. Better yet, a subsequent win on Sunday would propel the Cardinal straight to Wednesday.

There was much work to be done in this Friday opener, though, with Stanford still looking up from a one run hole. In the bottom of the seventh, though, the Cardinal would strike again. Jason Van Meetren opened with a walk, and Mark Marqess was determined to put him in scoring position, calling on Arik "Killer" Van Zandt to bunt him over. Van Meetren was indeed moved to second on the well-executed bunt, but it was so excellent that the pitcher couldn't come up with it and cleanly get a throw to first. An error was charged to the pitcher, but the bunt was perfectly placed off the first baseline, beyond the catcher but far enough from the mound to make even the most dexterous of fielding pitchers make a good play. "Uno" flied out deep to right field, allowing Van Meetren (not the fleetest of foot) to tag on a great hustle play to third. Sammy Fuld stepped up to the first base side of the plate and pulled a ground ball just inside the bag and down the line. He would stretch that into a gutsy double, but more importantly tie the ball game and move the go-ahead run to third. Ryan Garko, a big offensive force over the last half of this season, brought home that go-ahead run with a single right up the middle. That brought "San" Quentin to the plate, and he took an errant breaking ball off his forearm to load (once again) the bases. Johnny Ash lined a single into left field to bring home two more runs, for a total of five in the inning and an amazing 12-8 lead.

Tulane responded with two two-out runs in the next inning off Wodnicki, but the lead was not destined to leave Cardinal hands. Thus, Woody was the one of seven Stanford throwers to pick up the win, his seventh of the year (7-1). Sam Fuld would sacrifice home another Stanford run in the bottom of the eighth, with Arik Van Zandt tagging from third after his lead-off double and a Tulane error. Stanford might have done some more damage, but Chris O'Riordan was nailed at second base trying to tag on the same play from first. "Uno" got a great jump, but the second baseman did an even better job blocking the base with his body. Chris slid all the way around him, but was tagged off the bag. Instead of a man on second with just one out, the bases were empty with two away. No more runs would come across the plate, so Stanford held just a 13-10 lead.

Extra runs would have been welcome in the top of the ninth for Cardinalmaniacs™, as Tulane made a mad charge with their own heroics. J.D. Wilcox was on the mound, and gave up three straight singles to open the inning. That brought home one run and cut the lead to two. The first and only Stanford error of the game came at the hands of Jason Van Meetren in left field, allowing the tying run to advance to second on a wild throw to the infield. That put men on second and third with no outs. In that situation, proper sacrifices should bring home both runners and tie the game, which put the pressure back on Stanford. Jeff "Breakneck" Bruksch raced to the mound after #9 had seen enough, recalling Bruksch's roll as team bullpen ace last year. Bruksch mowed down three straight Tulane foes, getting a harmless infield ground out and two Ks to finish the marathon game. He threw up his arms as the fielders and dugout swarmed around him in jubilation. For the hard thrower who was the bullpen ace and team leader in saves a season ago, it was just his first save in this 2001 season.

All told, pitchers on both sides threw some 346 pitches in what was the longest nine-inning game in College World Series history, 4 hours and 18 minutes. It marked the biggest comeback margin (8 runs) of the year for the Cardinal, equaling the nine-inning CWS record. Stanford advances triumphantly to the winner's half of its bracket, with a predicted first pitch Sunday at 6pm in Omaha (4pm Pacific time).

Mike "Goose" Gosling should throw on Sunday, with Guthrie ready to go again when the Cardinal next need to play. Jeff Bruksch can remain a dominating force out of the pen if Goose and Guthrie can get it done early in their remaining starts. If Stanford falters and is forced to play more games, Bruksch would be plenty rested for a start of his own, having faced just three batters. Stanford is well positioned with its lineup for the remainder of the series.

Omaha Update: Local favorites Nebraska dropped a heartbreaker Friday evening to #1 seed Cal State Fullerton, which forces the Huskers and fellow first-time CWS entrants Tulane to play a Sunday elimination game. Stanford will play Fullerton in the second game on Sunday. The winner of the Stanford/Fullerton game will advance to Wednesday and have the luxury of two attempts to win their way to the Championship game. The winner of the Nebraska/Tulane game will play the loser of the Stanford//Fullerton game in an elimination game prior.

On the other side of the CWS draw, U$C pounded the Georgia Bulldogs 11-5 Saturday, claiming victory despite some troubles for uberace Mark Prior "Offense." Six home runs will help you do that. Miami was last seen laying the aluminum to Tennessee, 12-4 in the sixth inning of Saturday's second and final game at Rosenblatt Stadium.

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