FULLERTON, Calif.—If baseball gods exist, they care little for justice.
To clarify: There was nothing unjust about fourth-seeded Illinois' stunning 7-5 win against top-seeded Cal State Fullerton on Sunday. The Illini are one of college baseball's great stories in 2011, having rallied from a 12-21 start to the season to win 18 of their next 23 games, capped by Sunday's colossal upset. The Fightin' Illini lived up to their name, battling hard even facing a three-run deficit against a stacked Fullerton pitching staff after six innings.
Certainly, Illinois deserved to win Sunday—it earned a date with Stanford in the regional championship round, which starts later this evening. The only injustice—other than the blown call taht factored significantly into Saturday's Fullerton loss to Stanford—was that Nick Ramirez's standout Fullerton career ended the way it did.
Ramirez, a slugger and closer for the Titans for three years, had three hits and two RBIs after seven innings Sunday. Fullerton starter Colin O'Connell was in control through six innings, and he had retired 12 straight Illinois hitters from the second through the fifth. After Illinois used an error, a hit batsman, a two-base wild pitch and an RBI single by Pete Cappetta to tie the game at 4-4 in the seventh, Ramirez was summoned from first base to take over on the mound—and he ended the seventh with a big strikeout.
But Illinois got to him for three runs in the eighth, taking the lead on Matt Dittman's RBI flare single to left field, then breaking it open on Davis Hendrickson's two-run double to left-center.
The Titans tried to rally in the ninth, pushing one run across and getting Ramirez himself to the plate as the tying run with two outs. Illinois reliever Chris Pack challenged him with a pitch over the plate, but Fullerton's leading home run hitter (nine) popped out to the catcher in foul ground to end the game.
"I'm very disappointed right now," a red-eyed Ramirez said afterward. "I never thought playing baseball here would end in a regional, and it wouldn't end in a championship game. I was almost spoiled my freshman year, going to the College World Series, then the next year getting one out away from the College World Series. We wanted to get back there so bad—it hurts. Baseball can bring anyone down."
A scout told me this spring that if there was an award for highest Wins Above Replacement Value (WARP) in college baseball over the last three years, Ramirez would be a strong candidate to win it, because he's been so valuable for the Titans. When the dust settles, that is how his career will be remembered.
"Nick will be a very tough player to replace in this program—a guy that wore many hats," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "Going back to his freshman year, he was a DH because we had Jared Clark. Nick conributed tremendously for our team, and he's been a two-way guy since he's been here. He'll be a tough guy to replace, not just as a player. Nick and I have been though a lot together, here and last summer with Team USA."
Ultimately, you have to give Illinois credit for beating Fullerton's bullpen ace. The Illini deserve credit for all kinds of reasons, actually. They made multiple acrobatic defensive plays. They grinded out at-bats. Spark-plug leadoff man Pete Cappetta had three hits, and lefthander Corey Kimes went seven solid innings to keep his team in the game. Then, when Fullerton left the door open, Illinois burst through. Ramirez was quick to tip his cap to the victors.
"I thought they were almost identical to Minnesota last year," he said, referencing the last year's Fullerton Regional No. 4 seed, which also reached the regional final. "They came in and it's like, 'OK, it's Illinois. Not a very impressive record.' But then they come out and didn't quit for eight innings the first time we played them. We knew that they won a bunch of their games in the last at-bats. They're a good team. Their pitchers executed their pitches when they needed to. They kept us off balance, they made a couple good plays. That was it."
Serrano quickly jumped in to echo Ramirez's sentiments.
"I told (Illinois coach) Dan (Hartleb) before the game, 'I've grown a fond respect for the Big Ten,' " Serrano said. "Two years in a row we've played two good teams, Minnesota and Illinois back-to-back . . . I have a lot of respect for that conference, especially the teams we've played the last couple years, because it definitely wasn't easy."
Now it's time to find out if Illinois can take down more college baseball royalty. The Illini will have to beat Stanford twice in a row to advance to super regionals at North Carolina. That's a tall order—but so was beating Cal State Fullerton on its own field.
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