OMAHA—Faced with the sobering reality that his baseball career might end Monday, Oregon State senior Max Gordon wasn't about to let that happen.
The Beavers have been backed against the wall before, having dropped their super regional opener against Kansas State before rallying to win the next two days. Facing a College World Series elimination game against Louisville, the Oregon State center fielder and his teammates exchanged emotional text messages Sunday.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Louisville had already looked wobbly through 12 innings in Omaha, but the Cardinals completely self-destructed in the fourth inning Monday. The lowlights included shortstop Sutton Whiting airmailing a throw that allowed two runs to score, while Cardinal pitchers handed out two walks (one with the bases loaded) and hit a batter. Five of the Beavers' seven runs in the inning were unearned.
The Hero: Max Gordon came into the day just 2-for-19 in the postseason, but he sparked the Beavers' big innings Sunday. He led off the third with a hit-by-pitch and came around to score the game's first run. In the fourth, his one-out single got the snowball rolling, and he drove in two runs with another single when his turn came around again later in the frame.
You Might Have Missed: Leadoff man Tyler Smith is usually the one that sparks the Beavers, and he shouldn't get lost in the shuffle here. Smith went 2-for-5 on Monday, driving in one run and scoring another, for his fifth multi-hit game out of eight in the NCAA tournament.
"I wouldn't say that mine was the most inspiring of all the texts," Gordon said. "But we had a little conversation, a little group message going. And, yeah, there's a few guys on this team that they are going to hang them up when the road's over."
The road's not over. The Beavers rose to the occasion again on Monday, taking the drama out early in an 11-4 drubbing of the Cardinals. Gordon was right in the middle of it.
The OSU center fielder is just a .226 career hitter and has occupied the No. 9 spot for most of the last two months, but he still makes an impact on the lineup by consistently putting together pesky at-bats. Gordon hadn't had a hit since the second game of the Beavers' regional against UC Santa Barbara, but his father, Stan, had a feeling his son was due for a breakout.
"His dad clued me in yesterday that he was going to hit today," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. "And he did."
Gordon backed up his father's confidence, knocking two hits and reaching base three times against the Cardinals. Both of his hits came in the fourth inning, when the Beavers sent 12 men to the plate and scored seven runs, turning a 3-0 game into a rout.
The afternoon was supposed to be about a pitching duel between Oregon State's Ben Wetzler and Louisville's Jeff Thompson, two starters that came into the game with a combined record of 20-2. But the Cardinals scarcely resembled the team that took down No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt on the road in super regionals. The Cardinals were shut out and committed two errors in their CWS-opening loss to Indiana, and matters only got worse against OSU.
An ill-advised backhanded flip from second baseman Zach Lucas went awry in the third, allowing two runs to score and putting the Cardinals in a 3-0 hole. It was already the Cardinals' third error of the game, and all three Beaver runs in the inning were unearned. The Cardinals then completely fell apart in the fourth.
Gordon got things started with a one-out single off Thompson, and the Beavers went on to load the bases with two outs. That brought up struggling cleanup man Dylan Davis—hitless in the CWS to that point. Davis didn't hit the ball hard, but it was the most damaging of the day. He hit a bouncer to the third base side of the mound and got the benefit of a close call at first base on the throw from Thompson.
"When I got the ball first, I felt that he may have been out," Cardinals first baseman Zak Wasserman said. "But that's not my call, and the umpire made the call, and so if he says he's safe, then he's safe.
"From there, I just feel that if maybe we had a little more focus, we would have been able to execute defensively."
The play allowed Gordon to score from third, and Andy Peterson raced around from second, able to score in the momentary confusion as the Cardinals assumed Davis to be out. Thompson was subsequently pulled, but the next five Beavers all reached against relievers Cody Ege and Kyle Funkhouser—the first four of those on two walks, an error and a hit by pitch, leading up to a two-run single from Gordon.
"If we play clean behind (our pitchers), you know, we only give up a run," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "And so I don't think that play cost us the game by any means. We gotta handle that (call) better and just play cleaner. We just didn't play clean today."
While the Cardinals fell apart, Wetzler held up his end of the pitching bargain. The junior lefthander had all three of his pitches—fastball, changeup and slider—working and kept the Cardinals' bats silent while the game was still close.
Wetzler wavered a bit in the fifth—following a long break while the Beavers put up their seven runs—when he gave up a run on two hits and a walk, but he still managed to pitch into the seventh before running out of gas. His going deep into the game sets up the Beavers well for a potential run through the losers' bracket, as they only needed to use one reliever to finish the game.
"You want a tough guy," Casey said. "He's a competitive guy. You want that guy when you're up against the wall. And I knew he'd give us a good start."
Meanwhile, it was a disappointing end for the Cardinals, who were making their second Omaha appearance in program history and harbored legitimate national title aspirations. The Cardinals set a school record with 51 wins coming into Omaha, but they had a bad weekend at the worst possible time.
"I know our guys are very disappointed," McDonnell said. "This is very tough at this moment, but I don't want this game to define them or define their season. It's a special group. Had a special year. And I told them just what I told the '07 (CWS) team: If our season had to end on a loss, I'd always want that loss to be in Omaha."