CWS Finals Preview

OMAHA–So much has changed, yet nothing has changed.

For the second straight year, North Carolina and Oregon State will play for the national title. But while the uniforms are the same, these are not the same teams that gave us a true College World Series classic in 2006, when the Beavers won the championship series–now called the CWS Finals–in three riveting games.

For starters, both teams lost their top two starters from a year ago, which is no small matter. Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard were both first-round picks for North Carolina, and Miller was the 2006 Player of the Year. Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson had both been All-Americans for Oregon State, and Nickerson was the 2006 CWS Most Outstanding Player.

Both teams lost crucial pieces in the bullpen, as OSU had to replace stalwart closer Kevin Gunderson, and UNC lost national ERA leader Jonathan Hovis.

And while North Carolina’s only significant loss from its lineup was outfielder Jay Cox, the Beavers had to replace six of their nine starters, including 2006 Pacific-10 Conference player of the year Cole Gillespie.

Yet for all of that, the Beavers and Tar Heels are the last two teams standing again. It’s just the second time ever the same two teams have played for the championship in consecutive years, and the first time since Southern California beat Arizona State in 1972-73.

“It is so very difficult not only to get to Omaha but to get back here again to play for the national championship,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “(OSU coach) Pat (Casey) and I were talking back in January about our teams and players that we had lost. It’s funny that we’re back here again playing Oregon State.”

There’s obviously some familiarity between these two teams, but that might actually ease the tension rather than heighten it once play begins Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.

“I think it will be fun to play against them again,” Oregon State catcher Mitch Canham said. “They’re a solid ballclub, and they’re a fun group of guys. Maybe this year we can actually do a little bit of talking when we’re on the bases–last year it was intense the whole time. Maybe now we can actually relax a little bit during the championship series.”

But for all the experienced veterans who know their way around Omaha by now–Canham, Darwin Barney, Eddie Kunz and Mike Lissman have played in three straight College World Series, and UNC mainstays like Josh Horton, Chad Flack, Robert Woodard and Andrew Carignan have spent the last two Junes here–players who might have just gotten their first taste of the Drover’s Whiskey Steak will have plenty to do with the outcome this weekend.

Case in point: Game One starters Jorge Reyes of Oregon State and Alex White of North Carolina are both true freshmen. And freshmen Tim Fedroff, Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley combined to drive in five of UNC’s seven runs against Rice on Thursday.

“Yesterday people were talking about our experience out here, and yet three of our freshmen had probably our three biggest swings of the bat,” Fox said. “It just shows you the caliber of talent that can come into college baseball. When you look at our team and their team, you have to have freshmen to come in and play a very important role on your team, because you’re losing talented players to graduation or the draft every year.

“I’ve said that for a number of years, you better have some young guys who can come in and perform at a high level, or your program’s going to really slip if you don’t.”

While the Tar Heels slid a few key freshmen into prominent roles, Oregon State had to remake its team with newcomers. The Beavers have always been strong up the middle during their stellar three-year run, and the additions of freshman Joey Wong at second base and junior college transfer Chris Hopkins in center field ensured the defense did not drop off a tick.

Two more transfers, first baseman Jordan Lennerton and DH Jason Ogata, added some pop to the lineup, and Reyes solidified the pitching staff after joining the weekend rotation in April. That allowed Casey to put righthander Daniel Turpen in the bullpen, where he thrived right up until the postseason, when he has filled in very well as a starter. If this series goes three games, Turpen is likely to get the call Monday, with righthander Mike Stutes going Sunday. Having those three starters rested (six days’ rest for Reyes) allows Casey to leave dominant lefthander Joe Paterson in the bullpen, where he can enter in a big moment against UNC’s dangerous lefthanded bats.

Everything is clicking for Oregon State right now, but getting to this point has not been easy. After starting 22-3, the Beavers slumped badly in conference play. After losing three straight series against Washington, Washington State and Arizona State, the Beavers were teetering on the brink of missing the NCAA tournament, and they knew it. Oregon State had one more chance to prove it was worthy of a spot in regionals–it had to win a series at UCLA over the final weekend of the regular season.

“There are times in a season when you play 60 games where for some reason–I guess maybe it’s because they’re 18 to 21–people don’t quite perform like you feel like they can, or they feel like they can,” Casey said. “There are two things as coaches you don’t want to happen: one, you don’t want it to happen in conference, and two, you don’t want it to happen late in conference. We were able to accomplish both.

“So we were pinned against the wall and had to go to UCLA against a very, very good club, they were second in our conference . . . I think the defining moment was we had a little meeting Wednesday before we headed to UCLA, and we said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do. There’s no easy way to tell you, but we win two out of three, or we’re going home.’ I think that was something they all realized, and people like Mitch and Barney, other people that have been around, they got the grasp of what we needed to do, and they decided themselves in the locker room that we’ve got to go down and get that thing turned around. We did it, and since then I feel like they’ve gotten into a pretty good rhythm of playing the game.”

The Beavers kept that rhythm going through the Charlottesville regional, the Corvallis super-regional and the first week of the College World Series, where they won their three games without much drama. In fact, Oregon State has not trailed in its last 52 innings, and its 3-0 run to the finals allowed its pitching staff to rest up. It’s a complete reversal from 2006, when North Carolina went 3-0 to reach the championship series while Oregon State lost its opener to Miami and then had to run through the loser’s bracket.

This year, the Tar Heels had to play with their backs against the wall after losing their winner’s bracket game against Rice. But UNC’s beleaguered starting pitching rebounded to deliver three consecutive quality starts, helping North Carolina cruise past Louisville and Rice twice.

Even though UNC has had to play five games in Omaha while OSU had played just three, North Carolina’s pitching staff is in much better shape overall than Oregon State’s was a year ago. White hasn’t pitched since Sunday against Rice, when he lasted just 1 1/3 innings, and UNC’s projected Game Two starter, Luke Putkonen, hasn’t pitched since Tuesday. Having a reliable fourth starter eased the burden on UNC’s rotation, as Adam Warren made the start Thursday against the Owls, allowing the other starters to get plenty of rest heading into the finals.

The North Carolina bullpen is a little more fatigued, as Rob Wooten and Andrew Carignan have turned in Herculean efforts in Omaha. Carignan threw 2 1/3 hitless, shutout innings in the last game against Rice, a day after throwing 1 2/3 shutout frames in UNC’s first win over the Owls. He threw 1 1/3 shutout frames the day before that against Louisville, and another shutout inning in UNC’s opener against Mississippi State. As for Wooten, all he’s done is appear in all 11 postseason games for the Tar Heels, on his way to the school’s single-season appearances record (46).

But while Oregon State has the fresher bullpen by far, Carignan and company are being fueled by adrenaline. It doesn’t hurt that they’ll get another crack at Oregon State this weekend.

“If you play college baseball, this is where you want to be,” Carignan said. “Two years in a row, it’s a dream come true. To have a shot at redemption against Oregon State, it’s very exciting.

“I was excited as soon as I saw (the Beavers) went 2-0, I had a feeling they were going to come out of there. That was all the more motivation to beat Rice and get another shot at them.”

Now Oregon State and North Carolina have another shot at each other.