CWS: Different Roles For The Same Folks

By Doug Kroll - June 22, 2007

OMAHA- Deja Vu all over again Yogi Berra always has told us. This weekend in Omaha, it will be just that, as North Carolina and Oregon State will meet once again to decide the national championship.

This is certainly not the national championship that anyone predicted at the beginning of the season, let alone the beginning of the postseason, and even for that matter, when we all got here at the end of last week.

While it may be an unattractive matchup from the stance that we've seen it before, there are certainly a number of storylines that will be played out all weekend long.

Friday is an off day here in middle America, and that means it was time for the CWS Finals press conference, which featured both teams up on the podium at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium's Hall of Fame room.

Sitting in between the two? The 2007 baseball championship trophy. On each side of the trophy sat each head coach, OSU's Pat Casey and UNC's Mike Fox, with three players each.

Let's go down memory lane real fast just to remind everybody how this year is so different from last year, even though it's the same teams.

The Tar Heels and Beavers have come from completely opposite paths in each year, flip-flopping from what each did a year ago. In 2006, Oregon State was the team that was coming off hard-fought, backs against the wall games with their season on the line. In 2007, the Beavers have rolled through the three games they have played, with plenty of off time in between.

For the Tar Heels in '06, that was the situation they were in. They had the off days and they had their pitching all set up after coming out of a winner's bracket. This time around, they have played two extra games, and have needed to win three games in a row facing elimination to make it to this point, including two straight wins over Rice.

So let's get to the highlights of today's press conference, where UNC and OSU were reintroduced to one another for the first time since Oregon State won two in a row after losing the opening game of last year's Championship Series, 4-3. The Beavers then won 11-7 to tie the series, and took the final game 3-2 following a devastating error that allowed the go-ahead run to score.

To be honest, nothing earth-shattering came out of today's presser, with the standard lines being strewn out about how great it is to be back in the position that they are, and they thought so all along.

The thing with Oregon State is, many people, including their die-hard fans, thought they may even miss the NCAA Tournament a few weeks ago. Head Coach Pat Casey talked about the weekend that finally turned things around for his club.

"I think there's a time in every season when the players aren't playing like they can and as a coach, you don't want to see your team do that in conference and especially late in conference, and we were able to accomplish both," Casey said. "I think the defining moment came on the Wednesday before we left for UCLA when the guys realized that if we don't win two-out-of-three, we go home."

The Beavers ended up taking two-of-three that weekend against the Bruins, and most likely kept their postseason hopes alive by doing so.

Catcher Mitch Canham, one of only two starters to return to the OSU lineup from last year's squad, knew all along they'd be back here.

But it's hard to believe he really, really felt that way when the Beavers were sitting in sixth place in the Pac-10 and looked like they were going absolutely no where. And when they were sent to Charlottesville for the Regionals, and had to win a copuple of elimination games to stick around.

It's perhaps the break of Michigan beating Vanderbilt that has led the Beavers to be only two games away from winning back-to-back national championships. If it wasn't for the Wolverines, the Beavers would have had to have flown back across the country to Nashville to face the No.1-seed Commodores, who would have been due for a good weekend of baseball after a pretty awful one against Michigan.

Those are the types of things that happen to good teams though. Teams that are used to playing in the postseason. Sometimes it's tough for players to get things going again during the regular season after they have reached the pinnacle of their sport the year before. But once they got back into the postseason, it's as if someone has flicked a switch, and the guys have awoken just at the right time.

They've been able to do it with a bunch of newcomers who were non-factors in 2006. Take 2B Joey Wong for example, who has come in as a freshman and committed just four errors all year long. And then there's starting pitcher Jorge Reyes who has all of a sudden stepped into the No. 1 starter's role, after starting the first game in the Regionals, Super Regionals, and here at the College World Series.

He'll do so again on Saturday night, as the Beavers have their top three ready to go.

"I'm excited about starting Jorge," Casey said. "We popped him into the rotation about six weeks ago, we feel that when you get this far down the road that they've been in all of these situations before."

North Carolina, too, has found freshmen to step in and play an integral part in their return to the CWS Finals. Dropping two games in a row when they were only one win away from the first baseball national championship in school history has seemed to help the guys who were here return.

Guys like Josh Horton and Robert Woodard have been able to teach those young guys what it's all about. Included in 'those young guys' is starter Alex White, who has been Woodard's roommate on every road trip this season, and has been able to give him advice all the way through.

"I just told him that we're going to need him one way or another to win the national championship," Woodard said. "You're going to get your chance."

White will get the start on Saturday night, which sets up a freshman vs. freshman starting pitching matchup. That's certainly unusual for a large game of this magnitude, but coach Casey says that once you get to this point in the season, they really aren't freshmen anymore.

So what are we supposed to expect this weekend? Expect some really competitive games again just like last year. The Tar Heels are primed to seek some revenge on the Cinderella team from a year ago, while the Beavers are set on becoming the first team to win back-to-back baseball titles since LSU did so in 1996 and 1997.

They will first have to slow a UNC lineup down that has all of a sudden found its power stroke for the first time this postseason. They had only one homerun coming into Wednesday's game against Rice when Dustin Ackley hit his first of the postseason, before the Heels hit four as a team on Thursday which would lead to their win against the Owls. Coach Fox commented on his freshmen who seemed to struggle in the postseason until the last couple of games.

"This is a very difficult game to play," Fox said. "It just shows you the caliber of talent that comes into college baseball. You have to have freshmen come in and help out. Every year, a team is going to lose guys to graduation and to the draft, so you better have a good crop of talent coming in."

The Beavers will have their top three to do that, with Reyes set to go on Saturday, Mike Stutes on Sunday, and then I'm sure Daniel Turpen will be ready to go in the if necessary game on Monday.

As for the Tar Heels rotation, it's actually not in that horrible of shape compared to what OSU faced when they reached the CWS Finals last year out of the loser's bracket. They'll have their freshman phenom in Alex White take the hill on Saturday night, followed by what should be Luke Putkonen on Sunday, and then senior Robert Woodard would be set to come back with plenty of rest in the if necessary game on Monday.

I'm certainly looking forward to this weekend. The crowd's look like we're going to break the all-time record in attendance, which was set last year, and the weather looks like we're going to get the nasty storms out of the way today, on the off day.

The forecast is calling for temperatures in the low to mid-90's, but at least the humidity should dissipate once these storms get through here later on this afternoon and tonight.

I'm going to throw my prediction in here, and it's just so hard to pick against the defending national champion when they are this rested, and this poised. I say Oregon State wins in three games. I'll call for a 7-6 thriller in 12 innings on Monday.

I know Pat Casey and Mike Fox wouldn't have too much hair left after that, but at least it would be exciting.

For now, it's on to the zoo. Will be back later with a more detailed pitching matchup for tomorrow night's first game of the 2007 CWS Finals.

Off to see the monkey's, and scout out just exactly where that panda exhibit would live.

Posted by Doug Kroll at 03:02 PM on June 22, 2007

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