Tuesday, June 19, 2007

OSU One Game From CWS Final Repeat

You've probably heard the news by now that Oregon State's baseball team gave Pac-10 rival Arizona State a thrashing yesterday that the Devils won't soon forget, winning 12-6 in a game that was nowhere near as close as it sounds. The O's Jon Canzano called it fate this morning, but while I disagree about the forces driving the Beavers to consecutive national titles, we both believe that they should now be considered the team to beat among those remaining--or at the very least, the team that NOBODY wants to see next on their schedule.

First of all, there's the reality of the double-elimination system used by the NCAA to determine the champion. You're not done after one loss, but you do go into a "loser's bracket" that forces you to beat the other losers...and when you've done that, you have to sweep two games from the team that awaits you in the winner's bracket. After two years of fighting in the bad half, the Beavers are in the catbird seat at 2-0, with a crucial day off today while ASU and Cal-Irvine battle it out for the right to face them tomorrow. They could lose tomorrow, and still would make it to the finals by winning the rematch. As you can see, the deck is stacked heavily in favor of the 2-0 team (although OSU's title from last year is testament to the possibility that you can win from the loser's bracket), so it will take a big collapse not to see Pat Casey's boys playing for the trophy.

And speaking of Casey, it's time to give this man his due as the premier manager in college baseball today. Start with his third consecutive CWS appearance, something few schools accomplish anywhere, much less teams from the northern part of the country where climate interferes with practice and game schedules. Now consider that the 2006-07 Beavers have just TWO starters remaining from last year's championship squad, and you could only conclude that Casey's recruiting skill and teaching system mold winners out of prospects.

Yesterday's game is a strong illustration of what I'm talking about. Much was made by the Sun Devils about the long delay in getting the game going; the previous game went into extra innings and forced OSU and ASU to begin play about 90 minutes late, after only about 20 minutes of on-field warmup time. According to their coach and players, the delay threw them off their game and left them unprepared to go full-bore from the first pitch.

You can see this question go begging down Broadway, can't you? Whose fault is it that they were unprepared? While the Devils sat anxiously, doing nothing, Casey allowed his team to wander about, watch the game in progress, talk with friends and family, play around with a duct tape-covered ping-pong ball--whatever. By all accounts, the Beavers stayed loose, and the Devils stewed. You could tell the difference once the game started, that's for sure.

That's one way Casey adjusted to circumstance and made the right call. Much more importantly, another Casey adjustment on the field showed immediate dividends and essentially ruined ASU's chances. If you read the Canzano piece you'll find this snippet:
Champions never panic. They don't foolishly adjust their game to fit their opponent's style. In boxing, right-handed champions don't get so worried they switch to fighting southpaw. In the NFL, passing teams don't start running the ball. It's why the San Antonio Spurs didn't scrap their slow-tempo, defensive-minded style of play for the wide-open Cleveland Cavaliers.

So given the option of starting No. 2 pitcher Josh Satow or No. 3 Brian Flores, what do you think Murphy did Monday?

He thought, and thought, and worried, and never mind that Satow recently threw eight shutout innings against the Beavers, the coach of the year decided to give Flores the start. But not before he warmed up Satow. And then, Flores. And then, Satow. And then, Flores.
Murphy ended up starting Flores, who was dominant this year, including a game against OSU. Flores' out pitch this year has been a strong changeup to go with his fastball and curve.

If you watched the game, you'll recall that OSU batters got four straight hits in the first, at least three of them right up the middle. That was no accident--the way to approach a guy with a strong change is to adjust your timing and try to keep from doing what low changeups usually make you do...hit a weak grounder left or right. For all of Murphy's pregame hemming and hawing, the Beavers were ready for whichever pitcher it was--because Satow is also blessed with a great change, and when he replaced Flores in the 2nd you could barely tell the difference. If I'm not mistaken, the ball that Lissman hit to make it 6-1 in the 2nd was a changeup left in the middle of the zone. The bottom line is that Casey had his team ready.

And as the game went on, it became obvious how well the Beavers play as a team. In his next at-bat after clubbing a 3-run homer, Lissman BUNTED, safely, down the third base line for a hit. Guys advanced the runner on outs, took the extra base when appropriate, and most crucially made the best of 2-out situations by scoring their first 7 runs that way. Their exquisite defensive positioning consistently allowed players to make outs on hard smashes that nonetheless flew right towards them. Much was made of the offensive explosion, and rightly so--but the truth is that the Beavers won because they shut down the Devils (a team that scored nearly 10 runs a game this season) until the game was out of hand. When pitcher Mike Stutes got himself into a jam, he worked his way out of it with a lazy fly or a tailor made double play (or the benefit of a gem like Darwin Barney's leaping spear of a line drive in the 3rd).

So congrats to the 2007 Beavers, who have incontrovertibly arrived on the college baseball scene. It's no fluke anymore, and yesterday's game was Exhibit A.

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