CORVALLIS – And just like that, poof, it was over.
A season that seemed preordained for Omaha and a national championship chase vanished Monday night amid a dogpile of navy blue and burnt orange, with a dominant bullpen and a heaping side of “Sonny D” sealing its fate.
The Auburn Tigers beat the Oregon State Beavers 4-3 in an entertaining and nail-biting Game 3 of the Corvallis Super Regional, celebrating the upset in a mountain on the infield at Goss Stadium.
The 14th-seeded Tigers (42-20) advanced to the College World Series, while the third-seeded Beavers (48-18) suffered a heartbreaking end to a season of high expectations.
“This loss is going to sting forever,” OSU coach Mitch Canham said.
Oregon State, which long ago said anything less than a trip to Omaha would be a failure, entered the series as a favorite, boasting a deep pitching staff, relentless lineup and rock-solid defense. But in the end, the underdog Tigers, riding their “Bad News Bears” rallying cry, conducted to be more consistent and more clutch, outscoring OSU by a combined two runs in the back-and-forth best-of-three series.
In the deciding game, the Beavers out-hit Auburn 8-3 and enjoyed electric pitching. But the Tigers were simply better, making the most of their limited scoring chances and outperforming Oregon State in the clutch.
It started in the top of the third inning, when No. 2 hitter Cole Foster worked a full-count walk and Sonny DiChiara – the big and fun-to-watch slugger dubbed “Sonny D” – followed with a two-run home run to the left field, giving the Tigers a 2-0 lead. Later, in the sixth, DiChiara drew a one-out walk and Bobby Peirce followed with a double to the right-field corner, setting up another scoring chance. Both went on to score.
DiChiara came home when Beavers second baseman Travis Bazzana bobbled a Brooks Carlson grounder and threw late to first, then Peirce scored when he slid head-first at the plate on a Brody Moore safety squeeze, barely beating an underhand toss from OSU first baseman Garret Forrester . The pair of runs gave the Tigers a 4-1 lead, and sent a hush over 4,174 fans at Goss Stadium.
“If we hadn’t scratched and clawed and scored those runs right there, we would have been in here being interviewed first,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said, noting that the losing team conducts postgame interviews first.
The Beavers, who earned a walk-off win to reach the Pac-12 tournament championship game and survived two elimination games to make it to Monday night, fittingly fought back. No. 9 hitter Kyle Dernedde opened the bottom of the seventh with a single to left and Justin Boyd – who played phenomenally throughout the super regional – crushed a two-run homer into the trees in the left field, bringing the Beavers to within 4-3.
As soon as the ball left Boyd’s bat, he pointed to the sky, the crowd erupted and the Beavers’ dugout celebrated in a sea of momentum. It looked like Oregon State was gearing up for another comeback win.
Two batters later, Forrester worked a four-pitch walk and Jacob Melton followed with a single to the right, putting a pair of Beavers on base with one out. Thompson had seen enough and went to his closer, bringing Blake Burkhalter – a finalist for the Stopper of the Year award – into the game early. The hard-throwing right-hander ended the threat in breathtaking fashion, striking out Bazzana and Jake Dukart on 10 pitches.
“Just win the moment,” Thompson said, explaining why he went to Burkhalter early. “We thought it was the ballgame right there. When Boyd hit the home run, I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to have to strap it on right now.’ “
The Beavers’ inability to drive in base runners, to record a hit in any key situation, ended up being their undoing. Oregon State batted just 3 for 15 with runners on base, including a backbreaking 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position. Bazzana, in particular, had a night to forget, finishing 0 for 4 while leaving six runners on base – including four in scoring position. He left runners stranded on third base in the third inning and on second base in the first, fifth and seventh innings.
Even so, heading into the ninth, the Beavers were only one run away from forcing extra innings and had the top of the order coming to bat. But Burkhalter – who struck out five in 2 2/3 hitless innings – was too dominant, striking out Boyd, inducing a flyout from Wade Meckler and striking out Forrester to end the game.
The Tigers stormed the infield, forming a gigantic dogpile near the mound as Oregon State players watched in disbelief from the home dugout railing. Melton, who was waiting in the on-deck circle for one final at-bat at Goss, gazed at the scene for more than a minute, holding his bat on his shoulder, soaking in the heartbreaking scene.
And just like that, a dominant season filled with College World Series dreams, was over.
“It was tough for sure,” said starting pitcher Jaren Hunter, who allowed just one hit and two earned runs in five strong innings. “We dream of Omaha, we dream of winning a national championship, and when it you see it come to an end, it’s really difficult. And then it gets even more difficult when you say bye to all the guys who have been in your corner, been together for (years). Just saying bye to them is tough because I know I won’t get to suit up with them again. ”
In the end, a team built to win it all came up short. In the end, fans had to begrudgingly accept it was over too soon. In the end, all that was left were personalities and memories, the grit and heart of a team that was easy to root for and fun to watch.
And much of that heart is leaving.
Meckler, the inspirational underdog. Cooper Hjerpe, the bulldog ace. Melton, the rehabilitated five-tool slugger. Boyd, the smooth star. Mitchell Verburg, the bullpen mainstay. They’re just a handful of the key pieces of this year’s team that probably played at Goss Stadium for the final time.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to your family,” Boyd said. “We’ve grown so close over the (years) here … but we’re friends and family forever, so it’s not goodbye. We’ve had our backs against the wall the last three weeks. We showed a tremendous amount of grit and we showed what we’re made of, showed how we can come together no matter what the situation is. “
After the game, the Beavers huddled in the dugout for one final chat, during which Canham told his players how proud he was of them and how much he loved them.
There were hugs and handshakes, I love yous and tears, a feeling of loss. When it was over, Verburg, who has been in the program for six years, outlasting surgeries and rehabilitations to emerge as a leader on the pitching staff, took one last lap around the stadium. He walked toward fans in stands above both dugouts clapping and waving, offering thanks and one last goodbye – to them and to a special season that fell just short.
“We value that clubhouse,” Canham said. “And that’s the biggest, most painful part. Here in a couple of days, everyone’s going to be going different ways and we’re going to miss the heck out of each other. It’s hard when a family has to split up like this. For those guys that are moving on and won’t get to put on a Beaver uniform again, we’re going to miss them. From where we started, until the very last pitch, these guys are fighters and they care. And I love each and every one of them. And I always will. ”
– Joe Freeman | firstname.lastname@example.org | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian / OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories