Omaha Awaits One…
By CB360 Contributor Kevin Kennedy
Sports fans love a good underdog story, and fans of the College World Series are no different. Fans who attend the CWS that have no rooting interest with a particular school tend to cheer for the “Cinderella” team of the event.
The Cinderella school may be a mid-major team, a first-time visitor to Omaha, a school that was seeded low in the NCAA Tournament and made a surprising run through Omaha, or a combination of those three factors.
In this year’s CWS, Cinderella will come out of the Santa Clara Super Regional in an unlikely matchup between the University of California and Dallas Baptist University. The best-of-three series begins Saturday.
Both Cal and Dallas Baptist have incredible stories of how they find themselves only two wins away from Omaha.
Cal’s story is well-known throughout the college baseball world. In late September, the university announced that baseball, along with four other sports, would be eliminated after the 2010-2011 school year. The announcement sent shockwaves through the sport. It appeared a Pac-10 program with two national titles to its credit and high expectations in 2011 would be gone after the season.
Immediately after the announcement, a fundraising effort was launched to save the sports that found themselves on the chopping block. Boosters raised $13 million by early February and the school announced three of the teams would remain following the school year. Baseball was not one of them, and school officials said it was unlikely the Bears would be reinstated despite continued fundraising efforts by the group “Save Cal Baseball.”
Instead of the players looking to transfer, the baseball team came together and embarked on a mission to make 2011 memorable for on-field achievements. Players on head coach David Esquer’s squad had the option to transfer before this season, but all of them decided to stick with Cal and wait to transfer after 2011 if reinstatement did not occur.
On April 8, Cal baseball finally got the news it was waiting to hear. The fundraising effort to save the program had raised $9 million, enough to keep the program going in the future.
At the time of the announcement, Cal was ranked #13 and sported a 19-7 record, with a 5-1 Pac-10 mark. After the reinstatement announcement, Cal went 12-13 – losing five of its last seven conference series. The Bears entered the tournament 31-20 and 6th place at 13-13 in the conference.
Cal lost its tournament opener last Friday in Houston to #2 Baylor, 6–4, and the Bears found themselves in danger of going 0-2 for their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Bears avoided elimination with a 10-6 victory over #4 Alcorn State. Cal – which had trailed 4-0 after two innings vs. Alcorn State – continued to make its way through the losers bracket with a 6-3 win over #8 national seed Rice and an 8-0 victory over Baylor to force a deciding game on Monday (in a “Battle of the Bears”).
In Monday’s decisive game vs. Baylor, the Golden Bears trailed 7-1 going into the bottom of the 6th. Cal fought back and trailed 8-5 going into the bottom of the 9th. The Golden Bears trailed 8-7 with the bases loaded and two-outs/two strikes when sophomore first baseman Devon Rodriguez singled to right field to bring home the winning runs and a 9-8 victory.
It was fitting that a team that dramatically escaped the budget axe dramatically escaped elimination with four straight wins to advance to the Super Regionals and put themselves two wins from their first appearance in Omaha since 1992.
It has become clear that it’s very difficult to eliminate Cal baseball, both on and off the field.
Dallas Baptist is the quintessential underdog team. The Patriots compete as an independent in baseball and did not begin playing college baseball on the Division I level until 2006 (DBU previously was an NAIA program). Baseball is the only Dallas Baptist sport that plays at the DI level.
Being an independent, the Patriots are forced to load up their schedule with tough teams in the hopes of grabbing some wins that look good on an NCAA Tournament resume.
This year, the Patriots were one of the last at-large teams into the field after finishing the regular season 39-17. Dallas Baptist scored wins at Texas A&M, Rice and Oklahoma and posted two wins vover TCU, including one in Ft. Worth, along with a series victory over Atlantic-10 champion Charlotte to end the regular season.
Their 2011 tournament appearance is the second in the program’s history. The Patriots also were selected to the NCAAs in 2008, going 0-2 in the College Station Regional.
The Patriots received the #3 seed in the Ft. Worth regional, which included two teams from the 2010 CWS (Oklahoma,and TCU), as well as perennial tournament participant Oral Roberts.
Dallas Baptist edged out Oklahoma 3-2 in 10 innings in their tournament opener Friday, followed by a 3-2 victory over host TCU. DBU was forced to play on Monday after Oral Roberts won 7-2 on Sunday night.
In Monday’s deciding game, the Patriots jumped out to an 8-0 lead after their first at-bat and led 11-4 after only three innings. ORU cut the deficit to 11-9 going into the 8th inning, but the DBU bullpen kept the Golden Eagles off the board the rest of the way and the Patriots won the game to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history.
DBU head coach Dan Heefner has been able to achieve his program’s success despite not being able to compete in recruiting with other Texas baseball powers such as Texas, Texas A&M, TCU and Rice.
This Super Regional matchup was so unlikely that the NCAA did not announce where it was going to held until Tuesday morning. Neither school’s home field was adequate enough to host tournament games.
Dallas Baptist put in a bid to host at a nearby stadium for an Independent League team, but Cal was given the nod as host and games will be played at Santa Clara University’s Stephen Schott Stadium, located nearly 50 miles from Cal’s Berkeley campus.
Dallas Baptist features one of the top offenses in the country with a .311 team batting average, ranking 16th in the country, to go along with a .483 slugging percentage that ranks sixth in the nation. Five players are batting over .300, led by senior OF Jason Krizan who is hitting .419 with 81 RBIs and a .719 slugging percentage.
On the mound, DBU’s team ERA is 4.68. Two of the Patriots top pitchers are the team’s #1 and #2 starters. Senior Brandon Williamson is 10-3 with a 3.98 ERA and senior Jared Stafford is 8-4 with a 3.03 ERA. The two have the second- and third-lowest ERAs on the team. Other than Stafford and Williamson, all but one DBU pitcher features an ERA over 4.5.
To match the Patriots strong hitting attack, Cal features a pitching staff with a team ERA of 2.88, ranked 14th in the nation. Only one Cal pitcher has an ERA over 5.00.
The Bears feature four pitchers with at least nine starts: senior Kevin Miller (6-4, 2.62 ERA), junior Erik Johnson (6-4 2.91), sophomore Justin Jones (8-6 3.09) and junior Dixon Anderson (4-3 3.90). The bullpen was one of the stars of the Houston Regional. In their five games last weekend, Cal’s ‘pen combined to allow only two earned runs in 25.2 IP.
Cal boasts a team batting average of .286, led by Pac-10 player of the year sophomore 2B Tony Renda (.335, team leading 41 RBIs). Only four of Cal’s regular starters having batting averages over .300: senior Austin Booker (.313), junior Chadd Krist (.306) and Vince Bruno (.301). Sophomore 1B Devon Rodriguez, who was MVP of the Houston Regional, is hitting .292.
Both Dallas Baptist and Cal are strong-fielding teams, with each club’s fielding percentage at .974 (good for top-40 in the nation).
One of these teams will become the fifth team since 2007 to be seeded #3 or #4 in its Regional and end up advancing to the CWS (UC Irvine and Mississippi State are #3 seeds that also are playing this weekend in Super Regionals).
Of the previous four teams to make it to Omaha as a #3 or #4 seed, two have gone on to win the national championship (#3 Oregon State in 2007 and #4 Fresno St in ’08).
Cal and Dallas Baptist’s stories are different, but both are unlikely tales, and their respective stories illustrate why the winner of the series will be the first Cinderella at the new TD Ameritrade Park.
Yet only one story will be told in Omaha.