I thought UC Irvine was done. Down by four runs, with lights-out closer Jason Jarvis on the mound, it seemed as though the Anteaters' Cinderella run through their first College World Series would have an uneventful end.
After a marathon 13-inning elimination game with Cal State Fullerton on Monday, no one could have blamed Irvine for hanging it up. Short on pitching and not known for putting up many runs, the Anteaters seemed an unlikely candidate to generate the comeback of the year.
Freshman Scott Gorgen held off the Sun Devils for two innings.UC Irvine, however, had other ideas. The Anteaters weren't ready to take off their jerseys. And the near-record crowd of 29,234 didn't want to see them go, either.
The door opened for an Anteater rally in the eighth inning, when Jarvis loaded the bases on walks and a hit batter to bring in the first Irvine run of the eighth. Irvine is a scary team when it thinks it has a chance, and that's exactly when Cody Cipriano, UC Irvine's postseason hero, came up to bat. Cipriano's home run after 14 pitches Monday was textbook. But his at-bat in the eighth, when he saw eight pitches before driving a shot up the middle to bring home Luis Tovar was just as impressive and important for Irvine.
Cipriano's plate patience and sound fundamentals are hardly unique on this team. Coach Dave Serrano has a team full of Ciprianos. Their approach is the same; they wear out opponents.
Cipriano's poise under pressure extended Irvine's postseason life. But the Anteaters never saw themselves as down and out. Left-fielder Matt Morris proved that, following Cipriano's hit with a double to right-center that brought home two more runs to tie the game.
In the top of the ninth, with the score tied and the Anteaters' season on the line, Serrano made a gutsy call in bringing in freshman pitcher Scott Gorgen. The Sun Devils had touched up the rookie on Saturday for eight hits and five earned runs in seven innings. But Gorgen looked like a different pitcher on the mound Tuesday night, attacking the Sun Devils and allowing just one hit and striking out two in two innings of work.
UC Irvine finished off Arizona State in the bottom of the 10th after Mike Leake loaded the bases on two singles and an intentional walk. Center fielder Ollie Linton hit a perfect shot to the right side to bring home the winning run and extend Irvine's stay in Omaha at least one more night. UC Irvine will face a well-rested Oregon State team on Wednesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). It'll be the Anteaters' third straight elimination game.
The defending champs, however, face a tough task. Irvine has proved that it is not an easy out. In the most respectful sense, the Anteaters are a lot like a Little League team. Nothing gets to them. They come out every day and play as hard as they can, never give up and have a lot of fun doing it. They don't seem to know that they're not supposed to win it all in their first time in Omaha.
But just getting to Omaha proved anything is possible. UC Irvine had to knock off a Texas team most expected to still be playing now. The Anteaters also eliminated Wichita State on its own field. Now in Omaha, they've knocked out Cal State Fullerton and the Sun Devils. They may not have the best bats -- before Monday's game, they were one of only two teams in the CWS to not hit a home run -- and they don't have a pitching staff chock full of aces. But Serrano has something more important: 25 guys who don't want to stop playing.
We in the media tend to overemphasize things. We thought Irvine would be exhausted after five-plus hours and 13 innings on Monday. But kids don't think that way. The Anteaters were pumped full of adrenaline, just excited to still be alive. I remember that feeling as a player -- when you step on that field, nothing matters but being able to keep playing.
The key to Irvine's success is its coach. Serrano has been around a lot of great coaches and has seen what it takes to get to the next level. It's clear he knows his team and understands how to get the best out of them, night after night.
He had full confidence in Gorgen, even after short rest, even after Saturday's performance. It's the same confidence Serrano has had in Gorgen all year. You can tell what a coach thinks about a player through his facial expressions -- they don't lie. Serrano's eyes light up when he talks about his rookie ace. And after Tuesday's performance, so do the eyes of Eater Nation.
UC Irvine continues to get the best out of its players when it needs them the most. Entering this game, no one would have ever circled Linton as the batter to stay away from. In fact, Irvine doesn't have many batters that look scary on paper. But night after night, the lineup digs deep to win.
You can see the bond on the Anteaters bench. You can feel it when they're on the field. This team has a chemistry that isn't easy to come by. They have an unbeatable attitude. The team that came from nowhere is one game closer to winning it all. And we're all having a blast watching them.
Kyle Peterson was a three-time All-American at Stanford and is a college baseball analyst for ESPN.