OMAHA, Neb. - Oregon State is getting used to this "backs to wall" stuff, and it's not all that bad.
Trailing 5-0 in the fourth inning before a crowd of 25,046 at Rosenblatt Stadium, the fourth-ranked Beavers rallied to beat fifth-ranked North Carolina 11-7 Sunday night in the College World Series.
The victory knotted the best-of-three championship series at 1-1. Monday's 4 p.m. PT showdown is for the national championship.
Oregon State's Jonah Nickerson (13-4, 2.35 ERA) - working on three days rest - is expected to face North Carolina's Daniel Bard (9-3, 3.84) in what will be the most important game in the 97-year history of Oregon State baseball. Who is to say the Beavers, down and almost out early Sunday, won't get it done?
"We're playing for a national championship," said OSU shortstop Darwin Barney, who had three hits and a walk Sunday. "What's better than one game for one champion?"
Five times over the past seven days, Oregon State (49-16) has faced elimination with a loss. Five times, the Beavers have fought it off, won and stayed alive in a bid for the school's second NCAA title in any sport.
"We said (Saturday) we would come out today and play with pride and play hard," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. "Those are the two things I can always guarantee you an Oregon State team will do.
"There were times early in the game where we could have played better, but you saw a bunch of young men with heart and guts and determination take the field at Rosenblatt. It was a heck of a ballgame for us."
After losing to North Carolina 4-3 Saturday, Oregon State's margin for error was gone. And after the Tar Heels (54-14) jumped to an early 5-0 lead Sunday, doomsayers were ready to write them off.
Then came the fourth. Oregon State sent 10 men to the plate in the inning. When the smoke had cleared, the Beavers led 7-5. They totaled four hits, two walks and a hit by pitch in the frame.
"We opened the door for them with a hit batter and a walk, and they took advantage of it," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said.
There were plenty of heroes wearing Beaver white, but none more important than first baseman Bill Rowe and reliever Kevin Gunderson.
Rowe's three-run homer in the fourth put the Beavers ahead for good, and he added a fourth RBI on a single in the sixth.
Gunderson, one of the nation's top closers, came on with North Carolina ahead in the fourth. The little left-hander, normally called upon for one or two innings a night, closed with 5 1/3 innings of stellar relief. The Central Catholic grad allowed three hits and two runs, throwing 78 pitches while gaining the victory in his longest stint since pitching 6 1/3 innings of relief in the Beavers' season opener against Arizona State last year.
Using Gunderson so early in the game "wasn't a surprise to us at all," Fox said. "Once you face elimination, you have to get your best guy out there. He's a competitor, he pounds the strike zone, he's doubly tough on left-handed hitters. He gave them exactly what they needed."
Gunderson said when he entered the game in the fifth, he expected to go the distance.
"I knew it was my game to win or lose," he said. "They were going to leave me out there ... it worked out the best for us."
Oregon State scored four runs in the sixth to jump ahead 11-5, but Casey said he gave no thought to removing Gunderson and saving him for Monday.
"The only thought we had was we needed to win this game or we're going home a day earlier than we want to," the 12th-year OSU mentor said. "We're kind of in a tough situation. It didn't matter how many (more) pitches he threw at that point as far as (wear and tear on) his arm. We were going to stay with what we had. We weren't going to change unless we were forced to."
The Beavers ripped four representatives of North Carolina's heralded pitching staff for 14 hits to go with five walks and a hit by pitch.
North Carolina got one run in the second inning, three in the third and one in the fourth, with all five runs scoring on two-out hits. By that time, with the Tar Heels ahead 5-0, Casey had gone to Gunderson to try to stem the tide.
"It was frustrating at that point," Barney said. "Wasn't the way we planned on starting today. We planned on coming out with a vengeance and trying to get ahead early. It took a couple of hits to give us a spark. One spark can change the whole attitude of the team."
Casey thought the spark was Tyler Graham's steal of third base in the fourth inning with Carolina still ahead 5-0.
"It was a message for our club, that we're not surrendering, that we're going to play," Casey said. "It got us going a little bit, and things started to snowball and we played fairly well from there on out."
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were within smelling distance of a title.
"We kind of put it on cruise control," said Carolina catcher Tim Federowicz, who went 4 for 4 with a double and a two-run homer. "After that, they just came back."
The Beavers knocked out North Carolina starter Robert Woodard ‹ who had thrown a three-hit shutout against Clemson last Sunday ‹ as they began their explosion in the fourth. Graham opened the inning by getting hit by a pitch. John Wallace followed with a single. After a Chris Kunda walk, Shea McFeely took Woodard's first pitch down the left-field line for a two-run double, and the deficit was 5-2.
"I told Shea, ŒTurn on the ball, pull something hard,'" Barney said. "He set the tone. All it takes is one person to show some aggression and get the dogs going. That's what happened. We got hit after hit after that."
Matt Danford replaced Woodard, and fireworks followed. After a Scott Santschi strikeout, Barney singled to score Kunda. A wild pitch scored McFeely to cut the lead to 5-4. Mitch Canham walked, and after Cole Gillespie struck out for the second out of the inning, Rowe drilled his three-run homer to right. The OSU dugout emptied to greet the conquering hero. Amazingly, the Beavers led 7-5.
"(Danford) started me off with a low inside curveball, and I check-swung," Rowe said. "He came back with that exact same pitch but just a little more over the plate. Seeing it a couple of pitches earlier really helped.
"I'm just looking for a pitch in the zone right now. I feel like every time I hit it, I'm finding a hole or getting it over somebody's head."
The Orange Crew did more damage in the sixth, batting around for the second time in the game and scoring four times to seize an 11-5 advantage. They did it playing Beaver small ball, with three hits, three walks and a sacrifice fly.
North Carolina came back for a pair of runs in the seventh on a two-out, two-run homer by Federowicz to cut the margin to 11-7. That was all for the Tar Heels as Gunderson, working on guts and adrenaline, sealed the deal the rest of the way.
OSU starter Mike Stutes lasted only three innings, giving up seven hits and four runs. The sophomore right-hander from Lake Oswego simply wasn't as sharp as he had been in pitching the Beavers past Miami on Wednesday, and the Tar Heels took advantage of his mistakes. Daniel Turpen took over in the fourth and, after giving up a pair of hits and a run, gave way to Gunderson.
The OSU defense was superb as always, and once the Beavers "created some motion" on the base paths, as Casey termed it, they were off and running. North Carolina wasn't quite as sharp.
"(Sunday) will be about execution," Fox said. "The box score was a little misleading tonight. We had no errors, but we don't field bunts and failed to turn a double play when we had it. Those are the little things that make the difference in a game.
"Give (the Beavers) credit. They're really good at bunting. Almost everybody up and down their lineup can run a little bit, so you always have to be on your toes and make plays against them. If you don't, they're going to punish you."
Now it's one game for college baseball's top prize. North Carolina has Bard, its No. 2 starter most of the season, on the hill, and ace relievers Jonathan Hovis and Andrew Carignan ready with a day's rest. Casey wouldn't commit to Nickerson, who has already won two games at the CWS.
"We'll wait and talk to Jonah (Monday) and see how he feels," Casey said. But he added: "I know the pitching staff will be ready to go in its entirety."
That means Nickerson, and Stutes and Turpen, if necessary, and even perhaps Dallas Buck for an inning in relief.
"Hopefully, (Gunderson) will be gone for (Monday)," Fox said.
That's not the way Barney sees it.
"I'm sure we're going to see Gundy in the ninth (Monday)," the OSU shortstop said with a grin.
"What more can we ask for than to go out (Monday) night with one game on the line for the national championship?" Gunderson said. "There are a lot of teams sitting home wishing they were in this spot right now."
KXL (750 am) will have a special, 45-minute pregame, at 3:00 p.m. Monday . ... Oregon State's only NCAA crown came in men's cross country in 1961. ... North Carolina is bidding to become the first NCAA champion from the Atlantic Coast Conference since Wake Forest in 1955. ... Carolina is 11-1 in the postseason, Oregon State 9-2 ... Oregon State has committed only three errors in seven CWS games ‹ and none in the last 47 1/3 innings. The infield defense has been superb. "It's the best infield I've seen all year long," Casey said of his group. "They play loose, they play confident, they go get the ball, they know what they're doing. We expect that from them." ... Rowe increased his postseason hitting streak to 11 games. The senior first baseman has at least one hit in all but OSU's first NCAA regional game against Wright State. Rowe also has 18 post-season RBIs, including eight in the CWS.
North Carolina 013 100 200 ‹ 7 13 0
Oregon State 000 704 00x ‹ 11 14 0
Robert Woodard, Matt Danford (4), Adam Warren (6), Tyler Trice (7) and Tim Federowicz; Mike Stutes, Daniel Turpen (4), Kevin Gunderson (4) and Mitch Canham. WP: Gunderson (3-2). LP: Woodard (7-2). HR: Rowe (5). A: 25,046.