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A story for the ages

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Just how valuable were Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Kevin Gunderson to Oregon State's NCAA baseball champions? Even with all those innings and all that pressure from the tightrope walk through six elimination games, Pat Casey still didn't quite show America how valuable they could be.

Casey had one last trick up his sleeve that he didn't get a chance to use during the championship game of the College World Series on Monday night.

'If we had to bring Gunderson in (to face a left-handed batter) before Buck late in the game, I was going to move Gundy to right field when I brought Buck in, so I could bring Gundy back in to pitch,' he says. 'He's a great outfielder, too.'

You forget that these guys are terrific all-around athletes. Buck, a football player good enough to play in the Pac-10, also was an outstanding hitter at Newberg High. Nickerson played shortstop at Oregon City when he wasn't pitching.

They aren't just pitchers, they're baseball players.

And they're the backbone of what the Beavers have accomplished the past two seasons. You can talk about bunts, steals, sacrifices, home runs - all the offense you want - but when it comes down to it, pitching is what matters.

The Beavers, for the past two years, have known what to expect from their Three Aces: a consistent chance to win every single game. Buck, Nickerson and Gunderson have delivered time after time in a sport that - at the college level, with metal bats and muscular hitters - is stacked against the pitcher.

Nickerson has pitching mechanics for the ages. Don't wonder how his arm could hold up through 323 pitches in eight days - it's because he's got almost perfect form. He's got what pitching coaches used to call 'drop-and-drive' action that allows maximum use of his lower body like Roger Clemens or Tom Seaver.

'I can't honestly tell you where I got it,' Nickerson says. 'I've just kind of always thrown that way. Everything feels easy. It's why my arm doesn't hurt. My legs get tired, but my arm's fine.'

Buck has a gunfighter's glint in his eyes and ice water in his veins. A competitor? I seriously would not want to be trapped in a room with him and have only enough grub for one person. He pitched all season with an arm that wasn't up to par and didn't utter a word about it.

His pitching style goes back to his Little League days.

'Gary McGraw,' he says, eyes lighting up. 'My Little League coach helped me a lot.'

Gunderson is charismatic and outgoing. He's got the kind of cold confidence that is required of a relief pitcher and the rubber arm that helps him bounce back from continual use. If he doesn't make it with the Atlanta Braves, I could see the kid hosting a talk show.

'Our pitching coach, Dan Spencer, has done a great job with all of us,' Gunderson says. 'He's had some high-profile guys to deal with and done it well. I give him all the credit for what we've done.'

They'll be talking about this run for decades around here. I have a feeling that someday people will look back and not really believe this story. It's got that 'Did-that-really-happen?' feel.

I've been around here all my life, and I'm not sure I've ever come across a better story. Sure, the Blazers winning a championship in 1977 was really something - but come on, they had Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins and a team so good it could have won three or four NBA titles if injuries hadn't torn it apart.

College football at Oregon and Oregon State? Given the financial commitment at each school, fans there have a right to expect good seasons every year and a great one every once in a while.

UP women's soccer? A great story. A class program. But that's just it - the University of Portland has built one of the top three programs in the country, year in and year out. It's no surprise when that team wins - it's geared for that challenge. It recruits all over the West, including Canada.

But Oregon State capturing an NCAA baseball crown using mostly local kids - particularly in the back-to-the-wall manner the Beavers won it - is about as close to unthinkable as I've ever bumped into on this beat. The players grew up practicing in gyms, paved parking lots and indoor batting cages because you can't really ever expect it to stop raining here until there's about a week left in the high school season.

This was the story of a soaked, pale David beating up a whole gang of suntanned, heavily favored Goliaths.

Cole Gillespie, the Beavers' All-America outfielder, talks wistfully about the days his father, Braden - a former star at Madison High - spent throwing to him at the West Linn batting cages.

How many frigid days do you think these kids spent in the rain, slogging through mud, chasing rubber-coated baseballs? Or taking grounders in the high school gym because the field was under water? Or buying 25 balls off a pitching machine at those indoor batting cages because there was nowhere else to hit?

Rain and baseball. Oil and water. They just don't mix.

You aren't supposed to be able to compete with USC, Miami, Texas and LSU while carrying an umbrella, are you? But these Beavers earned their own place in the sun, showing the rest of the college baseball world that maybe all that nasty weather just makes you a little bit tougher.

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