Imagine you're a freshman at Michigan (again). There's already a lot going on in your life. You're away from home, exams, new friends, dining halls. Now imagine you're a freshman on the Michigan baseball team. The new kid. The kid who's pitched a few innings, swung a few bats, but whose greatest moments are likely well into the future. But there you are, called on to pinch hit. Except it's in the top of the 10th. In a tie game. In the NCAA championship. Do-or-die. Now imagine the pitcher you're facing is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year's MLB Draft. Nasty stuff. K's, not a lot of walks, overpowering fastball and a filthy curveball that makes your knees buckle just thinking about it.
Even in your head, despite your bravado, you know you'd go down in 3 pitches. Maybe 4 if you were lucky and he misplaced a fast ball. For most people, just making contact hit or not would be enough. Not for Freshman Alan Oaks.
You see all the above was the situation he walked into Monday night. Despite all of the above, and a .188 batting average, he turned on 3-1 pitch from the soon to be very, very rich David Price, launching it over the left field fence to give Michigan a lead they would not relinquish, and Michigan's first Regional Baseball Crown since 1984.
But it wasn't easy. Despite taking the lead early with timely hitting and a Nate Recknagel two run homer, Michigan gave up a two run lead in the eighth when Vandy plated two runners on a sac fly and single. This made the score 3-3 going into the top of the ninth.
Then the inevitable happened. Vandy head Coach Tim Corbin hinted previously that if necessary, Price would be brought in to seal the deal. Sound posture, especially when he is the best player in college baseball. But even the best get tired. Price went nine innings and 128 pitches on Friday in a 2-1 victory over Austin Peay (Which is a really funny name. It sounds like something a three year-old would say after tinkling on your rug.). 128 pitches and two days rest clearly was too much for Price. Despite getting through the 9th with two strike outs and pitching an inning and a third, he got behind Oaks, and paid for it. Even with the home run, Michigan exited the inning without doing any further damage and went into the bottom of the 10th inning up 4-3.
Clinging to a one run lead, Sophomore Pitcher Michael Powers took the mound against the heart of Vanderbilt's record setting offense. de la Osa grounded out to short to start the inning. Then came Pedro Alvarez, arguably the best hitter in college baseball this year. Alvarez stepped to the plate with a gaudy .397 average, 70 RBI and 17 home runs. After working the count to 2-2, Powers made a mistake. Delivering a pitch directly into Alvarez' wheelhouse, he turned on the ball, launching it on a course that looked well above the left center field wall.
Out in left field, Junior Derek VanBuskirk tracked the ball from the moment it left the bat. Sprinting to the wall, VanBuskirk reached the outfield cushions before the ball and readied himself for a final, desperate leap into the early evening air. Using every inch of his 6'6" frame, he became both hero and villain in a a single perfect moment. With both arms extended, VanBuskirk erased Alvarez' game tying moon shot, bringing it back into the yard cradled carefully in glove and hand, penning it into the box score as a simple FO-LF.
While Vanderbilt would manage a single in an attempt to keep its dream alive, Matt Meingasner's could not lay off a final 3-1 offering from Powers. His failed check swing resulted in both a 1-3 putout and delirium in almost the same moment.
Now Michigan moves on to play the winner of the Oregon State/Virginia Regional Final. Despite a slow start, the defending champion Beavers (hehe) are on the verge of a repeat trip to the NCAA Super Regionals and the continued defense of their crown. Excellent coverage of the Beavers can be found at SBNation's excellent Oregon State blog, Building the Dam.
What is left is a date with destiny in Charlottesville. However, before drifting off into dreams of a perfect early summer afternoon in Virginia and the taste of a perfect steak in Omaha, read the eulogy for the Vanderbilt season authored by Rod Williamson. It will remind you why baseball is still our national pastime.
More soon. But for now, Go Blue!
(*) all photos courtesy AP Photo/John Russell
Update [2007-6-5 12:53:33 by Maize n Brew Dave]: ESPN has video of Oaks' home run and VanBuskirk's catch. Go there and watch it over and over again.