UC Irvine one step closer to championship series

OMAHA, Neb. -- They're fast becoming the darlings of the College World Series.

The UC Irvine Anteaters pulled off another shocker Tuesday night. By now, we shouldn't be shocked anymore.

With the second-largest crowd in the history of Rosenblatt Stadium firmly in its corner, UC Irvine rallied from four runs down late to beat Arizona State 8-7 in 10 innings.

The Sun Devils are just the latest victim of this Anteater steamroller. Coach Dave Serrano's club, in the NCAA postseason this month, has eliminated Pac-10 champion ASU, Big West rival Cal State Fullerton, Missouri Valley champ Wichita State and Big 12 champion Texas -- a lineup of college-baseball royalty.

"What we've done, what we've accomplished in this tournament, it's pretty amazing," Serrano said. "But that's what so special about this sport. The biggest and strongest don't always win. It's the best team."

The Anteaters' unlikely postseason run ranks as more than just the most intriguing story this year in Omaha. Their tale is one of the best in the history of the event.

After an opening-game loss to Arizona State on Saturday, Irvine (47-16-1) beat Fullerton 5-4 in 13 innings Monday. Then came Tuesday night's thriller, which featured a four-run rally in the eighth inning before center fielder Ollie Linton singled home Matt Morris for the winning run with one out in the bottom of the 10th.

No team before UC Irvine has ever won extra-inning CWS games on consecutive days.

"We knew we had a good ball club coming in," first baseman Taylor Holiday said, "but to win like this in instant-classic fashion, you never expect that."

All this from a school that dropped baseball in 1992. It was reinstated only after a 1999 vote of undergraduate students that increased quarterly fees by $33 to fund the program and three women's sports.

UC Irvine built a new stadium, Anteater Ballpark, in 2001. It returned to the field in 2002. Serrano was hired in 2004 after serving eight years as the highly successful pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton.

As the Big West runner-up in the regular season, the Anteaters were shipped to Round Rock, Texas, for regional play. Irvine beat Wake Forest for its first postseason win in three appearances and then upset powerhouse Texas twice to make a super regional.

A trip to Wichita State followed, and Irvine swept the Shockers to earn the school's first CWS appearance on Bryan Petersen's walk-off double in the ninth inning of the second game.

"I think what's hit me is that at Texas and Wichita, as soon as the games were over, all the fans told us they were rooting for us," sophomore pitcher Scott Gorgen said. "With Fullerton and Arizona State, it's the same way. They told us to go get it."

Petersen came through again Monday against the Titans with a two-out single to score Cody Cipriano in the 13th inning. On Tuesday, Linton's teammates sprinted from their third-base dugout to mob him after his walk-off hit.

It was a celebration usually reserved for the title game.

But Irvine has defied the odds more so than even most champions.

"Somebody asked us today, 'What was the greatest win in UC Irvine history?'" Serrano said. "Well, we've had seven victories in the postseason and each one has gotten better. I wouldn't want it any other way, to be honest with you. These guys are so deserving of this.

"There's no selfishness in this team. It's a true team. We don't want it to stop. Trust me, we don't want it to stop."

On Wednesday, the Anteaters get a crack at defending national champion Oregon State (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). They'll need two wins over the Beavers to make the best-of-three championship series, which begins Saturday, against Rice or North Carolina.

"They play with a tremendous amount of energy," said Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, whose program has made 20 CWS appearance, most recently before this year in 2005. "They remind me of our '05 team -- probably not going to win the whole thing, but they're a team of destiny.

"They play a different style of game. They'll do anything."

That's the thing about the Anteaters. It's a team full of guys like Holiday. The junior from Dana Point, Calif., ignored Serrano's short-hair team policy last winter.

Holiday, whose locks spill out of his cap down to his shoulders, told the coach he'd made an appointment to get it cut after the season.

He made an appointment all right, for June 26 -- in Omaha.

"This is a group that believes 100 percent in one another," Holiday said. "We never believe that we're out. It's what the coaches instilled in us. It's never say die. We define team. There's as much heart in that dugout as you could fit into one."

Mitch Sherman is a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald.