Monday, August 08, 2005
Joe Simokaitis stood on the first-base side of second base, a solitary figure. The field was cleared except for teammates Jesse Boyer and Curtis Ledbetter, who remained near first base.
Like Simokaitis, Ledbetter seemed unwilling to leave the field.
After Boyer jogged past, on his way to the first-base dugout from left field, Simokaitis finally moved to follow. Ledbetter walked to meet him, then turned to the dugout as well.
As he approached the dugout, Simokaitis flung his glove into it.
The best season in Nebraska baseball history was over.
A few minutes later, after the NCAA's mandatory cooling-off period, some Cornhuskers tried to express their feelings for reporters, who were intruders in something intensely personal.
Ledbetter, his eyes red beneath the bill of his red, sweat-soaked cap, couldn't hide the emotion of the moment, so his first words were unedited. "It feels like (expletive)," he said.
After an uncomfortable silence, he elaborated. "We put our hearts and souls into it," he said. "You can't take anything away from this team. It was a pretty dang good season."
The season was better than dang good, much better. The Cornhuskers won a school-record 57 games. But two of their 15 losses came at the College World Series. And that was one too many.
The second came late Tuesday afternoon, when Arizona State's J.J. Sferra lofted a single into right center field to drive in the winning run from second base with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning gave the Sun Devils an 8-7 win.
The count was 1-0, against redshirted freshman Tony Watson, Nebraska's third pitcher.
The finish was undramatic in the context of the 4 hour, 7 minute game. Andy Gerch's one-out, three-run home run in the top of the ninth gave the Cornhuskers a 7-5 lead, which was wiped out by Jeff Larish's third home run of the game to deep right center with two outs in the bottom of the inning.
That two Sun Devil outs preceded the home run was a story in itself. Nebraska center fielder Daniel Bruce picked off a line drive just before it hit the ground and doubled a runner at first.
The ending could have been storybook for the Cornhuskers instead of Arizona State. "We just didn't pull it out," said Ledbetter, one of several whose careers ended with Sferra's single.
"It's a pretty special bunch of guys," Ledbetter said.
One of those was junior third baseman Alex Gordon, the national player of the year according to most and the second player selected in the Major League draft. Gordon singled home the first run in the four-run ninth, only his second hit in three College World Series games, 11 official at-bats.
"I didn't do good," said Gordon, eyes hidden by sun shades. "I did terrible, actually."
There was enough responsibility for the unexpected exit to go around.
"I didn't have very good control today," said junior left-hander Zach Kroenke, who started and worked into the seventh inning. "I just made two big mistakes and they hurt me, bad."
Larish hit two home runs off Kroenke, one to left and one to right. The other runs charged to him were the result of a hit batsman and a walk. But he battled to keep the Cornhuskers close.
Such analysis hardly mattered, anyway, according to Ledbetter.
"The game's over; the season's over," he said.
Nebraska went two and out in the first two College World Series appearances in school history, in 2001 and 2002, losing three of the four games by one run and the fourth by two.
Both finishes were frustrating, but not to the degree of Tuesday afternoon.
"We expected to be here this year. That was one of our goals, and we made it," Ledbetter said. "We had a chance to win a national championship."
A realistic chance until Sferra's single, which had no effect on the traffic that rolled along Interstate 80, beyond left field at Rosenblatt Stadium.