CWS Flashback: 1990 Pt. 2
Getting a first-round draw against baseball factory Mississippi State in the College World Series wouldn't exactly constitute a break for most teams. Then again, most teams aren't the 1990 Georgia Bulldogs. Steve Webber's UGA squad had already taken a season series from Ron Polk's Dogs during the '90 regular season, including a 9-0 shutout behind All-American lefty Dave Fleming.
"Fleming had owned Mississippi State for pretty much two years, so we felt comfortable going into that game," explains former Georgia first baseman Doug Radziewicz. "The biggest plus we had on our side was that we had already been to Starkville and beaten MSU two out of three. We knew with Flem going and our recent success there, we couldn't have asked for a better opener. Not that we didn't have respect for them. We were quite familiar with them. We knew their pluses and minuses."
That included UGA knowledge of MSU pitchers. On the heels of Fleming's regular-season shutout came a 12-1 Georgia rout in the nightcap of a double-header. All-American DH Brian Jester, the team's leader in average (.364) and homeruns (17) that season, cranked a pair of home runs to headline Georgia's hit parade that day.
Mississippi State salvaged the finale of the regular season series in a big way, winning 22-6 and giving the CWS match-up the makings of a possible slugfest. Instead, though, Georgia blanked MSU 3-0 for the first CWS shutout in three years, courtesy of a four-hitter.
"Fleming just absolutely owned MSU," says Bruce Chick, the Georgia rightfielder that year. "It was huge to get that first win and stay in the winner's bracket."
Georgia's reward for that victory came two days later against powerful Stanford and ballyhooed righthander Mike Mussina, already a 14-game winner at that point. Webber countered with his own ace righty, senior Mike Rebhan.
"That first inning, I could feel my heart beat out of my body," recalls Rebhan. "As a ninth grader, I remember watching the College World Series on ESPN and thinking how great it would be out there. My knees were shaking on the mound. Once that first inning went by, though, I was in the game."
Stanford's lineup featured speedy leadoff man Jeffrey Hammonds, followed by several hitters who had double-digit totals in homers that year, most notably clean-up guy Paul Carey.
"My key thought was get ahead of the hitters and throw my breaking ball for a strike, especially when I was behind in the count," says Rebhan.
While Rebhan was mapping out a strategy to attack Cardinal hitters, his teammates were trying to solve Mussina.
"Mussina struck out like seven or eight of the first nine guys and it didn't even seem hard," recalls Don Norris, a redshirt junior that season. "I was thinking 'holy cow, we have no chance.' Doug's pop-up was the first contact we had."
Bulldog centerfielder McKay Smith remembers it this way: "Mussina was actually their number two starter, if you can believe it. He struck out six of the first seven, including me. Then we got to him in the sixth inning."
Stanford led 5-0 after five full innings, thanks in part to a homer by Carey. Meanwhile, Rebhan was settling into a groove just as things were unraveling for Mussina.
"Mussina went from a guy who looked like he was going to throw a perfect game to not being able to get anybody out," says Norris.
Adds Smith: "Mississippi State had played Georgia Southern in the game before us and scored six runs in an inning and set a new College World Series record and then we scored 11."
Georgia third baseman Jeff Cooper vividly recalls Mussina's efficiency to that point.
"His curveball was un-hittable when it was down in the zone. His breaking pitch was extremely well that day but he wasn't able to get it down after while."
Georgia scored five more runs in the ninth to cap a 16-2 throttling of Stanford. The Bulldogs racked up 19 hits on the day, while Rebhan held the Cardinal to just five hits.
Bulldog shortstop J.R. Showalter was in the midst of a hot post-season run that would see him hit .300 with a homer and 10 RBI. In the CWS alone, he hit .304, showing why he was one of four Georgia players named All-American that season, along with Jester, Fleming and Stan Payne. Showalter thrived in the #3 spot, hitting between Cooper and Jester, establishing a UGA record for total bases in a season with 163.
"J.R. was our best hitter," says Chick. "He was the guy that was really potent."
Showalter, however, downplays the impact of his individual performance.
"We didn't have any superstars," he says. "We were a scrappy bunch of players that peaked and jelled at the right time."
Three days after their big win over Mussina, the Dawgs faced Stanford again. This time, though, freshman righty Brian Sackinsky got the call against Georgia.
"With Fleming going on four days rest against a freshman, our confidence was pretty high," says Radziewicz.
Fleming and the Dawgs had staked a 2-1 lead going to the seventh when the Cardinals scored three go-ahead runs. Hits were at a premium that day for both teams, with each getting six apiece. Ultimately, Sackinsky wound up saving Stanford's season with a 4-2 win.
"It was quite a bit of disappointment because we had arguably beaten their best pitcher (Mussina) and the guy who beat us in the second game had relieved in the first game and we had touched him up pretty good, too" says Radziewicz.
Georgia and Stanford squared off again 48 hours later, with the teams playing each other for the third time in six days. Once again, it was Rebhan facing Mussina in a do-or-die situation for both teams.
Rebhan says," I remember asking Coach Webber 'do I have the ball?' I remember I had one more chance to help my team get there. I felt fortunate to give my team a chance."
A JUCO transfer, Rebhan had endured many growing pains since arriving at Georgia before the '89 season, and that included his maturation on the mound.
"I became a pitcher rather than a thrower," says Rebhan, who sported a three-pitch repertoire. "I remember being able to spot the fastball. I learned how to change speeds. My slider had become my "out" pitch against righthanders and my change-up was my "out" against lefties. But the development of my change was key my senior year."
Fleming confirms Rebhan's assessment: "If you looked at Mike, he wouldn't impress you if you watched him, but he knew how to locate and change pitches."
Rebhan, however, showed signs of serious fatigue before the rubber-match against Stanford. Warming up in the bullpen before the game, he had to stop throwing because his arm hurt. It wasn't the best of omens for Georgia, needless to say.
Stanford led 1-0 after three and it looked like more of the same from five days earlier. Then, according to Radziewicz, " a light switch went on."
Georgia scored four runs in the fourth to stake Rebhan to a 4-1 lead. The Dawgs added one more in the seventh and had a four-run advantage going into the ninth. Meanwhile, Rebhan was going all out, leaving nothing on the field.
"He had two children and he knew he wasn't moving on," says Chick. "Mike pitched the game of his life and it wound up being the last game he ever pitched."
Rebhan's gutsy performance limited Stanford to just six hits in a 5-1 win. In the most unlikeliest of scenarios, David had slain Goliath for the second time, and Georgia moved on to play for the national championship.