OMAHA, Neb. -- He shouldn't have been there, in the left-field bullpen at Rosenblatt Stadium, in a white Georgia uniform, in Game 1 of the College World Series finals, anxiously watching the Bulldogs' epic, eighth-inning comeback. This time last June, the Atlanta Braves had just taken
There was just the small issue of the contract. Negotiations between his agent,
So back he was, on a 78-degree Monday night in Omaha, his 'Dawgs having pulled ahead of tournament Cinderella Fresno State on a home run by
With the score 7-6, coach
It had been right to come back. But this would be the most vital appearance of his career, a chance to put eighth-seeded Georgia within one win of a national title. As good a time as any to convert adrenaline into heat.
Fields' first pitch of the ninth, to Fresno leadoff hitter
Fields hit 98 on the first pitch to the next batter,
He needed three pitches to retire the third hitter,
The morning of Monday's CWS game David sent Josh a text message that said, simply, "All you need to be is Joshua." The meaning: That Fields didn't need to stress the way he had as a junior, when things had routinely fallen apart; and he didn't need to press the way he had in his previous CWS appearance against Stanford, when he had given up four ninth-inning runs and turned a 10-4 blowout into a 10-8 squirmer. "I wanted to remind him," said David, "that he didn't need to muscle up and throw the ball too hard, and didn't need to over-think things. He just needed to be himself, and do things that had got him there."
The message may have resonated. In the post-game press conference, with ice-bags strapped around his shoulder and elbow, Fields said, "Tonight, I just tried not to think."
The process of "just being Joshua," this season, has involved not just a clear head but also the addition of a lethal second pitch -- a knuckle-curve that he had toyed with in high school, but this offseason finally turned into a weapon that's often as much as 14 miles per hour slower than his fastball. He had relied on a slider as a sophomore, when he 15 saves and a 1.80 ERA, but it lost effectiveness in 2007 -- "it made my form a little tight," he said -- and needed to be shelved.
Said Massanari, the man on the receiving end of Fields' replacement pitch in 2008, "His hammer is disgusting. I can't even remember anyone getting a hit off of it -- all season."
Fields can remember just one: an Ole Miss pinch hitter named
It has been that kind of year for Fields: so good that he remembers ultimately meaningless hits from more than a month ago -- UGA won that game, 11-4 -- rather than dwells on implosions. Monday's save was the 41st in his career, tying him with ex-Texas and CWS star
Fields' attitude, concurrently, has undergone a sea change, according to his road roommate
Like the plan to put gum on Holder's hat during an earlier CWS game -- and watch the pitcher walk around for about 30 minutes in the dugout during his off-day, oblivious to the deflated bubble on his dome. Or the attempts to scare the entomophobic Holder with bugs, like the giant grasshopper during a game at LSU. Or the latest, during batting practice before Game 1, when Fields used a strip of athletic tape to alter his Georgia hat so it read "Gordons" rather than the standard "G."
"We've changed our name to the Gordons," Fields said, in reference to their junior shortstop, the only Dawgs player taken ahead of Fields in the 2008 draft. Beckham went at No. 8 to the White Sox, and as a candidate for the Silver Spikes award -- he's hitting .404 with 27 home runs -- has become the face of the team. Fields showed the hat to Beckham, who was slightly amused; Beckham said he just wanted a hat that read "national champions."
Both of the Bulldogs' first-rounders delivered on Monday, Beckham with a prodigious blast to right-center to make the game 6-5 and kick-start the Dawgs' rally, and Fields with 12 pitches that took the life out of Fresno State. They're now on the brink of Georgia's first national championship since 1990 -- win on Tuesday night and they'll be wearing the hats Beckham desires.
No one in Omaha will be shocked if that victory comes with help from another clutch hit from Beckham, and with Fields, the redeemed senior returnee, drawing the curtain on Fresno's improbable run through the CWS. "When you put him in a save situation," Perno said of Fields, "he's been money all year."
Now, all Georgia must do is cash in on one more outing.