June 24, 2008

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 Josh Fields with their second-round pick, and he was as good as gone -- ready to forget a nightmare junior season in which he had recorded just seven saves and blown six, and take his high-90s fastball to the minors. A 4.46 ERA aside, he was still a coveted college closer.

There was just the small issue of the contract. Negotiations between his agent, Scott Boras, and the Braves -- as they are wont to do when the infamous Boras is involved -- got hairy. A few weeks into the process, the Braves called Fields directly and gave him an ultimatum: sign now or talks would go dead until August. He didn't sign. Talks went dead. And the more he hung around Athens, the more he prayed about it, the more he considered the logistics of the deal, the more staying seemed like a better option. "It just became a no-brainer," Fields said. "It felt right to come back."

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 Gordon Beckham and doubles by Matt Cerione and Joey Lewis in the bottom of the eighth. Fields is not from the Cold-Blooded Sect of closers, and so he admitted that while warming up, "My adrenaline was flowing pretty hard. I get real nervous in those situations, and I was trying to breathe deeply, just trying to calm myself down."

With the score 7-6, coach Dave Perno's call for Fields came in the top of the ninth. This, too, was a no-brainer. When the long-haired, long-since-his-last-shave righty's name flashed on the scoreboard, it came with the stats of a pitcher reborn as a senior: 17 saves in 17 chances. Sixty-two strikeouts against 22 walks. An opponents' batting average of .137. They no doubt mentioned on television that Fields had recently become the 20th pick in the first round by the Seattle Mariners, and could be in the majors by next season.

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 Danny Muno, clocked in at 96 for a strike. Fastballs of 97, 95, 97 and 96 followed, the last one lined to right for out No. 1.

Fields hit 98 on the first pitch to the next batter, Gavin Hedstrom. Three pitches later, Hedstrom went down swinging on a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, with Fields almost recoiling backwards after letting it loose.

He needed three pitches to retire the third hitter, Erik Wetzel: a heater that ESPN's speed gun didn't record; a nasty curve at 84, and a fastball at 95 that was popped up to first. Twelve pitches, three outs, and Fresno's latest giant-killing effort -- after eliminating No. 2 overall seed North Carolina on Sunday -- had been thwarted. "That's pretty much been his style all year," Georgia catcher Bryce Massanari said of Fields. "He's one big quick-twitch muscle. He just slammed the door."

Fields' parents, David and Lisa, were watching the game at home in Hull, Ga., just 10 minutes from the UGA campus, where David works as an information technology manager. Josh was raised around Georgia's baseball program, attending innumerable Bulldog games as a child, and even serving as the team's batboy for one game when he was 12. ("Goldberg [the WWE wrestler] was throwing out the first pitch," Fields recalls. "The guy was an absolute giant; I got to see him in the locker room and that was pretty exciting.")

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 Jeremy Travis, all the way back on May 4th in Athens. Fields still seems rather stung by the occurrence, too, which is perhaps why he remembers it in such vivid detail: "It was one of the good ones," he said of the pitch to Travis, "and I don't know if he was sitting on it, or if he was swinging that late anyways, but he waited on it and hit it down the first-base line for an [opposite field] double. He just poked his bat right out there."

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 Huston Street for sixth on the NCAA's all-time Division I list.

Fields' attitude, concurrently, has undergone a sea change, according to his road roommate Trevor Holder, who threw seven innings as Monday's starter. "[Fields] just just having a lot more fun playing the game this year," Holder said. "You can see it on the field -- he has a ton of confidence -- and off the field, because he's up to all his old pranks. He's always scheming something."

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.

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