Going into last Saturday's College World Series championship game, Pepperdine starter Patrick Ahearne knew that to give his team a chance to win against powerful Cal State-Fullerton, he would have to come up with a performance worthy of his idol, Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers. So when Ahearne, the Waves' righthanded ace, took the mound in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium that afternoon, 17,962 fans looked up and saw...Orel Hershiser. There was that familiar blue-and-gray uniform with the bright red 55. There was that lanky 6'3", 195-pound frame. There was that familiar droop of the shoulders, that laserlike stare at the plate, that wind-up, that delivery, that tug of the sleeve.
And there were those opposing batters going down like novice surfers facing their first monster Wave. Before giving way to his bullpen in the seventh inning, Ahearne/Hershiser thoroughly tamed the potent Fullerton bats, allowing only three hits and one run, which was unearned. Two innings later, with the 3-2 Pepperdine win and the national championship secured, it became clear that Ahearne hadn't just been imitating Hershiser—he had actually become Orel Hershiser.
"I think the game I threw today was very similar to the final World Series game against the A's in '88," said Ahearne afterward, seemingly forgetting for a moment that in 1988 he was graduating from high school. "But to tell you the truth, when I'm pitching, I'm not aware of copying him. It's just me out there."
To tell the truth, not many people thought Ahearne and his teammates could win out there. Although Pepperdine entered the College World Series ranked third in the nation, the NCAA thought little of the little school from Malibu and had seeded the Waves seventh in the eight-team field. And even though Pepperdine plowed through the rest of the field to arrive at the championship game undefeated, most experts predicted a Fullerton victory.
"We're more of a substance team than an image team," said Pepperdine second baseman Steve Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been Pepperdine's unlikely hero on Thursday when he hit his fifth home run of the year, a grand slam against Texas in a dramatic 5-4 comeback victory. "We're the kind of team that plays hard every day. We don't pop off or stand out. We just make the basic plays and do our jobs."
In contrast, Fullerton entered the championship game brimming with flash and power: The Titans had outscored their postseason opponents by nearly six runs a game. Earlier in the week, the Houston Astros made the centerpiece of the Titan offense, third baseman Phil Nevin, the No. 1 pick in the draft. Nevin was a one-man wrecking crew in the College World Series, hitting .563 over five games, with two home runs and 11 RBIs. "I hope he gets a cold and stays in bed tomorrow," said Pepperdine coach Andy Lopez last Friday.
Yet Ahearne remained unfazed. "In high school, all the guys were nicknamed after big leaguers they resembled; I got 'Orel' because of my mental attitude," he said. "When I got to college, I started watching videos of him because he has such great mechanics. I never thought of copying him. It came naturally."
But even Ahearne is startled by how much a part of him Hershiser has become. "ESPN last week did this split-screen thing where they put my video up next to Orel's," he says. "It was really strange. It was like synchronized swimming or something. I couldn't believe it."
Neither could Hershiser himself, who first saw Ahearne pitch two weeks ago when CBS broadcast Pepperdine's opening-round victory over Wichita State. "To see it is unbelievable," said Hershiser. "He does everything like me, even rubbing his foot across the rubber. I guess he'll have to have shoulder surgery."
In Saturday's championship game, Ahearne's teammates gave him a two-run lead in the top of the first, a lead that would have been bigger but for a spectacular inning-ending collision at home in which Fullerton catcher Jason Moler flipped Pepperdine third basemen Mark Wasikowski over the plate. Meanwhile, Titan pitcher Dan Naulty, who was backing up the play, fielded the throw to home and tagged out Wasikowski. In the fifth inning, true to Pepperdine's overachieving performance, shortstop Eric Ekdahl, the number 9 hitter, drove a home run to left into a stiff wind—his first homer of the season. It proved to be the difference in the game.
When Ahearne left after 6⅖ innings, he had retired 18 of 24 Fullerton batters and held the hot-hitting Nevin to a harmless single in three at bats. "Basically, he was able to put the ball wherever he wanted it," said Nevin afterward. "He probably didn't throw more than 85 mph, but his ball moves so much. He was the most effective pitcher in the tournament."
With a national title behind him, Ahearne is looking forward to joining the farm system of the Detroit Tigers, who drafted him in the seventh round. Though he didn't go as high as he might have liked, Ahearne doesn't mind. As he points out, Hershiser wasn't drafted until the 17th round in 1979. "Strange, isn't it?" says Ahearne with an Orel-like smile.