COLLEGE STATION, Texas – In between the rumbles of the earth-moving equipment at Texas A&M this week came the ping of metal bats as the Aggies prepare for their first trip to the College World Series since 1999.
Texas A&M (47-20) would love to bring back a championship banner — an ideal adornment to the $24 million renovation of Olsen Field, scheduled for completion before next season.
The Aggies will face defending champion South Carolina (50-14) on Sunday, the culmination of an unlikely run after ace right-hander John Stilson went out last month with a torn labrum.
A&M's offense continued to hum in the postseason, though, and right-handers Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling proved to be aces, too, guiding the Aggies to an upset of Florida State in the Tallahassee Super Regional. A&M is the only Omaha-bound team that did not host a Super Regional.
"Our guys are playing extremely well and extremely confidently," said sixth-year coach Rob Childress. "There's not an awful lot we haven't had to come through in order to continue to play. These guys can't have any more pressure on them than they've already had, and I know they'll go up and play well."
Stilson was 5-2 with a 1.98 ERA and a highly touted major-league prospect. Childress broke the news of his injury to the team on May 28 after the Aggies beat Kansas State to reach the Big 12 championship game.
"It was definitely a shock," said right fielder Tyler Naquin, the Big 12's leading hitter with a .390 average. "We got after it hard right after the meeting. But definitely, once you hear that Stilson's down, you're thinking, 'Wow, that's going to be tough on us.'"
The loss of Stilson moved Wacha, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, into the No. 1 spot in the rotation. Wacha embraced the opportunity.
"Not really stressful," Wacha said. "I always love a new challenge, and I was definitely willing to do it."
The day after learning they'd lost Stilson, the Aggies trailed 6-0 in the title game against Missouri, then rallied for a 10-9 victory on senior Andrew Collazo's walk-off, two-run homer in the 10th inning. A&M beat Wright State and Seton Hall in the regional, then lost to Arizona, setting up a winner-take-all matchup with the Wildcats at Olsen Field for a berth in the Super Regional.
Stripling, a 6-foot-3 junior, said the loss reset the Aggies' focus on the wake of Stilson's injury.
"That's when everyone kind of knew, right now, we've got to kick it in," Stripling said. "The bats have got to kick it in, the pitchers have to kick it in. Everyone has to know their role and perform to the best of their ability, or we're not going to make it."
Wacha did not allow a run in seven innings and Stripling pitched a perfect ninth in the Aggies' 3-0 regional-clinching victory over Arizona.
Wacha (9-3, 2.12 ERA) has continued to shine in the NCAA tournament, with a 2-0 record and a 0.89 ERA. He allowed two runs on three hits in 7 1/3 innings in the Aggies' series-clinching win over Florida State on Monday.
To give Wacha extra rest, Childress said Stripling will start Sunday's game against the Gamecocks. Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA) struck out eight in the Aggies' 6-2 win over the Seminoles in the opener of the Super Regional.
While Wacha and Stripling have ably made up for the loss of Stilson, the Aggies' offense has eased the pressure. A&M is averaging 6.9 runs and hit .314 in its last 13 games, winning 10 of those.
Naquin, a sophomore, moved into the leadoff spot in early April and is batting .395 (60 for 152) in 38 games since the move. Childress said just as vital has been the production from the last three hitters in the order — Brandon Wood, Kenny Jackson and Collazo.
Wood had a two-run single in the Aggies' first victory in Tallahassee and Wood and Jackson had RBIs in A&M's six-run first inning in the last game, backing up Collazo's heroics in the Big 12 title game.
"The last five weeks, they've had really good at-bats and done a nice job," Childress said.
Childress spent eight seasons as an assistant coach at Nebraska before taking the A&M job in June 2005. The Cornhuskers made three appearances in the College World Series during Childress' tenure, and he thinks that experience will help.
"We need to go up there and play well like we have the last four weeks, but this is something that you also need to go up there and enjoy," he said. "You don't need to go up there and let it spin out of control on you. This is special and it's something you'll always come back to Texas A&M and remember."