Coming in at #4 on our Top-7 moments in NCAA Baseball history countdown is the miracle that was the 1992 Pepperdine Baseball team. Compared to the 2006 Oregon State team – the first underdog run we covered in this countdown – Pepperdine was a slightly bigger Cinderella for a few reasons. One is that Pepperdine was barely ranked for most of the year, whereas Oregon State was a top-15 team entering the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine wasn’t even favored to escape their regional, which was a spot they had struggled in for years. In their past seven trips to the NCAA tournament, each appearance had ended in the regional. They had only played in one College World Series, which came back in 1979.
Pepperdine entered the year with expectations of making the NCAA Tournament, but playing in the relatively obscure and irrelevant West Coast Conference, nobody was paying attention to the Waves on the national scene. After dropping two of three to Saint Mary’s just over halfway through the regular season, the Waves stood at 18-8-1 – a very good record, but hardly anything groundbreaking, especially considering most of their success was fueled by an 11-0-1 record at their own Eddy D. Field Stadium. However, the Waves were able to crack the rankings by ending the year with victories in 22 of their final 24 games, including a twelve-game winning streak to end the season. Their remarkable streak was punctuated with a 16-8 victory over a strong UCLA squad that would end up falling one game short of the College World Series.
Pepperdine entered the 6-team West regional as a 3-seed, and they got some favorable luck in the first few rounds. Arizona and Hawaii, the top two teams in the regional respectively, both lost their first round games, allowing Pepperdine consecutive winners bracket match-ups with lower seeds. The Waves took advantage; after squeaking past Fresno State, Pepperdine dispatched Southeastern Louisiana and hammered sixth-seeded Washington to advance to the championship.
There, however, the Waves finally had to do battle with Hawaii, and they immediately lost their one-game cushion with a 6-3 loss in their first battle with the Rainbow Warriors, producing a winners-take-all finale. However, Pepperdine re-adjusted and drilled a nail into Hawaii’s coffin, slaughtering the favored squad 9-0 to push their way into the College World Series.
Pepperdine was seeded seventh out of eight teams in Omaha, meaning that, as had been the case for most of the year, nobody expected much out of the Waves. They were heavy underdogs against second-seeded Wichita State in the opener, as the Shockers were perennial contenders and boasted the top-ranked offense in the country in 1992. However, Pepperdine countered with ace Patrick Ahearne, who was nothing short of marvelous. Outside of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning, Ahearne was never in trouble and allowed just three singles and struck out nine in 7 ⅓ innings of work. He gave way to Steve Montgomery, who closed the game out with five straight outs.
However, Pepperdine then had to deal with Texas, who was making their 26th appearance in Omaha, including a record sixteenth for head coach Cliff Gustafson. But Pepperdine’s Derek Wallace was up to the task, silencing the Longhorns over six innings of work, scattering seven singles. Montgomery finished with three clean innings of relief for the save, and Pepperdine was into the national semifinals. After the game, Gustafson made a comment about Pepperdine’s chances: “They’re going to be hard to beat if people can’t start putting up runs on them…I don’t remember the last time we were shut out [in the College World Series]”.
Pepperdine drew Texas again in the semifinals, and they had two chances to beat the Longhorns, but the Waves only needed one. It was certainly a more dramatic victory, as Pepperdine did surrender a few runs, but it took a while. Steve Duda, the #3 starter for Pepperdine, one-hit Texas over six innings. He got one out in the seventh but hit a batter and gave up a single, giving way to Montgomery. Montgomery could not work his magic this time, as Texas bashed a three-run home run, ending Pepperdine’s record shutout streak in stunning fashion. The Longhorns manufactured another run and led 4-1 into the bottom of the 7th, but Pepperdine was not to be denied. After leaning on pitching and defense for two and a half games, the Waves needed some clutch hitting, and they got it from second baseman Steve Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, all of 179 pounds, slammed a grand slam in the bottom of the seventh, flipping the script on the Longhorns and giving Pepperdine a 5-4 lead. Montgomery worked out of an eighth-inning jam and spun a perfect ninth to send the Waves to the title game. After the game, Gustafson commented “I’m not giving Pepperdine the title yet, but with Ahearn on the mound, I like their chances”. It was high praise considering Pepperdine had not even been considered a threat to win the tournament and had to face powerhouse Cal State Fullerton in the championship.
The Titans were making their seventh appearance in Omaha, having played Division One baseball for only 17 seasons. They had already claimed two titles, and after ripping through the losers bracket and stunning #1 Miami twice in a row, Cal State Fullerton was ready to add a third championship to their trophy case.
Pepperdine sent Ahearne to the mound, and he dazzled once more for the Waves, giving up just one unearned run on three hits over 6 ⅔ innings. Wallace came on and got the final out of the seventh inning, and the game went into the eighth with Pepperdine leading 3-1 on the strength of a two-run first inning and fifth-inning dinger from Eric Ekdahl.
Montgomery entered for the Waves, and he got into immediate trouble, loading the bases with one out. He gave up a sacrifice fly, putting runners on the corners with two outs. And, after winning the previous game with a home run, Steve Rodriguez came up huge for Pepperdine in the field. Fullerton’s Tony Banks hit a sizzling grounder to Rodriguez’s left, who took a step and dove to snag the ball right at the lip of the outfield grass. Rodriguez bounced up and threw out Banks by a step to keep Pepperdine ahead by a run. Montgomery fired a perfect ninth, and Pepperdine’s improbable title run was complete.
Ahearne was one of four Pepperdine players to receive All-Tournament honors, with battery-mate Scott Volmer, first baseman Dan Melendez, and Rodriguez also being honored. They did see eight players, including five pitchers, drafted from their title team. Wallace was a first-round pick of the Cubs, and Melendez, Ahearne, Montgomery, and Rodriguez also heard their names called in the first seven rounds. Pepperdine has not made the College World Series since 1992, with a run to the 2014 Super Regionals the closest they’ve come.