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Sports: Trojans go to baseball’s College World Series

by GARY KLEIN, Times Staff Writer
Pitcher Rik Currier celebrates a mighty big win.

Associated Press

Big games for USC are best left in the experienced hands of Rik Currier–even when those hands are not in the healthiest condition.

Currier, a senior right-hander, showed why again Saturday as the Trojans advanced to the College World Series for the 21st time with a 6-0 victory over Florida International in an NCAA super regional at Dedeaux Field. A day after Mark Prior shut down the Golden Panthers in the opener of the best-of-three series, Currier (12-2) pitched a five-hitter, struck out 11 and walked only two before a turn-away crowd of 2,286.

“All my pitches were working for me,” said Currier, who had struggled in his last few starts because of a rash on his hands. “I’ve been working on a sinker but have never used it in a game. Today was the first time and I was pretty happy with the way I threw it.”

USC (44-17), making its third World Series appearance in four years, plays its opener Friday or Saturday in Omaha against the winner of the super regional between Georgia and Florida State. Georgia won the opener of the rain-delayed series, 8-7, in 10 innings on Saturday at Athens, Ga.

Currier, senior shortstop Seth Davidson and senior first baseman Bill Peavey were members of USC’s 1998 national championship team. Davidson hit a home run in the third inning against Florida International ace Willie Collazo (13-1) and also had a double in the seventh to key the Trojans’ 11-hit attack. Outfielder Abel Montanez drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the first inning and second baseman Anthony Lunetta did the same in the third. Designated hitter Josh Persell had three hits, including a run-scoring single in the seventh, helping USC advance to the World Series from a playoff game at home for the first time since 1978.

“Their pitching was outstanding and they had timely hitting,” said Florida International Coach Danny Price, whose team finished 43-21. “They really put it together when they needed to.”

USC’s coaching staff had pondered starting red-hot sophomore right-hander Anthony Reyes instead of Currier on Saturday, hoping Currier could start Game 3 if necessary or, in a best-case scenario, not pitch at all and allow his hands another week to heal before the World Series.

“In deference to who Rick is and what he’s done, we let it be his call,” Trojan Coach Mike Gillespie said. “He thought about it for about a nanosecond.”

Said Currier, who has won 38 games at USC and is the Pacific 10 Conference’s all-time strikeout leader with 444: “My answer was pretty much, ‘No!’ ”

Currier pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the third and faced only one batter over the minimum the rest of the way. Seven of Currier’s strikeouts came on called third strikes. “He changes speeds real well and was a great change of pace for them compared to Prior,” Florida International outfielder Barry Paulk said. “We should have done a better job putting the ball in play.”

USC did just that against Collazo, who gave up five runs (three earned) and eight hits in six-plus innings. Collazo’s start had been pushed back a day after throwing 253 pitches in a three-day span during the Golden Panthers’ run to a regional title at South Bend, Ind. Collazo said fatigue did not affect his performance. “My arm was pretty strong,” he said. “They did their job and kept the ball in play.”

Florida International put together its third-inning threat after Currier struck out Michael New and Tino Burgos on called third strikes. Paulk and Matt Huntingford hit consecutive singles and Hector Nunez walked before Mike Quintana worked Currier for a full count. But Quintana took a called third strike as well, ending the Golden Panthers’ lone opportunity.