While falling three wins shy of the ultimate goal, it’s hard to contend the Oregon State baseball team’s redemption tour was anything but fruitful.
Last May’s bitter NCAA tournament snub triggered a record-shattering regular season that set the stage for the program’s first College World Series appearance since 2013. After starting 2-0 at TD Ameritrade Park, a pair of losses to LSU abruptly ended the extraordinary run.
The Beavers finished 56-6 overall, matching Texas’ 1975 team for the fourth-best winning percentage of the CWS era (1950-present) at .903. OSU’s 49 regular-season and 56 overall victories are both school records.
“It’s hard to explain,” outfielder Jack Anderson said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “There was just a lot of trust within our team, within our players and within our coaches that we could win every day. As the season went on and we kept winning, it just became what we expected.”
OSU compiled two separate 23-game winning streaks and went 15-0 in March and May. The Beavers finished 27-3 in Pac-12 play, the best mark in conference history.
The team’s only two-game skid occurred at the CWS.
“You come back and lose in the World Series, there’s a lot of pain with that and a lot of disappointment with that and it’s hard to reflect on the season,” coach Pat Casey said. “It’s just really impressive what these guys accomplished. I know how much it hurt them to lose and I want them to understand what an unbelievable run they had. And they will appreciate that.”
Pitching and defense paved the way for the Beavers, who led Division I in team ERA (1.93), hits allowed per nine innings (6.27), shutouts (14) and WHIP (0.98).
Sophomore second baseman Nick Madrigal won Pac-12 player and defensive player of the year while junior left-hander Luke Heimlich was voted the conference’s pitcher of the year. Seven different Beavers (Jake Mulholland, Max Engelbrekt, Brandon Eisert, Drew Rasmussen, Mitchell Verburg, Grant Gambrell and Mitch Hickey) recorded at least one save.
“It was a tremendous effort by all the guys that toted the rubber at one point,” pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. “Nobody was selfish in the sense of what they wanted to accomplish. They put their egos aside for wanting to be a Friday night guy or wanting to be a closer. There was a genuine desire to want to win together.
“I think the bonds that are built at this level, in the college game, are pretty special and pretty unique, and I think this group certainly personifies that.”
OSU opened the season 28-1, including conference sweeps of Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford and Utah.
Arizona, last year’s CWS runner-up, entered the series ranked seventh in D1Baseball.com’s top 25 while the Cardinal checked in at 11th. The Utes were the defending Pac-12 champions.
OSU got off to a similar start in 2016, winning 16 of its first 18 before losing Rasmussen in a sweep at California. The Beavers never fully recovered and missed the postseason for the first time since 2008.
“So we were trying not to get too high on ourselves because of how it ended the year before,” Anderson said. “But with how we went through the first three series in the (Pac-12), that showed us that we can really do some damage and make a run at this.”
The Beavers dominated their first conference set, outscoring ASU 16-1 in the desert. Trailing late in its first two matchups with Arizona, OSU fought back for a pair of walk-off victories to seize control of the Pac-12 race.
Two more walk-offs against Utah helped push the winning streak to 23.
OSU began its second 23-game march in late April and clinched the outright conference title May 12 at Oregon. It was also Casey’s 1,000th career victory.
After earning the No. 1 national seed and breezing through the Corvallis Regional, the Beavers sat 52-4 entering their super regional matchup with Vanderbilt. But a firestorm was about to hit.
The morning before the Corvallis Super Regional opener, The Oregonian released a report detailing Heimlich’s juvenile record. Heimlich, owner of the country’s lowest ERA, requested to be excused from playing the following day.
Casey said it was among the most challenging developments of his coaching career.
“I have never been through something like that,” said Casey, who just completed his 23rd season at OSU. “I’ve been in some tough situations, but I’ve never seen anything taken to that level.”
The Beavers responded like champions, blitzing Vanderbilt in consecutive games to reach the CWS for the sixth time in program history.
Jake Thompson was effective in Game 1 while Bryce Fehmel outdueled Kyle Wright, who was later taken fifth overall in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, in the finale.
“I think we were just able to trust each other and love each other through it,” Anderson said. “Adversity is a thing a lot of teams go through and we were kind of able to love each other through it all.”
OSU defeated Cal State Fullerton (6-5) and LSU (13-1) in Omaha before things fell apart. The Beavers were just 5 for 59 at the plate (.085) in the losses.
Florida went on to sweep its SEC rival in the best-of-3 championship series.
“I always say there are 1,000 trails, but there is only one summit,” Casey said. “Only one team can stand there and it wasn’t us this year. I feel for the guys because they haven’t had a chance to sit back and enjoy the year, but that bond will be for a lifetime.”
Most of the team will be back when the Beavers embark on another national title chase next February.
Rasmussen (31st overall, Tampa Bay Rays), infielder/catcher KJ Harrison (third round, Milwaukee Brewers), Thompson (fourth round, Boston Red Sox), infielder Michael Gretler (39th round, Pittsburgh Pirates) and Engelbrekt (40th round, Washington Nationals) were the Beavers’ draftees. Only Engelbrekt is out of eligibility.
“I think everyone understands what it takes and we now have that experience under our belts,” Anderson said. “The biggest thing is coming back next year with that same fire.
“As a team, the motivation will really be there to get to that next step. It’s going to be a cool year; I know a lot of guys are already looking forward to it.”