OMAHA, Neb. — Just like the Missouri River, which separates Omaha from Iowa, Oregon State’s improbable run to a third national title was full of twists and turns.
The Beavers recovered from a clunker in their College World Series opener to win four consecutive elimination contests. After dropping Game 1 of the championship series against Arkansas, OSU stormed back with two victories to clinch its first crown since 2007.
It was a chaotic CWS for the Beavers, who overcame swaths of inconsistent play, temperamental weather and an injury to star center fielder Steven Kwan. But OSU never lost faith, leading to Thursday evening’s dogpile at TD Ameritrade Park.
The significant moments and performances are too numerous to count as the Beavers (55-12-1) went 6-0 in CWS elimination games for the second time in program history. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, only OSU has won six do-or-die games (2006, 2018).
“To be able to come through the losers’ bracket, play eight games — the maximum amount here — and having everyone step up at the right time when we needed them to, it just makes everything so much better,” said sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman, the CWS most outstanding player. “It’s a real testament to the guys on our team. We’ve got a lot of real good baseball players on our team, but they’re better people.”
Below is a list of six noteworthy events — in no particular order — that cemented the 2018 Beavers’ place in history.
1. The fifth-inning rally against Washington
The Vegas favorite entering the College World Series, Oregon State got off to a horrific start in Omaha with a stunning 8-6 loss to North Carolina. The Beavers were undone by several mistakes in all phases of the game, sending them to the elimination bracket.
Facing Pac-12 rival Washington, OSU trailed 3-0 after four innings and was in danger of its first two-and-out CWS performance since 2005. But the Beavers got off the mat with a four-run fifth, a rally that began with two outs and nobody on base.
Kyle Nobach and Jack Anderson began the surge with consecutive base hits. Pinch-hitting for Zak Taylor, Tyler Malone then ripped a first-pitch single into center to get the Beavers on the board.
Playing for the injured Kwan, Preston Jones tied the game with a double and later scored on a wild pitch. After 13 miserable innings at TD Ameritrade Park, OSU had finally broken through.
“Hitting is so contagious,” said coach Pat Casey, who is 900-458-6 all-time at OSU. “We got some energy and we were off to the races.”
2. The storm that provided a night off
The best-of-3 CWS final series was supposed to begin Monday, but a severe electrical storm ripped through eastern Nebraska late in the afternoon.
As sunshine baked the field, the game was in a delay due to incoming weather. The storm finally hit around 7 p.m. local time, postponing the finals opener until Tuesday.
The day off greatly benefited OSU, which was slated to play its sixth game in 10 days. Rested Arkansas cruised through bracket play with a 3-0 record and had its pitching staff set up perfectly.
The extra 24 hours allowed OSU to use its regular starting rotation of Luke Heimlich, Bryce Fehmel and Kevin Abel against Arkansas. It also gave key bullpen arms Jake Mulholland, Brandon Eisert and Christian Chamberlain more time to recover.
Heimlich and Fehmel struggled all tournament, but Abel whirled a two-hit shutout Thursday in a 5-0 Beavers victory that sealed the national title.
“My job was to go as far as I could,” Abel said. “Whether it was three innings, four innings, five innings, didn't matter. Just go out there and make pitches and get as many outs as I could.”
Abel, who threw 95 pitches last Saturday in a 5-2 win over Mississippi State that sent OSU to the championship series, said he felt fresh all game while retiring the final 20 Razorbacks in order. The extra day of rest certainly helped the freshman right-hander.
3. The North Carolina comeback
Eight days before clinching the national title, OSU trailed 6-3 entering the eighth inning of an elimination game against North Carolina. The Beavers needed another rally as a light mist began to fall.
Taylor, the nine-hole hitter, led off with a single, OSU’s second hit since the third inning. Nick Madrigal followed with a base hit and Cadyn Grenier worked an 11-pitch walk to load the bases with one out.
After Trevor Larnach went down swinging, Rutschman ripped a bases-clearing double to dead center that tied the game. His moniker is Clutchman for a reason.
“I think the key is just staying relaxed,” Rutschman said. “To be able to play on this stage in front of these people with the team I have, I just feel very fortunate.”
OSU scored eight unanswered runs to end the game, eliminating UNC with an 11-6 victory. The Beavers were suddenly in the bracket finals and had yet to receive a quality outing from a starting pitcher.
4. The emergence of new pitching stars
For the majority of the 2017-18 seasons, Heimlich and Fehmel were an authoritative 1-2 punch atop OSU’s starting rotation.
The two veterans never got going at this year’s CWS, failing to register a quality start in three outings apiece. Luckily for the Beavers, other players were ready to step up.
Abel was the breakout star, allowing just two runs on seven hits with 23 strikeouts and seven walks in 21 innings. He went 4-0 in four appearances (two starts), becoming the first pitcher to win more than three games in a single CWS.
Eisert (14⅓ innings, three earned runs, 14 strikeouts), Mulholland (seven innings, one run, four strikeouts) and Chamberlain (9⅔ innings, three runs, 15 strikeouts) were also lights-out in Omaha. As a whole, OSU’s bullpen gave up just eight earned runs in 37 innings at the CWS.
“They kept us in the games,” Rutschman said. “They have played … a huge part in our success as a team.”
5. The Mafia rain delay
OSU’s CWS opener was played in intense heat. A classic Midwest deluge brought the second game to a halt.
With Washington leading 5-4 in the top of the sixth, a lightning strike near TD Ameritrade Park signaled the beginning of what turned into a rain delay that lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes. The Beavers had just loaded the bases with two outs for Malone, a streaky hitter who could change the game with one swing.
The delay also allowed OSU to reset with some clubhouse entertainment after a rocky start to the CWS. Joe Casey shoved 30 pieces of gum into his mouth while other players were engaged in a riveting game of Mafia.
Malone drew a five-pitch walk when play finally resumed, tying the game at 5. The Beavers never looked back, getting big home runs from Nobach and Malone en route to a 14-5 victory.
It was also the first CWS appearance for Abel, who allowed just one run in four innings of relief to get the win. He pitched before and after the delay.
“Well I was playing Mafia with them, too,” Abel said of how he passed the time. “In between I was just doing some dynamic stuff … and it just kind of went from there.”
6. The season-saving ninth inning
In a tournament chock-full of dramatic events, OSU’s final at-bat in Game 2 of the finals could be the enduring memory of the 2018 CWS.
The Beavers opened the championship series with a 4-1 loss to Arkansas and trailed 3-2 entering the ninth inning of Wednesday’s matchup. OSU needed at least one run to keep its season alive.
Taylor was again the catalyst, drawing a leadoff walk against Arkansas closer Matt Cronin. Pinch runner Zach Clayton was bunted to second by Andy Armstrong and made it to third on a Madrigal groundout.
OSU then caught one of its first breaks of the tournament when a Grenier popup fell to the ground in foul territory between three converging Arkansas defenders. A catch would’ve ended the CWS.
“I was just hoping it would keep flaring off into the stands,” Grenier said. “I knew I hit it decently deep, so it wasn’t just a routine pop fly to catch. And evidently it wasn’t.”
Blessed with new life, Grenier singled home Clayton to tie the game. The junior shortstop also plated a run with a bases-loaded bunt single earlier in the game.
Larnach delivered the exclamation point, hammering a 2-0 Cronin fastball into the right-field bullpen to put OSU up 5-3. It was Larnach’s 19th home run of the season, the second-most in school history behind Jim Wilson’s 21 in 1982.
Roughly three minutes elapsed between the misplayed popup and Larnach’s screaming drive. For Razorbacks fans, it probably felt like three seconds.
The inning — and possibly the entire series — could be remembered for Arkansas’ blunder, but Grenier and Larnach delivered two of the clutchest hits in OSU history. The Beavers never looked back, riding the momentum to their third national title.