Oregon State spent much of conference play in search of a reliable third starting pitcher.
Luke Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel were consistent performers atop the rotation, but the Beavers’ 3-6-1 record in Pac-12 series finales was a notable blight on their resume. Would the team be vulnerable in the NCAA tournament due to a lack of pitching depth?
The question didn’t seem unreasonable in May, but Kevin Abel and the bullpen proved any concerns to be unwarranted. The less-ballyhooed arms ended up carrying OSU to its third College World Series title and a 6-0 record in elimination games.
“You always hear people talking about how you win a championship, and this team is a prime example of what it takes,” senior outfielder Kyle Nobach said after Thursday’s 5-0 win over Arkansas that clinched the CWS. “It takes a whole team. When we needed people to step, they did. When they got the opportunity, they produced. That’s why we won this thing.”
Abel, a freshman right-hander, made two starts and two relief appearances at TD Ameritrade Park. He finished 4-0 — the first four-game winner in tournament history — and allowed two runs in 21 innings with 23 strikeouts.
After throwing an inning of relief in Wednesday’s 5-3 victory, Abel came back to fire a two-hit shutout in the best-of-3 championship series finale. The heroic 129-pitch effort included 10 strikeouts and just two walks.
“I thought it was incredible that he did it so easily,” coach Pat Casey said of Abel’s first complete game in college. “To sit down 20 batters in a row to end the College World Series and never throw more than 15 pitches in an inning (down the stretch), just a remarkable performance.”
The bullpen wasn’t needed Thursday, but OSU’s Brandon Eisert, Jake Mulholland, Christian Chamberlain, Dylan Pearce and Abel combined to throw 37 innings in relief at the CWS. Heimlich (9⅓ innings, 11 earned runs) and Fehmel (9⅔ innings, seven earned runs) made three starts apiece and were surprisingly ineffective.
With its staff leaders scuffling, the bullpen allowed just nine total runs and finished the eight-team tournament with an ERA of 1.95.
“Those guys were the best they’ve been in any stretch this year,” Casey said. “We struggled with the pen halfway through the year, and to see what Eisert in particular did was just outstanding. But we didn’t really have anybody that didn’t do their job out of the pen, and that gave us the opportunity to win those games.”
Eisert worked 14⅓ innings in three appearances, allowing three earned runs with 14 strikeouts and two walks. Mulholland pitched in four games and surrendered just one run in seven innings. Chamberlain struck out 15 in 9⅔ innings, including an 11-strikeout effort as OSU suffered a 4-1 loss to Arkansas in the championship series opener.
The Razorbacks, who led the SEC in hits, runs scored and home runs, fanned 38 times in the finals.
“Coach (Nate) Yeskie, (Pat) Bailey and Casey do a phenomenal job of scouting and watching film,” Abel said. “SEC teams like to swing early, so when you can overlay that with the fastball, you are going to get a lot of outs. … If I got strike one, I could use my weapons.”
Abel mostly threw fastballs and changeups to befuddle Arkansas, occasionally mixing in a curveball for a different look. He estimated that catcher Adley Rutschman stole about 25 strikes by framing borderline pitches for home plate umpire Joe Burleson, who had a consistently generous zone all game.
Arkansas finished the series 14 for 95 (.147) with just four extra-base hits, all doubles.
“We knew they were going to be hunting a lot of fastballs and we knew we had to change speeds,” Casey said. “And our kids executed. If you are a pitcher that gets behind and has to throw them fastballs in fastball counts, it’s dangerous. We were able to spin them, change speeds and change directions.”
Abel went seven innings June 23 as OSU secured a spot in the finals with a 5-2 victory over Mississippi State, striking out five with three walks on 95 pitches. He threw 23 pitches in relief Wednesday night but felt fresh enough to go the distance the following day.
Late in the game, Heimlich and Mulholland were warming up in the pen if Abel began to tire. He never did.
“I was pulling for him the whole time,” Heimlich said. “I wasn’t pressing to go in, I was just making myself available. It’s not about me. We came here to win a national championship, and that’s what we did.”
A few national media members, including Dan Patrick and Keith Law, criticized OSU for allowing Abel deliver 247 pitches in a six-day span.
Abel had thrown just 60⅓ innings all season entering the CWS and wasn’t taxed down the stretch against Arkansas. Casey said he had “no response” to the pitch count critics.
“He threw easy and he never had any stress issues whatsoever,” Casey said. “That stuff usually comes from the fact that someone doesn’t want to see us win.
“Shoot he threw 129 pitches, guys do that all the time. He was nowhere near at his capacity with the way he was throwing, everything was pretty much fastball and change.”