Oregon State didn’t make the 2016 NCAA baseball tournament and fell short at the 2017 College World Series.
The Beavers were determined to finish the job in 2018, bookending an unforgettable run with the program’s third national championship.
It took a full eight games over two long weeks at TD Ameritrade Park, but OSU realized its multi-year dream of bringing another CWS title back to Corvallis. The Beavers are the only three-time champions since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams prior to the 1999 season.
“When I look back on it, I think it’s always going to feel a little surreal,” sophomore closer Jake Mulholland said. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to sink in, because what we did is forever.”
OSU defeated Arkansas in the championship series to win its first national title since 2007. Cadyn Grenier and Trevor Larnach had the biggest hits of the finals while Kevin Abel pitched a two-hitter in the decisive third game.
It was the Beavers’ sixth CWS appearance (2005-07, 2013, 2017-18) during coach Pat Casey’s 24 seasons at the helm. OSU captured back-to-back crowns in 2006 and 2007.
Just like the first title team, the 2018 Beavers lost their CWS opener and went 6-0 in elimination games. No other program has accomplished the feat, and OSU has done it twice.
“Tyler Graham and Bill Rowe helped us out a lot,” senior outfielder Jack Anderson said. Rowe, an undergraduate assistant coach, scored the winning run in a 3-2 victory over North Carolina that clinched the 2006 CWS. Graham, OSU’s Director of Player Development, caught the final out in center field.
“Oregon State had been there before. We knew the 2006 team found ways to do it, and we were the same way.”
The championship mettle displayed by OSU was the result of a campaign more turbulent than its 55-12-1 overall record would suggest.
The Beavers started 13-0 but lost second baseman Nick Madrigal, the 2017 Pac-12 player of the year, to a broken left wrist along the way. Madrigal wound up missing 26 games, which included half of the team’s 12 defeats.
“That definitely hurt us initially,” Mulholland said. “We were early on without our best player, and right then a lot of teams can give up and start feeling sorry for themselves. But in that moment we had to first of all find someone to replace Nick, and we had that with (Andy) Armstrong. And once we were able to come back and win games without Nick, it ended up being good for us in the long run.”
It wasn’t all roses and butterflies as Madrigal, OSU’s lone captain, sat out for two months.
The Beavers, who won the 2017 Pac-12 title with a 27-3 record, dropped series at Utah and Arizona during a 7-5 start to conference play. The Utes (16-39, 8-22) finished last in the Pac-12 while Arizona (34-22, 14-16) came alive late but didn’t make the postseason.
The surprising defeats derailed OSU’s bid for a second straight conference title. Stanford (46-12, 22-8) topped the final standings, followed by OSU (20-9-1) and Washington (35-26, 20-10).
“I remember talking to Max (Engelbrekt) last year and he always thought that if we could’ve lost like 10 more games, that might’ve helped us win a national title,” Anderson said. The Beavers finished 56-6 last spring, a school record for wins and winning percentage (.903).
“And that’s how it was this year. Losing games isn’t always great, but you learn a lot from it. The low points ended up propelling us to where we needed to be.”
The Beavers regrouped to go 20-4-1 down the regular-season stretch run, earning the No. 3 national seed for the NCAA tournament. San Diego State, Northwestern State and LSU, the team that knocked OSU out of the 2017 CWS, were sent to the Corvallis Regional.
It turned out to be a cakewalk for the Beavers, who routed Northwestern State (9-3) and LSU (14-1, 12-0) before electric crowds at Goss Stadium. OSU then swept Minnesota in the best-of-3 Corvallis Super Regional to reach the CWS for the seventh time in program history, setting up a showdown with old rival UNC.
The Beavers were uncharacteristically sloppy in a Midwest heatwave and suffered an 8-6 loss to open the eight-team tournament. OSU committed three errors, made multiple offensive mistakes and received a poor start from ace Luke Heimlich.
“The UNC game was arguably one of our three worst games of the season and we only lost by two runs,” senior third baseman Michael Gretler said. “That’s what Tyler (Graham) helped show us. We were still in the game against a national powerhouse at the College World Series. It’s easy to flush a game like that because we knew how poorly we played.”
OSU bounced back with a 14-5 trouncing of Washington, scoring 10 unanswered runs following a weather delay that lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes. Mulholland, Anderson and Gretler all felt the lengthy stoppage helped reset the team.
“I think people were playing tentative, we weren’t relaxed and we were seeing the effects of that,” Mulholland said. “That rain delay happened and we all tried to spend time with one another and I think we all realized that no one wants to go home. … When we came back out onto the field, something was just different.”
In a rematch with UNC, the Beavers erased a late 6-3 deficit en route to an 11-6 victory. OSU then defeated Mississippi State twice in two days (12-2, 5-2) to secure a finals berth.
Arkansas rode ace Blaine Knight to a 4-1 win in the opener and took a 3-2 lead into the now-fabled ninth inning of Game 2. The fireworks were about to begin.
With two down and pinch runner Zach Clayton on third, Grenier flared a 1-1 pitch from closer Matt Cronin between first base and right field in foul territory. Three Razorbacks converged as the ball hit the ground, giving the Beavers new life.
“As soon as that ball dropped, I thought we had won the national championship right there. I really did,” Mulholland said. “It was the weirdest thing seeing something come to an end, and getting it all right back. It sparked all of us.”
Grenier quickly singled home Clayton to tie the game and Larnach then smashed a two-run homer into the right-field bullpen. In a matter of minutes, OSU saved its season.
“That was just unbelievable,” Gretler said. “I finally got to settle down and watch the games on TV, it was nice to relive it. I can see why the fans get so nervous. Because in the ninth inning, baseball instincts tell you ‘that’s it, that’s over.’ And obviously to see it hit the ground and what happens next, it was nerve-racking watching it back.”
Added Anderson: “Once (Grenier) got that hit, I was like ‘uh oh.’ We’d been there before, and giving us a second chance usually doesn’t go well for the other team.”
Mulholland closed out the 5-3 victory for his 16th save of the year. No bullpen members were needed the following day.
After working an inning to get the win in Game 2, Abel was otherworldly in a complete-game effort as OSU clinched the national title with a 5-0 shutout. The freshman right-hander struck 10 with two walks, retiring the final 20 Razorbacks in order.
Abel was the first pitcher to win four games at the same CWS. He finished 8-1 on the season with a 2.88 ERA in 81⅓ innings and was named national freshman of the year by D1Baseball.com.
“To see what Kevin went through earlier this season, some struggles down in Arizona really come to mind, and then to pitch arguably the greatest game in College World Series history … it’s a testament to him and his work ethic,” Gretler said of Abel’s 129-pitch performance. “It was just cool to see the growth.”
Abel provided a much-needed lift as OSU’s top starters — Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel — stunningly failed to record a quality outing at the CWS. The bullpen was also lights out in Omaha, working 37 innings with a 1.95 ERA.
Heimlich, a senior lefty, set single-season school records for wins (16) and strikeouts (159). He is OSU’s all-time leader in strikeouts (385) and is tied with Ben Wetzler for most career victories at 36.
The two-time Pac-12 pitcher of the year was under intense scrutiny all season due to the revelation of his juvenile record last June.
“I think he did a phenomenal job,” Anderson said. “I sat next to him in Omaha that first day when the press came in and there were about 20 people right there, and he did it as well as anyone I’ve ever seen.
“I can’t imagine day to day for him the last year, but I think every time he came to the yard he was here for us, and the guys were here for him. He was the same guy he’s always been and it was great to have him for the year.”
Heimlich wasn’t the only Beaver to make history in 2018.
Adley Rutschman, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, set single-season school records for hits (102) and RBIs (83). The sophomore catcher finished with a .408 batting average, the third-best mark in program history.
Larnach’s 19 home runs and 77 RBIs rank second all-time at OSU in a season.
The Beavers recorded new school records for runs (518), hits (753), doubles (151), home runs (67) and total bases (1,145). OSU led the Pac-12 in all five categories along with team batting average (.321), slugging percentage (.488) and on-base percentage (.416).
“Numbers would tell you that there is certainly nobody better (in OSU history),” said Casey, who is 900-458-6 all-time with the Beavers. “We’ve had some good clubs with good offenses. Times change and situations change, but they were certainly second to none.”
OSU’s pitching staff led the Pac-12 in strikeouts at 596, also a program record. Heimlich, Abel (108), Fehmel (64), Grant Gambrell (57), Brandon Eisert (52), Christian Chamberlain (49) and Mulholland (42) had the majority of the punch-outs.
Abel didn’t seize the No. 3 starter role until late in the regular season. OSU was 3-6-1 in Pac-12 finales and received inconsistent performances from the bullpen until the NCAA tournament.
“When we showed up back in the fall, we knew we had a really good lineup,” Gretler said. “People would say that we don’t have a third starter, we don’t have a good bullpen, and we saw that early on in the Pac-12 season. … But me and all the other guys, we were confident someone would step up. It was just a matter of time.”
Awards also poured in for several Beavers during the historic run.
Fehmel, Grenier, Heimlich, Larnach, Madrigal, Rutschman and Steven Kwan, who missed most of the CWS with a hamstring tweak, were voted first-team all-Pac-12. Gretler and Mulholland received honorable mention.
Grenier won the Brooks Wallace Award, given annually to college baseball’s top shortstop, and Heimlich was named national pitcher of the year by the College Baseball Foundation. Two publications awarded Casey national coach of the year.
Madrigal (fourth overall, Chicago White Sox), Larnach (20th, Minnesota Twins), Grenier (37th, Baltimore Orioles), Kwan (163rd, Cleveland Indians), pitcher Drew Rasmussen (185th, Milwaukee Brewers) and Gretler (294th, Pittsburgh Pirates) were all taken in the MLB draft and have agreed to professional contracts. The six stars, and many more, helped lead the Beavers to a 111-18-1 overall record the past two seasons with a pair of CWS appearances.
The core of OSU’s latest title team was left out of the 2016 NCAA tournament and stumbled late the following year. They launched a heroic bid to finish the job, returning home with another trophy for Goss Stadium.
“I’ll always remember just how close they were as a team,” Casey said. “And how much they were willing to sacrifice for one another.”