OMAHA, Neb. –– In the air, a heavy and chilly mist blows from the southwest, looking like venting gas in the lights, turning the TD Ameritrade Park atmosphere into something akin to an English moor.
On the thermometer, it says 65 degrees as North Carolina and Oregon State go eyeball to eyeball — or 30 degrees colder than when these same two teams played in the sunshine five days ago.
From the stands, where a house once full of short-sleeved shirts has turned into either empty seats or wet ponchos, the chant drones without end. “Let’s go Beavers!”On the field, the most compelling moment so far of this College World Series. A night where a 3-0 Oregon State lead would be no good, nor would a 6-3 North Carolina lead. Where two starting pitchers with lofty credentials could not get out of the third inning. Where both coaches tried moves and counter-moves, until they had used 34 players, with elimination staring them in the face.
“It had every roller coaster emotion, it had the rain, it’s like right out of a movie,” Oregon State’s Jack Anderson would say when it was over, and the Beavers had blown past North Carolina 11-6 like a semi on the interstate.
It left the winning coach nearly in awe of his team’s steel. “Our club represented everything that I ask teams to be,” Oregon State’s Pat Casey said. “They were resilient, they were tough, they fought, they scraped. Everything. They put up with my emotions.”
It left the losing coaching trying to find the right words, as one of his seniors fought tears next to him. “This is the hardest part of coaching, is the end,” said North Carolina’s Mike Fox.
Over in the Oregon State locker room, Cadyn Grenier understood. “Baseball can be an emotional roller coaster. We saw that today.”
There will be more significant games in this College World Series. One of these days, a team will have to win the national championship and another will have to lose it. But Wednesday night will be one of the signature moments of 2018. Has to be.
Because Oregon State began the game with two home runs in the first four hitters, and who expects that? Especially against Cooper Criswell, who has given the Tar Heels so many good postseason innings.
Because North Carolina knocked out Luke Heimlich in the third inning, pushing the 2018 CWS earned run average for the Pac-12 pitcher of the year to 14.40, and who would ever have imagined that? He came to Omaha at 2.32.
Because Oregon State committed two more errors, giving the Beavers six in three games — after they had only three in their previous 16 games. Their first in this CWS, remember, came on the very first pitch of the tournament Saturday. Who can explain that?
Because Oregon State — No. 3 nationally seeded Oregon State, a team that had steamrolled its regional and super regional opponents 49-8 — looked deader than disco in the eighth inning. And would have thought it would end so soon?
The Tar Heels led 6-3, the Beavers seemed to be teetering over the cliff against the same team that had beaten them Saturday. Except . . .
“This program is built on games like that, never quitting,” Anderson said.
It began with Zak Taylor single. Pitching change. A Nick Madrigal single. A Grenier walk that lasted 11 pitches, born of his refusal to give in. “I was thinking about my at-bat when I was on defense,” he said later. “I told myself I’m getting on base. I made a conscious decision I was going to do it. And there was no doubt that I was going to get out or anything like that.”
Another pitching change. More noise. More tension. More rain. Soon the bases were loaded with one out and Adley Rutschman was at the plate and there was nothing surer than the feeling that if the Tar Heels somehow got out of this, Oregon State was cooked.
Rutschman: “The biggest thing for me is just being relaxed. I try to stay as relaxed as I can, because with the situation, the crowd and whatnot, you can get intense, and I hit best when I’m relaxed.”
Suddenly the ball was headed to deep center, out there in the mist somewhere, and the bases were clear and the game was tied. Not long after that, the bases were loaded again and Anderson, a former walk-on who is headed for graduate school and will play his last game whenever these Beavers are done, worked a full count walk to give Oregon State the lead.
Anderson: “I’ve been in a couple of those situations and I think my emotions got a little bit too much of me. Being in that same moment, I tried to focus on what I could control, and that was getting on time. I saw the ball low and let it go, and the rest is history. We went off after that.
“Once I threw that bat away I knew my job was done there. I was part of how our team battled that whole inning.”
The roof eventually caved in on North Carolina and it ended a messy 11-6, and everyone could finally go inside and dry out – the Beavers dancing their way to their locker room, the Tar Heels in a shocked shuffle. They had held Oregon State’s mighty offense at bay for seven innings — the Beavers are hitting .359 in this World Series – and then gave up eight runs in the last two.
“One after another, and that’s what our team is,” Grenier said. “Sometimes it just takes one hit to kind of break it open, and that’s the way baseball works.”
On a night like this, baseball works so well for the team that survives, and so cruelly for the team that doesn’t. “We didn’t go away easy,” North Carolina’s Kyle Datres said, and the Tar Heels will have to hold on to that.
Meanwhile, the biggest hero of an epic comeback, savored the other side of the moment.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Rutschman, before walking into the locker room where his teammates gave him a rousing cheer for, among other things, setting the school season RBI record with that eighth inning double. “There’s no place I’d rather be right now. With all the elements and just the ups and downs of the game, it’s what you live for.”
It was Game 9, but this College World Series came of age Wednesday night, in the mist and the chill and the cheers and the tears.