OMAHA, Neb. –– This is how you exorcise a ghost.
Somewhere deep in the Oregon State memory banks, 2017 has been lurking. Those awful two days in TD Ameritrade Park when its trip to the College World Series came crashing down.The Beavers were 56-4, needing only one more win to get to the CWS finals, and playing an LSU team they had just buried 13-1 four days earlier. There are no sure things in college baseball, but this seemed pretty close. Except it wasn’t. They lost 3-1 one night and 6-1 the next. In under 48 baffling hours, this mighty, nearly-unbeatable powerhouse produced two runs and five hits. What a way to go.
“It’s a tough day, when you’ve had such a great year,” coach Pat Casey said that Saturday night. One year later, it’s been another great year for Oregon State. But this Saturday night was so much different – with a locker room celebrating rather than shattered – after the Beavers beat Mississippi State 5-2 to advance to the CWS finals.
Have they remembered what last June felt like? Oh, yeah. Let’s ask three Oregon Staters who were all in on the final out Saturday night with the bases loaded – the moment that completed the 180-degree transformation from 2017.
From Cadyn Grenier, the shortstop who fielded the final Mississippi State grounder: “The way we were playing last year, we felt like we really had a good shot. For us to lose those two games and be out really, really crushed a lot of us.”
From Nick Madrigal, the second baseman who caught the throw for the force out: “I don’t know if that motivated us even more. but it was definitely in the back of our minds. We’ve worked for it. It’s been a long time to get to this point.”
From Jake Mulholland, who made the final pitch, after a scary ninth inning that had Casey doing a Rosary in the dugout: “That drove us a ton. We got sent home and we didn’t like it. Ever since then, starting with our very first practice, we started breaking on the word `finish.’”
All the Beavers have had to do in Omaha to remember is look on the dugout wall, where centerfielder Steven Kwan has had an aging magazine article taped for display. He’s kept it in his locker all season, the story of that second LSU loss, with the first paragraph: “They could have been the greatest team of all-time.”
Kwan has those words underlined. The pain of what-if was never to be forgotten. “Just having that as a reminder was huge,” Kwan said. “It’s been on our minds all year.”
This time, the story of Saturday will be so much different for Oregon State.
It will be about a lineup that has become the king of clutch. All five runs Saturday came with two out, as have 30 of Oregon State’s 48 in Omaha. The Beavers have scored more runs with two outs than any other team in the College World Series has scored total.
It will be about a pitching staff that did unto Mississippi State what LSU did unto the Beavers a year ago. The Bulldogs scored four runs in two games, losing 12-2 and 5-2. Saturday belonged to Kevin Abel, the freshman who pitched around a 4:31 weather delay Monday to shut down Washington. The weather was lovely Saturday, and Abel was even better, allowing three hits and a run in seven innings.
It will be about Oregon State’s refusal to be sent home early again. The no-rerun Beavers have had to take the long way around through the losers’ bracket to get to the finals, surviving four consecutive elimination games with an offensive fury. The combined score of those four games: 42-15. “It’s not fun,” Grenier said of the unscenic route in the losers’ bracket. “We’ve thrived this week, but it’s not fun.”
They are the first team to lose its opener and still get to the finals in eight years, since South Carolina in 2010.
And it will be about Oregon State karma that is so strong at the moment, all the bananas in the world could not stop it.
The Bulldogs had runners on second and third with one out in the sixth, and June hero Elijah MacNamee at the plate. A hit there, and the game could have turned. MacNamee hit an absolute screamer . . .
Straight to third baseman Michael Gretler. Double play.
Mississippi State loaded the bases in the ninth, helped by two Mulholland walks and a hit batter. “We were running on fumes,” Casey would say later. “Mully is a drama queen. He likes to make things fun,” Abel said. And who was at the plate but Jordan Westburg, the Bulldog who started all the rally banana business. A big hit there, and he would have become required reading for every student in the state of Mississippi. But the ground ball . . .
Went straight to Grenier.Yep, 2018 was different. Funny how that’s worked out. In the winners’ bracket last year, and broken-hearted. In the loser’s bracket this year, and playing Arkansas for the championship starting Monday night.
“I think this year it really sinks in more,” Adley Rutschman said. He’s the one with 10 RBI in Omaha. “You have the opportunity to kind of take a step back and see the route that we’ve taken, two years of hard work. . . I can’t say enough how much I’m proud of the team and how far they’ve come.”
When it ended Saturday night, Kwan carefully took down his clipping, folded it, and carried it back to the clubhouse.
“The corners are all ripped off. It’s all bent out of shape,” he said. “It’s made it through so far, and hopefully it’ll make it to the end.”
Two more wins, and Oregon State won’t need it anymore.