FAYETTEVILLE NORTH, Neb. –– Yeah, the dateline is wrong. This was still Omaha Tuesday night. But it was an easy mistake to make, what with the “Wooooo Pig Sooie!” chants that might have carried across the river to Iowa, and the stands full of Arkansans.
This is what Oregon State was up against in Game 1 of the College World Series finals:Three hours before the first pitch, the line was more than two blocks long with fans waiting to race in for the general admission seats, 90 percent of them Razorbacks from locales such as Little Rock and Fort Smith and Pine Bluff. Some of them had driven across the plains into town this very day, for this very chance. "Omahogs” is the T-shirt of choice at the moment in eastern Nebraska.
By game time, the occasional clumps of Oregon State fans in TD Ameritrade Park looked like small oranges floating in a big bowl of red punch. And the Arkansas players on the field heard it all, in every corner of the stadium.
Second baseman Carson Shaddy: “We all looked around at each other and it was like, this is crazy.”
Third baseman Casey Martin: “They were electrified. You couldn’t hear anything. I’m yelling at Biggs (shortstop Jax Biggers), he’s yelling at me. We can’t hear each other. We couldn’t even hear the ball hit the catcher’s mitt, that’s how loud it was.”
Left fielder Heston Kjerstad: “I felt like we were playing (home) in Baum Stadium, just a lot bigger.”
For coach Dave Van Horn, it reminded him of the home crowd roars when he led Nebraska to Omaha in 2001: “I just kept reminding our players to stay calm and save their energy. Because back in 2001, by the time the game started, our team was tired, honest to goodness, just from what was all going on.”
This army of Hog backers, louder than the thunderstorms that have rolled through here the past week, was ready to besiege the Beavers in a deafening clamor, if given half a chance. For nearly four innings, there wasn’t one, with Arkansas’ bats and its crowd muted by Luke Heimlich’s pitching. A Razorback team that had not trailed at the end of a single inning in this College World Series was behind 1-0.
And then the bottom of the fourth inning changed everything. Changed the game. Maybe the finals. It's never good news when an umpire is included in such a paragraph. Oregon State had a run taken away by an iffy runner interference call. Adley Rutschman was ruled to have interfered on a turn at second base, even though on replays, it sure looked as if he had ducked early to get out of the way. Could have been 2-0. But wasn’t.
“It appeared Rutsch was doing everything he could to get out of the way. The ball left the guy’s hands. They weren’t near one another,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said later. “Everybody can look at the tape and decide for themselves what to think.”
For Arkansas, the vanishing Oregon State run was like second wind. In the top of the fifth, the rally started, the clamor from the stands grew — and grew, and grew — and Heimlich suddenly could not find the plate.
Or as Shaddy said, “All hell broke loose.”
Pretty soon, it was 4-1. Pretty soon, that Oregon State offensive machine that rolled up 48 runs in this CWS had stalled against Blaine Knight and the bullpen. Pretty soon, the Razorbacks were doing things like first baseman Jared Gates laying out on the dirt track near the dugout to catch a foul pop. Or Grant Koch, 1-for-11 in the CWS, driving in the tying run. Pretty soon Nick Madrigal was hitting a two-out screamer with two Beavers on base – directly into the glove of Shaddy.
Karma was wearing a Omahog shirt. And the crowd was there to push it along.
Shaddy: “Every player and everybody in the stadium was on the same page today. We all have one heart. What they were doing was incredible. They never shut up the whole entire game. It’s hard to play against.”
Koch: “You don’t really think about it a lot, but there’s definitely times when the momentum shifts and you can feel it and you know that there’s a lot of Razorback fans that want you to win. I think that’s what we’re playing for.”
Knight: “I know that’s what I was feeding off of during the game, and I’m sure the other guys were, too.”
Right fielder Eric Cole: “It’s a really big deal. I feel like we’re probably not in the position we are right now without a lot of our fans being there.”
BAUM NORTH! pic.twitter.com/hC9m8RyzZS— Razorback Baseball (@RazorbackBSB) June 26, 2018
The game ended with same 4-1 score. Arkansas had only five hits — four fewer than Oregon State — and struck out 16 times, including being blown away 11 times in 4.2 innings by reliever Christian Chamberlain. But they still won, and went to bed in this best-of-three series telling themselves not to think too far ahead. But fact is fact; game 1 victors have gone on to take the championship 73 percent of the time.
But Koch mentioned, “After the game, coach’s immediate message was we have a lot of work to do and there’s a lot of unfinished business and we’ve got to come out tomorrow with a sense of urgency for sure.
“He didn’t even really have to say it.”
And Knight called it, “just a little small taste of whatever, we’ve got to flush it by tomorrow morning.”
And Van Horn warned, “Take it to them. Don’t wait for something to happen. Don’t lay around in bed tonight thinking, oh, one more game, because that game will never happen if you think like that.”
On the other side, Trevor Larnach presented Oregon State’s intentions. “Just wipe it, and move on.”
One good tiding for the Beavers. They’re 4-0 here in elimination games. Wednesday night, they face another one – and the Arkansas masses surely to come with it.