OMAHA, Neb. –– They will be remembered as one of the most stubborn teams to ever show up in Omaha. A pack of survivors from Oregon State who faced match point at the College World Series six times, and never blinked. Not even when one more strike would have finished them off for good.
They will be remembered as the team with a single mission, created by the pain of 2017 — championship or bust.
They will be remembered for the freshman who turned in a pitching performance for the ages.
Unsinkable Oregon State finally reached its destination Thursday night, with a 5-0 win over Arkansas, and a title that can forever stand as a beacon of hope for teams in an Omaha hole.
The Beavers are national champions . . . despite losing the tournament opening game 12 days before, pushed into a corner not five hours after this College World Series began. Six elimination games they faced in 11 days, six they won.
“I guess we played pretty well with our backs against the wall,” said Kevin Abel, the pitcher who would make it all possible with an historic dominance. “It’s not where we wanted to be, but we got it done.”
They are champions . . . even after dangling over a cliff Wednesday night, down to their last strike against a Razorbacks team that had been 44-0 this season when leading after eight innings. Of the previous 128 CWS teams who trailed in the ninth inning, 126 had lost. But they didn’t.
They are champions . . . because nothing else would do, after they were sent home from here early last June. So focused were their eyes on one prize and one prize only, that they refused the obligatory celebration dogpile after the super regional or regional. “We thought one at the end of the year would be good enough for us,” Rutschman said.
“Last year left a salty taste in our mouth, and every single person on the team probably remembers that,” Trevor Larnach said. “Ever since then, we started breaking (the huddle) on `Finish,’ to finish the job. And we sure did finish.”
They are champions . . . even with a starting rotation that struggled nearly every minute, unless the pitcher was named Kevin Abel. Take away his two gems against Mississippi State and Arkansas, and the starters gave up 18 earned runs in 19 innings in Omaha. And still, that didn’t stop them. A .327 team batting average and CWS record 93 hits helped. Rutschman led a year after he went 1-for-15 here.
They are champions . . . with a relentless knack for winning that is almost impossible to fathom. They held the trophy Thursday night as a team that had played 130 games the past two years – and won 111 of them.
They are champions . . . with a resilience gleaned partly from a nine-year-old heart transplant survivor. Drew Boedigheimer was in the house Thursday night to celebrate with his beloved Beavers, and they with him. He has been here for every twist in their road in Omaha, and was sitting alone at the corner of the podium when Oregon State gathered for its championship team photo. That wouldn’t do. The Beavers came to help him to center stage, so he could be included.
We're not crying, you're crying.— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 29, 2018
They are champions . . . because they found absolute magic on the mound from an unflappable, remarkable freshman. This time last year, Abel had just graduated from high school in San Diego and was watching the finals on television with his parents, getting ready to leave for summer school. Thursday night, he mowed down Arkansas with a complete game two-hitter, retiring the last 20 Razorbacks he faced -- 24 hours after he struck out the side in relief to be the winner in Game 2.
“I like this moment a lot better than last year,” he said.
“That was the goal. That’s what we signed up for,” said his mother Carrie of this chance her son had turned into gold. “We didn’t come to Oregon State because we didn’t think one day we couldn’t get here. Did we think it was going to be 365 days later? Absolutely not.”
Her son became the first pitcher to ever go 4-0 in a single College World Series — two as a starter, and two in relief. His CWS numbers were 21 innings pitched, 23 strikeouts, and two runs allowed. He allowed two runs all month in 29 NCAA tournament innings, with 31 Ks.
Can we have a big wow from the assembly?
“The performance of a lifetime,” his third baseman Michael Gretler called it.
“Nothing short of amazing,” Rutschman said.
Turned out, the hardest decision to make about Oregon State was who should get the Most Outstanding Player – Abel or Rutschman. It went to Rutschman. But what a fitting sight, when Abel threw his 129th and last pitch of Oregon State’s glorious night — a called third strike — that the first man to reach him was his catcher, Rutschman, who tackled him to start the dogpile.
It was the hardest Abel had been hit all night, maybe all month.
“Haven’t taken a hit like that since the eighth grade,” Abel said.
In a way, that celebration started the night before, in the wake of Oregon State elation and Arkansas shock, when the Beavers rallied in the ninth inning to win 5-3. That was after Abel had struck out the side on 23 pitches in the eighth.
“I went to bed thinking I was going to start, wanting to start,” he said. “I told them yesterday after the game, `I want it.’”
By Thursday afternoon, the momentum from its rally had simmered 20 hours for Oregon State. The long, long journey through last year’s disappointment and this year’s quest for vindication had come down to one game.
“I felt like the pressure was on Arkansas, not us,” coach Pat Casey said.
His pregame message for to Beavers: This is the last time you ever put this uniform on together as a team. So when you hang it up, you make sure the guy who wears that number next time knows who you are.”
And yes, Abel would start. The freshman who had struggled with his emotions early in the season – “I had to grow up,” he said — had won his team’s complete confidence at its most critical hour. “I believed in him. I know everybody else believed in him,” Gretler said.
But really, how long would he last? He had gone seven innings for the bracket clincher against Mississippi State Saturday. He had come back Wednesday night in the eighth for 23 tense pitches to keep the Beavers alive.
“I never would have dreamed he would go nine innings,” Casey said. Pitching coach Nate Yeskie was hoping for six. Best case scenario.
“My job was to go as far as I could,” Abel said. “Just go out there and get as many outs as I could and hand it over to the next guy.”
His teammates helped by taking a 2-0 lead in the first inning, and his mixture of fastball, change, breaking ball was absolutely toxic to the Razorbacks lineup. “You couldn’t predict what he was going to do,” Arkansas’ Carson Shaddy said.
His moment of truth was the third inning, when the Razorbacks loaded the bases with one out, on a Casey Martin infield single. Was Abel beginning to fade? The red throng in the stands was starting to making noise. Forget it. That would be the last time an Arkansas batter reached base. The third inning.
The Razorbacks came and went, up to the plate, back to the dugout. So when did Abel start to think about maybe a complete game?
He said Casey would come by occasionally and ask how he felt. Fine. Fine. Fine.
By the middle innings, Abel said the adrenaline of the moment was starting to take effect, like a stimulant. “Fifth, sixth and seventh innings probably for sure. I was running kind of on fumes there, and Beaver Nation just kept cheering every time I took the mound.”
By the eighth inning, Casey was half in awe, half wary. He had the bullpen working, wondering when it would be time to go for Abel. “I just looked at the guy and said `I know I should be taking you out of the game, but how can I do that?’”
Yeskie said it was “like watching a throwback. I’m sure somewhere, guys like Ferguson Jenkins and Goose Gossage are probably saying, `Thatta way, kid.’”
Then it was the ninth, the lead a nice, cushy 5-0, and Abel’s pitch count at 114. He sensed the finish line.
“I had no idea how many pitches I had thrown. I got out the first guy, got out the second guy, went to 3-2 on the last guy and thought, `You’d better go with the heater, otherwise he’s going to take you out and not let you finish it.’”
Rutschman would say later, “I dreamed, I visualized about the last out being a strikeout. And that’s what we got.”
Called third strike on Luke Bonfield. One year later, the Oregon State party could finally begin.
It was impossible not to appreciate what Abel had just done, but let’s leave it to a pitching coach to understand it best.
“It’s like watching your kid do something for the first time,” Yeskie said. “I was thinking about when my daughter walked, and the first words that she said. It’s that type of feeling. You invest so much with these kids and their families when you recruit them, you talk about moments like this, but they have to put some faith and trust to believe you’re going to be part of the equation. You have to do that work together.
“It’s so enjoyable to see that look on their faces.”
The faces on the Arkansas side were very different. For the Razorbacks and their legions of fans who had roared into Omaha, the foul pop that would have clinched the school’s first baseball national championship Wednesday night will forever be there untouched in the grass, surrounded by three players. From that moment, the College World Series belonged to Oregon State. From that moment, the Beavers outscored Arkansas 8-0.
Perhaps the Razorbacks never mentally recovered. Is that where their offense went Thursday night? It’d be perfectly understandable, after such a loss.
“There was probably still a little bit of that what if, and disappointment, it’s only human nature,” coach Dave Van Horn said. “Who is to say? I don’t think we’ll ever know. If Abel hadn’t thrown so well, maybe it’s a little different story. But he just didn’t give us a chance, really.”
The Oregon State Beavers — from the top three of the lineup just taken in the first round of the draft, to the sophomore catcher who was MOP, to the freshman pitcher who already owns a legacy — had one mantra. Unfinished business, born last June. They just finished it.