Oregon State pitcher Kevin Abel, the Beavers' 6-foot freshman right-hander, first first-pumped with both arms, then he threw his glove, followed by his embroidered "OSU" hat.
Faced with a 3-2 count with two outs in the top of the ninth inning against Arkansas in Game 3 of the College World Series — the same one-strike-away-from-a-championship scenario that the Razorbacks had squandered the night before — Abel threw a sinking fastball that kissed the bottom of the strike zone for strike three to clinch a 5-0 win.
You could make the case, both individually on this confetti-filled night as well as for his entire two-week stretch in Omaha, that Abel assembled the best pitching performance in College World Series history. You could also argue that the baby-faced freshman who turned 19 just four months ago, had to do so for Oregon State to bring the national championship trophy back to Corvallis.
Oregon State went 6-2 in the College World Series, losing its openers in both bracket play and in the championship series. Abel earned four of those wins on the mound in the span of 11 days, including the final three – the winner-take-all rematch against Mississippi State where the victors advanced to the finals and both wins in the finals against Arkansas on consecutive days.
No pitcher had ever won four games in a single College World Series before, and Abel added his fourth in style. He became just the fourth pitcher in CWS history to throw a complete game shutout in the championship game — against an Arkansas team that hadn't been shut out all season in its previous 68 games. His two hits allowed are a championship game record in a complete game.
Incredibly, Abel admitted he didn't have his best stuff working for him in Game 3. His curveball wasn't even called upon for the middle four innings as he rode his fastball while mixing in his changeup as he got the final 20 Arkansas batters out in order.
"I didn't really have the curveball at the start of the game and we didn't even call it really innings three through six, six or seven," the freshman said postgame. "But just fastball command and the changeup off of it. Overlaying the two."
If you were to look at Oregon State's season pitching stats, there's a good chance Abel's name might get lost in the mix — and that's not a slight against the freshman. That's just how good the Beavers' rotation and bullpen has been all season. Before Thursday, he had the sixth-lowest ERA on the team.
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Pick a pitching metric – ERA, WHIP, shutouts – and there's a good chance Oregon State ranks among the best in the country in that area that season. In large part, that's due to the Beavers' pair of inning-eating aces, Luke Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel, who pitched more than 240 innings this season and took a combined 26-2 record to Omaha.
But in six starts this month at TD Ameritrade Park, the duo lasted just 19 innings (less than 3.1 innings per start, on average), while Abel went 16 innings in his two starts. More of a middle reliever than a starter (just five starts before the CWS) or closer (only one save this season), Abel was just as much of a shapeshifter as he was a pitcher at TD Ameritrade Park, handling whatever situation or role Oregon State coach Pat Casey called upon him.
Asked in the post-game press conference how many times he had gone nine innings in his career, Abel admitted, "Zero."
Here's a look at Abel's pitching at the College World Series compared to Oregon State's top starters this season.
|Luke Heimlich/Bryce Fehmel||6||6||19||25||20||18||6||12|
If anything, Abel's two weeks in Omaha were a testament to the impressive levels of depth and next-man-up mentality displayed by the Beavers. When Steven Kwan, the team's everyday starter in center field and leadoff hitter who batted .355 with 41 RBIs and 14 steals this season, was sidelined with a hamstring injury, Preston Jones filled in defensively and No. 4 overall pick in the MLB draft Nick Madrigal batted leadoff.
When Madrigal, a .377 hitter, went 0-for-13 in the championship series, College World Series Most Outstanding Player Adley Rutschman set a CWS record with 17 hits, while recording the second-best RBI total (13) and on-base percentage ever (.649) in a single College World Series.
While Rutschman, the catcher, provided run support for his pitcher, Abel, who turned in arguably the best College World Series we've ever seen from someone on the mound.
Here are some more of Abel's stats and records from the College World Series:
- Led all pitchers with 23 strikeouts
- Recorded a 0.86 ERA in 21.0 innings pitched
- Set CWS records with 10 IP and zero runs allowed in the CWS championship series
- First pitcher to win two games in the CWS championship series