OMAHA, Neb. – Even as a pair of fighter jets whisked through the sky Saturday to conclude a rousing pre-game National Anthem, the energy that bounded through the Oregon State baseball team amid a historic season seemed absent to Pat Casey.
The Beavers coach saw an uncharacteristically tight group at the start of the College World Series against Cal State Fullerton, a sentiment that permeated the dugout as they fell into a deep hole for the first time in nearly two months.
“You know, those dugouts are so big,” Casey said. “Usually, we’re cramped in there and give each other a little more energy. I was thinking of closing the back half off and moving everybody down. But it was probably a good thing because I probably had a little bit of smoke coming out of my ears.”
But on an overcast afternoon one day after an evening of thunderstorms pummeled the heartland, No. 1 Oregon State (55-4) summoned the spirit that defined what may go down as the greatest college baseball season off all-time.
The Beavers’ overcame a late four-run deficit for a 6-5 win at TD Ameritrade Park. It was their 22nd consecutive victory, extending the second longest win streak in the sport this year and closing in on the school-record 23-game streak that ended in April.
“I think there was never a doubt in anyone’s mind we wouldn’t end up winning the game,” said freshman left-hander Jake Mulholland, who earned the victory in a long relief outing.
OSU will play again at 4 p.m. (PT) Monday against the winner of the Saturday evening game between Florida State and No. 4 LSU. Casey said right-hander Bryce Fehmel will start.
Trailing 5-1 in the sixth inning, the Beavers at times appeared destined for the loser’s bracket, which would have required four wins in a row to reach the College World Series Finals.
Instead, CSF pulled starter Connor Seabold for Colton Eastman, arguably the team’s best pitcher who threw a seven-inning gem Sunday to clinch a super regional title.
Eastman never found his command in a 40-pitch outing that saw him exit before the end of the frame. The Beavers drew four walks and all four base runners came home to even the score 5-5.
Third baseman Michael Gretler, pinch hitter Tyler Malone and left fielder Steven Kwan all walked before Gretler scored on a sacrifice fly to deep center field by Nick Madrigal. First baseman KJ Harrison fouled off seven pitches in a 13-pitch at-bat that resulted in a walk to reload the bases with two outs.
It set the table for designated hitter Trevor Larnach. After two more balls by Eastman, the Titans pulled him in favor of reliever Blake Workman, whose second pitch Larnach sent back up the middle and trimmed the margin to 5-4.
Before the two-RBI hit, the Beavers had been 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.
“The thought of losing, it just never comes in our head,” Larnach said.
On the following at-bat, right fielder Jack Anderson ripped a 1-1 pitch back at Workman to bring home Harrison and knot the game.
The four-run frame came after a remarkable double play in the top of the sixth by freshman catcher Adley Rutschman, who leapt forward to snare a popup bunt before firing to first and forcing out the Titans’ lone baserunner.
In the eighth, Rutschman entered the batter’s box with two outs and Larnach serving as the lead runner on second. Four times over the course of his first career College World Series game, Rutschman dug in with two outs and ended an inning by flying out.
This time, he drove a 1-1 pitch from Workman back up the middle to score the game-winning run.
“They whooped our ass,” Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said.
OSU was in striking distance despite the worst outing of the season for unanimous first team All-American Jake Thompson. The fourth round Boston Red Sox draft pick struggled with command in the first frame, walking leadoff hitter Scott Hurst on a full count pitch and hitting Dillon Persinger with one out.
When a 3-1 pitch to shortstop Timmy Richards did cross the plate, it ended up in the left field bleachers. Richards was already standing at first base when he watched his bomb go over the wall, raising both his arms with a look of near disbelief as CSF took a 3-0 lead.
After the 29-pitch first inning by Thompson, OSU trailed by three runs for the first time in 24 games, which was a 7-1 loss at UCLA.
Casey said the right-handed hurler, who typically throws fastballs in the mid-90s, was down to 86 and 87 miles per hour at points during the game.
“I think he was a little bit overexcited,” Casey said.
Thompson settled down after the home run and retired seven consecutive hitters, but found trouble again with two outs in the fourth.
Catcher Chris Hudgins, a .245 hitter on the year, ripped a two-out, full count pitch for a 2-RBI single to left field. It scored Hank LoForte and Taylor Bryant, and chased Thompson from the game. Thompson allowed three hits, three walks and one strikeout, throwing 78 pitches in 3 2/3 innings – his shortest outing of the season.
Mulholland replaced him and kept the Beavers treading water by throwing breaking pitches for strikes early in at-bats, completing 4 1/3 hitless innings. Ace Drew Rasmussen fired eight of his 12 pitches for strikes, getting two strikeouts while touching 96 miles per hour to earn the save.
Casey drew frequent reference to 2006 and 2007 during his postgame press conference, highlight moments from the two national titles in Oregon State baseball history. He alluded to Bill Rowe, Chris Kunda and Darwin Barney, stars from the past as he became reflective of his own journey.
“I can never deny myself believing in myself,” Casey said. “That’s what I think we tried to do, and we try to do that coming in the fall. It’s really important that guys start believing who they are.”
The news conference ended with a smattering of applause from a room filled out with fans in Oregon State merchandise.
— Danny Moran