(Photo via Statesman Journal, seen here)
Grouped with (6) North Carolina, Mississippi State, and Washington, (3) Oregon State was the favorite to come out of their side of the College World Series bracket. They had torn their way through regionals and handled (14) Minnesota in a two-game sweep in super regionals. Almost immediately, though, those odds looked to be crumbling. Ace Luke Heimlich got knocked out of the Beavers’ opener against North Carolina in the third inning after allowing six runs, and Oregon State was quickly dispatched to the loser’s bracket, where they would be forced to win four straight games to keep their season alive. Given the well-publicized factoid that 34 of the past 37 national champions had won their first game of the World Series, it seemed that Oregon State was headed for a second consecutive disappointing trip to Omaha.
Things had not hit their low point yet. In their first elimination game against Washington, Oregon State had already dropped behind 3-0 early when center fielder Steven Kwan, one of the Beavers’ top hitters all season (.357/.465/.463, 2 HR, 14-20 SB), was forced out of the game after tweaking a hamstring trying to beat out a double play. For Beavers fans, the story likely seemed all too familiar.
Last year, Oregon State was the top team in the country heading to Omaha. They entered the NCAA tournament at 54-4 and had won all five postseason games leading up to the College World Series. Just one win away from a trip to the CWS championship, Oregon State mustered all of two runs in back-to-back losses at the hands of LSU, sent back to Corvallis to watch a pair of SEC rivals battle for the national title. This season, the urgency to complete the mission was perhaps heightened from last, with much of Oregon State’s nucleus on their final collegiate run. Sure, catcher Adley Rutschman, arguably the team’s top performer this season, will be back next year, but the lineup around him will look quite different. Second baseman Nick Madrigal, right fielder Trevor Larnach and shortstop Cadyn Grenier were first-round picks and are all but guaranteed to turn pro, as is Kwan, who was selected in the fifth round. Heimlich, one of the most controversial draft prospects in history, will not be back either, having exhausted his college eligibility. Against that backdrop – one of the most talented cores in recent memory with a final chance at redemption, down one of their best players – Oregon State found themselves five innings away from elimination.
With two outs in the fifth inning, the bottom of Oregon State’s order got them on track. Four consecutive hits from the 7-8-9-1 hitters (including a two-run double from Kwan replacement Preston Jones) gave the Beavers a one-run lead that they would promptly give back in the bottom half of the inning. After a bases-loaded walk drawn by Tyler Malone tied the game in the sixth, Oregon State enjoyed another two-out outburst in the seventh, with a Michael Gretler double followed up by a Kyle Nobach three-run homer to break the game open. After polishing off a 14-5 win whose score belied the game’s drama, the Beavers found themselves staring elimination in the face soon again.
In a rematch with North Carolina, the Tar Heels ran Heimlich in the third inning for the second time in five days, and a Kyle Datres home run gave UNC a three-run lead they took into the eighth inning. This time, it was the familiar faces sparking the season-saving rally. Following a leadoff single by nine-hole hitter Zak Taylor, Madrigal singled, Grenier worked an 11-pitch walk, and Rutschman skied a game-tying three-run double that one-hopped the center field wall. Three consecutive two-out walks followed soon after, with Jack Anderson taking a full-count pitch to give the Beavers the lead. Just as they had against Washington, Oregon State cemented its lead with a late-game outburst, this time a four-run ninth inning marked by a Malone moonshot. The Beavers had overcome back-to-back three-run deficits to keep their season going.
Even still, they were facing a familiar situation: one loss away from coming up just short, from watching an all-SEC championship series. They needed two consecutive wins over Mississippi State to earn a date with Arkansas, who made their side of the bracket look comparatively drama-free by outscoring their three opponents 23-11 en route to a sweep.
The first battle with the Bulldogs was a laugher, a game in which the Beavers led by five runs early and won 12-2. The second one started off similarly, with the Beavers jumping out to a huge early lead. Again, it was courtesy of a rally that saved a dying inning. In the third inning, Oregon State pounded out five consecutive two-out hits, with another Malone home run capping off the frame. Oregon State was blanked from then on out, though, and Mississippi State put forth a furious charge of their own in a tournament full of them for the Bulldogs. Down 5-1 in the ninth, Mississippi State saw their first two hitters retired immediately, only to work two consecutive walks followed by a single and a hit by pitch, bringing the potential winning run to the plate. While the Beavers were still in control, it’s only fitting that they faced adversity down to the final pitch. The Bulldogs’ Jordan Westburg stepped to the plate with a chance to end OSU’s season, just days after launching a grand slam against North Carolina. Instead, Jake Mulholland got Westburg to hit a weak ground ball to shortstop, and the Beavers dodged their final bullet to advance to the championship series.
Of course, the Beavers’ redemption tour is not complete. They’ve surpassed last year’s team by reaching the championship, but they still need to take down the 5th-seeded Razorbacks, owners of the nation’s most impactful freshman class and featuring some blue-chip veteran talent of their own. Yet it seemed that Oregon State wouldn’t get here, that for the second straight season they would get upended in a postseason they were expected to handle. This time, they overcame, battling back time and again, salvaging innings that seemed dead by stringing together two-out hits and salvaging games they could have folded early on. Ultimately, the Beavers erased each deficit they faced. They have another shot to cement their legacy in Corvallis, as they seemed destined to last year.