Beavers will take 'strong group' to Omaha
CORVALLIS — After closer Jake Mulholland rang up Minnesota clean-up hitter Toby Hanson to finish off a stirring 6-3 victory and punch Oregon State's ticket to Omaha Saturday night at Goss Stadium, the OSU players celebrated their second straight College World Series berth together on Ralph Coleman Field.
But not too heartily.
There is more yet to accomplish.
The school's third national baseball championship is directly in their sights now, with a 2017 elimination-game loss to Louisiana State on their minds.
"Ever since we made the last out against LSU last year, we've been set on this moment — getting back to Omaha," said junior second baseman Nick Madrigal, OSU's team captain and inspirational leader. "And not only getting there, but taking care of business and winning ballgames.
"We have a core group that was with us last year and experienced everything we went through. All off-season long, we weren't afraid to talk about it. One of our goals was to come back to Omaha."
Now the Beavers (49-10-1) are there, one of a select group of teams still alive with hopes of a CWS crown in 2018.
"Almost 300 teams start this journey," said OSU coach Pat Casey, who long ago locked in his future enshrinement on the College Baseball Hall of Fame. "Eight get to go to Omaha. This is my sixth time there, which is crazy.
"I remember the first day I stepped on the (CWS) field in '05. I thought I was in baseball heaven. You never know if you're ever going to get back."
The Beavers will start play either Saturday or Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park against a familiar foe — North Carolina, the team they vanquished in the championship series in both 2006 and '07.
"Coach (Mike Fox) does a great job," Casey says. "(The Tar Heels) are very good. They always have an unbelievable amount of talent.
"But it doesn't matter who you play. You just have to be ready to play."
The Beavers have been all year — through a regular season in which they went 44-10-1, and certainly in the postseason, in which they have swept through the opposition 5-0 while winning regionals and super regionals in Corvallis. After blowout victories in the three regional games and an 8-1 win over Minnesota in the opener of the super regional, the Beavers were finally pushed to the hilt by the Gophers in Saturday night's Game 2, a four-hour marathon chock full of suspense and drama before a stadium-record crowd of 4,025.
The Big Ten champions (44-15) — the designated home team — led 3-2 going into the eighth inning and, with ace closer Max Meyer on the mound, appeared on their way to forcing a deciding Game 3 on Sunday night.
The Beavers, the nation's No. 3 seed, had other ideas. Kyle Nobach's two-out single to right field scored Trevor Larnach with the tying run, and the teams went into the ninth knotted at 3-3.
Oregon State batted around in a three-run ninth, the key hit a clutch two-out, two-run single by Adley Rutschman to give the Beavers a 5-3 lead.
By that time, Meyer had given way to Jackson Rose, another Minnesota reliever with filthy stuff who had blown away clean-up hitter Larnach on three pitches in the at-bat before Rutschman came to the plate with the bases loaded and the score still tied.
On a 1-2 count, Rutschman parked a fastball up the middle for the biggest hit of the Beavers' season.
"Being able to get that hit meant a lot to the guys," said the sophomore catcher, sporting the black cap decorated with "Destination Omaha 2018" that was distributed to OSU players and coaches after the game. "I just feel fortunate, because we get to celebrate and go back to Omaha."
Madrigal, Larnach, Rutschman, shortstop Cadyn Grenier and pitcher Luke Heimlich are Oregon State's stars, but the talent around them has been instrumental in getting the Beavers back to college baseball's biggest stage.
Junior right-hander Bryce Fehmel (10-1) lasted six innings, yielding six hits and three runs with three walks and six strikeouts while making 101 pitches. When he departed, the Beavers trailed 3-2.
"'Fehm' did a great job of keeping us in the game," Madrigal said. "He didn't have his best stuff, but he competed. He's a fighter. We needed that out of him."
Added Casey: "It was uncharacteristic of Bryce to be out of sync. It tells you how much of a competitor he is to keep us in there."
In relief of Fehmel with no outs in the seventh came Christian Chamberlain, who inherited a runner at first base and an 0-2 count on Minnesota's Ben Mezzenga. Chamberlain, a 5-10, 165-pound freshman left-hander from Reno, Nevada, entered with a 4.03 ERA and hadn't pitched since May 20 against Southern Cal.
The rookie southpaw — channeling fellow freshman Kevin Abel's performance against LSU in the previous weekend's regional finale — proceeded to strike out five of the first six batters he faced, throwing two innings of one-hit, shutout ball.
"Lights out," Casey said. "We've seen some guys grow up pretty good in the last couple of weeks."
Chamberlain was "effectively wild," said Minnesota third baseman Micah Coffee. "He had a good fastball that would run in on guys and kept you on your toes. You couldn't predict where he was going with it. He had a breaking ball that kept you off balance. He did a good enough job of mixing those two pitches. He was tough."
Mulholland, a sophomore lefty, gave up a hit but otherwise struck out the side in finishing things in the ninth for his 15th save of the season.
Oregon State managed 13 hits against Minnesota starter Patrick Fredrickson — the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — and two of the top relievers in the conference. The Beavers played their standard flawless defense and rallied from a late-inning deficit against a team that arrived in Corvallis with a 12-game win streak.
"Baseball isn't always as easy as people think," Casey said. "I have unbelievable trust in what our guys are doing. Minnesota's pitching is outstanding, but I knew they were going to battle. That's a really good team we beat."
John Anderson, in his 37th season as Minnesota's head coach, was asked for an appraisal of Oregon State's chances at Omaha. He said it starts with senior left-hander Luke Heimlich, who pitched the Beavers to an 8-1 win over the Gophers in the super regional opener.
"Heimlich is a pro pitcher," Anderson said. "He is the top left-handed pitcher maybe I've seen in my career based on what I saw (Friday) night."
Anderson was expansive in evaluation of the OSU team as a whole.
"An outstanding team, very well-coached," he said. "Pat Casey's teams execute fundamentals and play the game the right way. (The Beavers) are going to give (opponents) trouble, trying to pitch to that lineup for nine innings. They grind out at-bats. They don't chase and expand the zone much. They work hard at getting into the counts they want. You have to be able to execute pitches when you're behind in the count, because they're all over the fastball. They put the ball in play and grind out at-bats up and down that lineup.
"They're an outstanding defensive team. Rutschman does a fantastic job handling that (pitching) staff, and they're strong up the middle. if you're going to be a championship team, you have to be strong up the middle.
"They'll play in a bigger ballpark (in Omaha). It's a different game in that park. The alleys are huge. You have to be able to play outfield defense. The ball doesn't carry. You don't have a chance to hit as many balls out of the park. It will be interesting to see how that offense plays in that big stadium.
"Heimlich on the mound will be able to beat anybody in the country, and Fehmel will force you to put together a good at-bat. The two lefties I saw tonight were special, too. I like their chances based on what I saw. They haven't won 49 games because they're not good. I wouldn't count them out in Omaha, that's for sure."
Neither will their coach.
"We have enough energy," Casey said. "We have enough young guys. We have enough vets. I believe we're prepared to do the things we need to do to go into battle.
"We're there. It's a mentality. It's a culture. We have a strong group of young men."