Jake Mulholland, Oregon State (Aaron Fitt)


Beavers Bullpen Sets Stage For Wild Finish

College World Series

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OMAHA, Neb. — Coaches always say baseball can provide the greatest thrill of your life, while also ripping your heart out one pitch later.

Oregon State knows that thrill. Arkansas now knows that heartache.

As Arkansas lefthander Matt Cronin took the mound in the ninth inning, TD Ameritrade Park was abuzz, thanks to the predominantly Arkansas-heavy crowd. Fans were delivering high fives in the stands, and one older gentleman to my right was already taking a selfie of himself with the field in the background. He wanted to soak in the moment that was to come.

It was only 3-2 Arkansas, but that fan and thousands more Arkansas fans could feel it. And some OSU fans in the section had that look of despair, secretly hoping their Beavers would make a ninth-inning run, but not looking very confident. The Hogs were three outs away from winning the program’s first national title, and Cronin was electric in the eighth, delivering a strikeout and a fly out to end the Beavers inning.

Oregon State’s Zak Taylor worked a walk to leadoff the ninth, while Andy Armstrong delivered a sacrifice bunt to move Taylor to second. Nick Madrigal grounded out to first base for the second out, sending everyone in the ballpark to their feet. Arkansas needed just one more out. That’s it.

Then everything collapsed for the Hogs.

On a 1-1 pitch the next at bat, OSU’s Cadyn Grenier popped up a ball in foul territory down the first-base line. Anyone wearing red and white was jumping up and down. This was it. This was finally it. But it wasn’t. Three Arkansas players converged on the ball, but it dropped with All-American second baseman Carson Shaddy overrunning the play.

Two pitches later, Grenier, who finished the night with three hits, roped the game-tying to single to left field. Then, a batter later, Trevor Larnach blasted a 2-0 pitch from Cronin well over the right-field wall to give the Beavers, down to their last out, 5-3 lead.

“Actually, I kind of top spun it. I’m kind of famous for that at Oregon State,” Larnach jokingly said. “I hit it, and I just said get going, get going and it went. And from there, I don’t really remember [what happened].”

Oregon State closed out Arkansas in the bottom of the ninth to force a third game in the series, sending pandemonium throughout the sections of fans in black and orange. The opposite was true for Arkansas fans. They were stunned. They were crushed. This was going to be their night.

Add OSU coach Pat Casey to those stunned by the finish.

As Oregon State players looked at their phones in the clubhouse after the game, some erupted with constant ‘holy craps’ and plenty of ‘wows’. Pat Casey? He was sitting back in his office chair, legs propped up on the table, trying to figure out how to describe what he just saw to his brother. ‘Pretty incredible’, he said.

Trevor Larnach’s huge home run gave the Beavers the win. (Aaron Fitt)

“Cronin was really, really good. But our guys were pretty unbelievable. Righties hit him around .120 and lefties, I think hit him around .170. I thought Zak Taylor getting on base was a big at bat, and then we got a big bunt there,” Casey added. “Grenier was lights out, and I felt like if we could just find a way to get a baserunner up in the ninth, we could get the right guys up.

“I was really excited when we got a guy to second,” he continued. “Cadyn battled and battled and did what he did, and Larnach just simply never gave in.”

While the ninth inning of tonight’s game will be replayed in everyone’s head between now and the start of the series finale tomorrow, just how the Beavers are here is rather remarkable considering their lackluster starting pitching.

For much of the season, OSU was considered a team with a high-octane offense and a strong starting rotation with Luke Heimlich, Bryce Fehmel and, now, Kevin Abel leading the charge. But in this College World Series, the starting pitching has struggled immensely. Heimlich at least got to the fifth inning in the finals opener, but was swiftly knocked out and has a 10.61 ERA in 9.1 innings. Fehmel has a 6.52 ERA in 9.2 innings and Abel has been the lone success story as a starter, tallying an ERA of 1.50 with 12 innings of work.

The Beavers aren’t in a position to win the national title because of their starting pitching. They’re in this position because of the offense, clutch hits and the rise of a suddenly strong bullpen.

“Yeah, I mean, shoot, anytime the whole goal is to find a way to get the starting pitcher out of the game. The sooner you can do that, the better off you’re usually going to be,” Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. “But we’ve been pretty comfortable with our guys out of the bullpen so far in this tournament, because, really, I’m not sure anyone ever anticipates getting a complete game or something in this tournament.

“That just happens with expectations, he continued. “You have to anticipate several guys needing to get it done.”

The rise of Oregon State’s bullpen has been interesting to follow. Earlier in the season, the Beavers had issues with the No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation, while the bullpen was certainly shaky at times. Road series at Utah and Arizona put those struggles on full display, and some wondered if the Beavers were going to put together the right formula by the time the postseason rolled around.

If the Beavers could do that, they’d have a chance to win a national title. If not, accomplishing that goal was going to be mighty difficult.

But this unit has stepped up when it’s been needed the most. In the finals opener, freshman lefty Christian Chamberlain stepped up to preserve some pitching after Heimlich was ousted from the game, striking out a CWS-tying-record 11 batters out of the pen, while also allowing just two hits in 4.2 innings.

Then, tonight, Fehmel allowed a run and a hit in two innings and was lifted after he walked Heston Kjerstad to begin the third inning. Brandon Eisert was inserted into the game and put together yet another terrific performance on this stage, striking out seven, walking no one and allowing just two runs in five innings to arguably the nation’s best lineup. Kevin Abel followed with a scoreless frame before Jake Mulholland tossed a scoreless ninth to preserve the win.

“Well, I think what happened to our bullpen was in the middle of the season, we started playing a different type of competition and teams who had guys who could do different things to you,” Yeskie said. “Our guys had to adjust. We were able to get through the meat grinder to get ready for the first round of the playoffs, then the supers. Chamberlain pitched really well in the supers, and Abel pitched really well in the regional against LSU. Those were periods for our guys to grow, and when our guys see the other guys on the team and in the bullpen do well, I think it helps them do well, too.”

“As for Eisert, he was filling up the zone tonight with multiple pitches on both sides of the plate,” he continued. “Anyone who can do that is probably going to have success, especially if you’re lefthanded and do that. It’s going to make them pretty tough to hit.”

Just as has been the case throughout the CWS, the OSU bullpen will likely be needed yet again in Thursday’s winner-take-all showdown between the Hogs and Beavers. For now, you’d have to think the Beavers will start righthander Kevin Abel, who threw just 23 pitches tonight. But you can’t rely on him to give you too many innings. Therefore, everyone else will be needed, and as Casey said after the game, all hands are on deck.

Oregon State’s pitching out of the bullpen has been outstanding in Omaha. (Mandy Sorenson)

“Well, we’re just going to take it one inning at a time. Obviously, we’re backed up a little bit with pitching. We don’t have the … we weren’t setup the way they were, so it makes it a little more difficult for us,” Casey said. “It would be hard to think we’re going to have anybody that’s probably going to go more than five innings. Everyone is probably able to pitch, I’d guess, other than Fehmel and maybe Eisert. Someone can always come in and get you and out.

“When you get to this point, it’s a one game for it all,” he continued. “So, our bullpen will have to really be part of the win tomorrow if we’re going to win. There’s no doubt about it.”

Though Oregon State would prefer to get a good start in tomorrow’s finale, there’s no doubt the bullpen will be waiting in the wings and ready to deliver when called upon. They’ve gotten it done all this way.

Casey just hopes they set the stage to feel the thrill just one more time.

It comes down to this. One game. Winner takes all.

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