Irrepressible Beavers Break UNC’s Heart AgainCollege World Series
OMAHA — Late last season, as Oregon State and North Carolina were closing in on the top two national seeds in the NCAA tournament, UNC coach Mike Fox revealed that he had contacted Oregon State coach Pat Casey to congratulate him on steering his Beavers back toward the postseason, a year after both teams had been snubbed by the selection committee.
“They can’t keep us out this year,” Fox had told Casey.
These two programs, which have been inextricably linked ever since the Beavers won back-to-back national championships against the Tar Heels in 2006-07, seemed like they might be on course for another Omaha rendezvous. But North Carolina was upset in regionals, while Oregon State made it to Omaha and started out 2-0 in bracket play, only to get its heart broken with back-to-back losses to LSU in the national semifinals.
Maybe the experience OSU gained in that 2017 CWS run was a factor Wednesday night, or maybe the only factor that mattered was Oregon State’s incredibly talented, irrepressible lineup, which simply would not be denied and could not be stopped in the late innings. Maybe it was a combination of experience and superior talent.
Whatever the reason, by the time the night ended, Oregon State had dealt UNC another brutal gut punch, storming back from a three-run eighth-inning deficit to win 11-6, eliminating the Tar Heels from the College World Series. It was perhaps the most compelling game of the 2018 CWS so far, high drama on the big stage — and the team that has been to Omaha before handled the tension better.
“You can’t practice this or put this in a picture. You gotta experience this just fully. And now they have,” Fox said. “So hopefully it works like some other teams we’ve had where they know what it feels like to be here and the experience and the atmosphere and all that and that will be the powerful motivator, as we start next year.”
Certainly OSU’s 2017 heartache has been a powerful motivator for the Beavers ever since, and when they fell behind by three runs on Kyle Datres’ two-run homer off the left-field foul pole in the sixth, they didn’t panic. The late innings played out very much like the late innings of Monday’s elimination game between OSU and Washington, when the Beavers overcame deficits of 3-0 and then 5-4 to pour it on in the seventh and eighth, winning 14-5. It always feels like just a matter of time until the OSU offense breaks through, even when it looks down and out.
For 4.1 innings of brilliant relief, UNC freshman lefthander Caden O’Brien stifled that explosive offense, and the Tar Heels rebounded from an early 3-0 hole to carry a 6-3 lead into the eighth. But that was tied for the longest outing of O’Brien’s career, and the UNC coaches determined his tank was just about empty after he allowed a leadoff single to 9-hole hitter Zak Taylor to start the eighth.
“He was done. That’s probably the longest outing he’s had,” Fox said. “And we kept asking him, you know, how he felt. And we could sort of — we could sort of see, he was lights out for us, wow. I mean, you gotta really be good to hold that team down. You gotta really be good.”
Taylor’s single gave Oregon State a little bit of life, and UNC went to fellow freshman Joey Lancellotti to face leadoff man Nick Madrigal — who promptly singled to center field, bringing the OSU fateful to their feet. At that point, it felt like the momentum had truly shifted, and the Tar Heels were in the danger zone, even with a three-run lead.
“Baseball’s a game where hitting sometimes becomes contagious. Once you get the leadoff man on with no outs, there’s definitely a confidence booster,” Madrigal said. “You know, I was thinking about my at-bat when I was on defense, there’s something about it, I told myself, ‘I’m getting on base, I’m getting something going.’ I just made a conscious decision that I was gonna do it, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was going to get out or anything like that. So when I got up to the plate, I felt good about my at-bat. Zak Taylor had an awesome at-bat to get us going, and then one after another. That’s what our team is. Sometimes it just takes one hit to kind of break it open, and that’s kind of the way baseball works.”
That answer reveals part of the reason Madrigal is so special, and part of the reason Oregon State is so hard to finish off. To borrow a phrase from Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, this group just has the right heartbeat for the game — so many of the OSU players just have an innate ability to slow the game down in those pressure-packed situations, and they always believe they’re going to win, no matter the score. No, that’s not a strong enough statement; they always know they’re going to win.
After Madrigal’s single, UNC made another pitching change, bringing in senior righty Brett Daniels to face Cadyn Grenier. After an epic 11-pitch battle, Grenier drew a walk, loading the bases for first-team All-Americans Trevor Larnach and Adley Rutschman.
Credit Daniels for bouncing back to strike out Larnach on three pitches to get the first out of the inning. But Rutschman had been crushing the ball all night, and he was as locked in as he could possibly be. He hit an opposite-field homer in the first, flew out to deep center field in the third, and doubled to right-center in the sixth. With the bases loaded in the eighth, Rutschman hit a missile over the head of UNC center fielder Brandon Riley for a game-tying three-run double.
“And we’re playing no doubles there. But that ball got out on the warning track in about two seconds,” Fox said. “So we would have had to have been literally playing on the warning track to have a shot, to catch that ball.”
As Rutschman strode into the box, you could cut the tension with a butter knife, but Rutschman was as cool as a February night in Corvallis, as Daniels struggled to find his fastball command on a chilly, misty night that felt a lot like an early-season game in Corvallis.
“When you’re up there, bases loaded, I think the biggest thing for me is just being relaxed,” Rutschman said. “I try to stay as relaxed as I can, because with the situation, the crowd and whatnot, you can get intense, and I hit best when I’m relaxed, and that was the biggest thing for me.”
That huge swing gave Rutschman 77 RBIs on the season, breaking Michael Conforto’s school record. It’s been obvious for over a year now that Rutschman is an exceptional talent, perhaps the leading early candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 — but his performance in a do-or-die game Wednesday night was as special as it gets.
“There’s something special about the way he catches, the way he gets the pitchers under his arm and gets them going and how he controls the game. And now the offensive pieces jump,” Casey said. “This is the first time in his life he’s ever been a full-time baseball player … the fall before he played football, really didn’t have a chance to work on things. He’s such a worker. His aptitude to do things is off the chart. He’s intelligent. And it doesn’t hurt to be 6-3, 215 pounds. So the gene pool is pretty good there.”
You can have a team full of winners, grinders and veterans, but there’s no substitute for overwhelming talent. It just so happens the Beavers have all of those things, and that’s what makes them so very difficult to hold down, especially once they get a little momentum going.
“I think that there’s some good hitters in that lineup. I think there’s some good players, obviously. But I think that we just started demanding that type of an attitude from the day they walk in the door,” Casey said. “Why else do you show up? I think there’s a difference in your mindset — I think you can separate things and be a good guy, good student and everything and when you get between the white lines, we want to win. And we want to be competitive. And I always tell guys there’s a difference between activity and achievement. Activity is shadowboxing and achievement is knocking somebody out. So you’ve got to have the right guys. Everybody knows nobody’s getting here without good players. So we got great players.”
That’s for sure. And those great players kept attacking once they sensed an opening. Rutschman eventually scored on a bases-loaded walk to give OSU a 7-6 lead there in the eighth, and the Beavers broke it open with four more runs in the ninth, sparked by Madrigal’s leadoff double and highlighted by Tyler Malone’s two-run homer to right.
But before that final salvo, the game still hung in the balance in the bottom of the eighth, when UNC put a man on second base with one out for the top of the lineup, where its two best hitters — Datres and Michael Busch — each got a shot to deliver a game-tying swing. But OSU lefthander Jake Mulholland got both of them to fly out. He was the unsung hero of this game, working three innings of one-hit, shutout relief to earn the win, in a game that saw ace Luke Heimlich knocked out in the third inning for the second straight outing against UNC. But the Oregon State offense and Mulholland had Heimlich’s back.
“I got a ton of respect for Mike (Fox) and that program. They do it right. They play clean. They play hard. And we knew that we were in for everything we had,” Casey said. “We got ahead. They come back. They get ahead, we come back.
“And I thought Mully probably was the difference in the game, when he came in, it was — he came in at the right time, did the right things and got them off balance a little bit. And we just got a little more momentum going, hit some balls where we needed to. And Rutschman’s hit — once that ball got over his head and we got tied, the dugout got going pretty good.”
So the latest chapter in the UNC-Oregon State rivalry ended just like the first two: with the Beavers celebrating, and the Tar Heels left to grapple with another devastating defeat. Eventually, the Tar Heels will be able to take pride in what they accomplished — getting back to Omaha for the first time since 2013, making the most out of their talent, setting up the program for another run next year. But this one is going to sting for a while.
“The end of the season, it stinks,” Fox said. “And it’s especially hard when you have really such a great group of kids. Probably not one of our most talented teams that we’ve had at UNC, but perhaps our most unselfish, toughest, grittiest just determined to get here. For me personally it’s probably been one of the most seasons I’ve had because this team has just been so easy to coach.
“…They made it easy because they got it. They just got it. And I just want kids that have respect for being at the University of North Carolina, I tell them that all the time. This is a special place. And you need to respect being here. And act right, do what we ask, represent our program well and graduate, get your degree and help us win a few games along the way. It sounds pretty easy, but all these kids have done that. That makes them special in my book.”