Rogers: Unflappable Abel Earns Legend StatusColumns
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OMAHA, Neb. — Even with his pitch count starting to soar after a quick seventh inning, Oregon State freshman righthander Kevin Abel refused to leave the game.
With the season and a national title on the line Thursday night in Omaha, the heralded OSU righty was dealing against one of the nation’s premier lineups. He allowed a walk in the first inning and Arkansas got two runners on base in the third. That was it the rest of the night.
Abel retired 20 straight Arkansas hitters to lead Oregon State to a thrilling 5-0 victory to give the Beavers their third national title.
And from now and forever, Casey will always remember the end of the seventh inning.
As Abel got a groundout, a strikeout and another groundout to finish the seventh, he walked down the steps of the Oregon State dugout. Casey, knowing full well that Abel’s pitch count was starting to creep up, had relievers warming in the bullpen. So, he broke the news to the freshman righty.
“We’re going to make a change,” Casey recalled telling Abel.
Abel, being the competitor he is, wasn’t having it. He remarked back to Casey that he felt great and wasn’t coming out of the game. After all, he was dealing, and even if you are a freshman, when else are you going to have another opportunity to win a national title?
So, Casey said ‘okay” with one condition: If he allowed a runner to reach base in the eighth or ninth innings, he was immediately coming out of the game.
Abel didn’t give Casey that opportunity.
“Well in the seventh, I told Kevin, let’s make a change. And he just said ‘no way’. And added that he thought he was doing it easy and that he felt great. He said he felt better than he’s ever felt on the mound,” Casey said. “and I said if you let anyone on, I’m coming to get you.
“And, well, he wouldn’t let anyone on,” he continued. “What a competitive effort by that guy. It was really cool. It’s unbelievable to me that a guy, a freshman, can come on this stage and pitch nine innings and look relaxed the entire time. I was thinking how long can this guy really go and make it look so easy. There was never any stress, and there never seemed to be any effort in what he was doing.”
In the hours leading up to the game, Casey and Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie discussed starting options against the Razorbacks. They knew Abel would need to throw in the finale. But after throwing 23 pitches in Game Two against the Hogs, were they going to start him? Casey thought Abel could give them four or five innings, so, instead of bringing him out of the pen to do that, he and Yeskie agreed that starting him made the most sense.
That hunch proved accurate.
Abel, who made a record four CWS appearances, including two starts, was simply masterful against one of the more potent lineups he’ll face in college. In addition to sitting in the 90-93 mph range with his fastball, Abel delivered a steady diet of plus changeups, while also attacking Arkansas hitters with a nasty breaking ball that has made serious strides as the season progressed.
Overall against the Hogs tonight, he struck out 10, walked just two and allowed two hits in the complete game, 129-pitch performance.
“Coming in as a freshman like this, it’s tough. Pitching is a tough deal. Kevin’s always had unbelievable stuff, and I think that just the strides he’s made mentally are unbelievable,” Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman said. “And that’s the toughest part to improve in the game of baseball — it’s the mental side.
“To see how he’s progressed and the outing he had today was nothing short of amazing,” he continued. “I’m super proud of him, and I think he’s going to do big things. It’s just unbelievable. And I feel so fortunate to be able to catch him.”
His mark in the CWS as a whole? It’s unreal. Abel worked 21 innings and struck out 23, walked seven and allowed two runs on seven hits, etching himself into Oregon State lore and into legendary status in the CWS record books.
“You just watch for speed bumps when a guy is throwing like that, and I didn’t really see any from him. He had one, but he pitched out of it in the third inning. You always feel like on any given night if you’re going to pitch seven innings or more, you’ll have to pitch out of at least one jam. You just gotta be able to get yourself out of those jams, and he did that,” Yeskie said. “The breaking ball he was finishing guys off with late in the game would lead you to believe he was feeling good and he was so calm in the dugout.
“We had conversations from inning to inning,” Yeskie continued. “And we had a little conversation before the ninth where I told him their fans are going to get loud, but don’t let adrenaline get to you, because you haven’t let adrenaline drive you all night. Just go out there and do what you’ve been doing, and that’s what he did.”
Abel closed out the game striking out four of the last six hitters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts and a groundout in the ninth to capture the national title, sending Rutschman out to bear hug him and commence the dogpile.
Oregon State’s pitching staff allowed four runs in the fifth inning of the CWS Finals opener agains the Hogs, but otherwise allowed just three runs in the other 26 innings.
“The biggest thing against that lineup, you have to be able to pitch to both sides of the plate. They have a lot of guys who can do some serious damage to you. They’re a good team and I’ve seen what they can do,” Yeskie said. “They are built to do damage to people and you simply have to avoid free passes.
“I just told Abel to go out there and make good pitches,” he continued. “And let the Great Wall of China (Nick Madrigal and Cadyn Grenier) do the rest.”
So, that’s what Abel did, in addition to showing the premium stuff that he’s shown all year, but refined just in time for the CWS run.
Kevin Abel might’ve been a freshman in name tonight, but that’s it. Now, he’s a legend.
About 20 minutes after winning the national title and exchanging hugs with players, coaches and family friends during the field celebration, Abel packed up all his belongings and headed up the tunnel to the locker room. A few fans, even one Arkansas fan, marveled at what they just saw from a young pitcher. They wanted his autograph.
Abel didn’t hesitate. He stood there for a few minutes, exchanged pleasantries and signed any balls that flew his way. Then, he picked up his bags and headed up the tunnel by himself. The orange ’23’ on his back was vivid, but it grew darker as he made his way up the tunnel, eventually disappearing.
Abel’s night might have been over, but it wasn’t without a legend being born.
He wasn’t going to be denied on this night, and the same can be said for the rest of the Beavers.
It was a performance for the ages.