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April 9th, 2016.
That day will always resonate with me as it was the first Oregon State Baseball game that I covered in the historic 2017 season. The Beavers were facing off against defending Pac-12 champion Utah, and it was my first time visiting McGrath Family Press box as donning the BeaversEdge.com press pass.
I was a little late to the party this season in the sense that I didn’t get to see this team play live until April 9th, but little did I know this would be a season that I would never forget.
Coming into that Sunday game against Utah, I didn’t know what to expect about covering this team for an entire season. I was fresh off heavily covering the women’s basketball team and was a mere two weeks removed from a long trip to Stockton for the Sweet Sixteen that saw OSU come up short against Florida State.
As I was walking up the steps of Goss Stadium to the tune of country music, I thought to myself, this just might be the start of covering a really good season.
Boy, was I right.
The Beavers ended up doing what they did all season that Sunday, as they finished off a clean sweep of the Utes by way of 5-1 victory. It was the first time that I got to see Pat Casey’s 2017 squad in action, and they were fantastic.
It was after that day, where with my own eyes I was able to see that the Beavers were special. Sure, they had sweeps against conference foes No. 9 Arizona, Arizona State, and Stanford, but I wasn’t able to really sit and observe this team until I went to that Sunday game on April 9th.
When I walked away from Goss Stadium on that unusually sunny April day, I knew that the Beavers were going to end up in Omaha. They had strong hitting, superb pitching, and flawless fielding, and didn’t have a weakness that I could point to. It wasn’t a question of if they would get to Omaha, but rather how far would they go.
On June 24th 2017, we found out where the end of the line was for the Beavers.
The Beavers breezed through the rest of the regular season, Regionals, and Super Regionals without so much as batting an eye. Prior to their first loss in Omaha against LSU, they had won 23 straight games. They appeared to be unstoppable. Whether it was crushing Vanderbilt in two games, coming from behind to beat Cal State Fullerton in game one of the CWS, or annihilating LSU 13-1 in game two, it appeared that the Beavers were cruising towards their third national championship.
It seemed like nothing was going to stop OSU on their march for the program’s first title since the 2007 season.
However, something changed for the Beaver squad after that 13-1 shellacking of LSU. I’m not sure whether they let their guard down during their three days off that included trips to the zoo and Boys Town, or that LSU coach Paul Mainieri made tremendous adjustments.
Perhaps it was a combination of both, because the Beaver team that played the first two games in Omaha was not present for the last two they played. Maybe they thought it would be a breeze after they manhandled LSU the first time around. Maybe they thought it was time to focus on the championship series. Maybe their energy was zapped by way of the blown call on Steven Kwan’s “fair” ball in the first game against LSU. Maybe they thought the cards were stacked against them when home plate umpire Greg Street was calling strikes that were nearly in the right-handed batters box.
All of those factors are potential reasons why OSU didn’t play the same way in games 3 and 4 as they did in 1 and 2, but those aren’t the reason that I settled on.
Plain and simple, the Beavers ran out of gas. Their starting pitchers just didn’t have the same firepower after game two. As I watched Jake Thompson both times in the CWS, it was apparent to me that he was beginning to wear down. Bryce Fehmel was a nice comeback story as he pitched two great games in the Supers and CWS, but he showed that he wasn’t quite rested enough to go on four days rest. And first round pick Drew Rasmussen was really never able to settle into a full-time starting groove coming off Tommy John surgery. He worked tirelessly to work his way back into the rotation, but his body didn’t allow him to come back as quickly as he would have liked.
When you combine all of that with losing ace Luke Heimlich prior to Super Regional play, the Beavers were suddenly asking a lot out of guys like Thompson (who threw a ton of innings), Fehmel (who dealt with up and down play all season), and Rasmussen (coming off toughest injury in baseball).
The result? The Beavers ran out of gas and were defeated twice by a veteran group of LSU players that were beyond determined to ruin the Beavers’ season. If OSU wants to take a lesson away from Omaha, look no further than LSU.
The Tigers had fought through adversity all season, and ended the season playing tremendous baseball. And they had strong enough leadership to not let a 13-1 loss to OSU deter them from a berth in the championship.
Guys like Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman, Jared Poché, and Hunter Newman are all players who turned down professional baseball for one more year to come back and compete for a national title. By comparison, OSU did not have a regular starter who was senior eligibility, and that was another big reason while LSU was able to beat OSU.
The reasons could go on and on, but rather than reflecting on what happened to the Beavers in Omaha in 2017, let’s talk about how they could get back there in 2018.
Not since 2014 have I seen a better core of players coming back to don the orange and black. Coincidentally, similarities from then to now is shocking. In 2013, the Beavers went to Omaha with a young group of players headlined by Michael Conforto, Ben Wetzler, and Andrew Moore. Looking forward, there was high reason for optimism because the core of players were coming back.
2018 is very similar. Next year, the Beavers return nearly every single player that helped them achieve Omaha this season.
Outfielders Christian Donahue, Jack Anderson, Steven Kwan, and Trevor Larnach return.
Pitchers Luke Heimlich (presumably), Bryce Fehmel, Jordan Britton, Brandon Eisert, and Jake Mulholland, all return.
Infielders Michael Gretler, Cadyn Grenier, Nick Madrigal, are back in addition to catcher Adley Rutschman. The only infielder OSU loses is KJ Harrison at first base.
You get the point though, right? OSU brings back nearly their entire core of players next season and they will all be a year older, more mature, stronger, wiser, and more experienced. They all know what it takes to get Omaha, and what it will take to get even further than they did the year before.
All in all, the future of the Beavers baseball program under Pat Casey is destined for another run to Omaha. Nobody can deny the talent that OSU has returning, and more than likely the will be a preseason top-5 team.
The pressure to return to Omaha will be intense, and it will be interesting to see if this squad rises to the occasion and rides that pressure back to the heartland.
However, pressure creates diamonds, and that is what OSU will be wearing on their fingers at the end of the 2018 season.