OMAHA—TD Ameritrade Park has a way of devaluing standout tools. An 85 mph fastball is just as good as a 95 mph fastball in the College World Series now—just throw it for a strike, and the ballpark will reward you. And what good is it to have plus power when even the hardest-hit fly balls land on the warning track?
When the wind is howling in from center field as it was Friday, it takes Herculean strength to hit a home run at the CWS. It takes plus-plus power—the kind that Hunter Renfroe alone possesses in this CWS field.
With one mighty swing of the bat, Renfroe changed the complexion of Friday afternoon’s Bracket One final, launching a three-run missile through the wind into the left-field bullpen to lead Mississippi State to a 4-1 win against Oregon State, propelling the Bulldogs to the CWS Finals for the first time in program history.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: With Mississippi State leading 1-0, Andrew Moore got two quick outs in the fifth inning, but Adam Frazier and Alex Detz followed with back-to-back singles, and Moore fell behind in the count against dangerous slugger Hunter Renfroe. On 3-and-1, Renfroe belted a Moore curveball into the left-field bullpen for a three-run homer, effectively putting the game out of reach.
The Hero: Renfroe, the No. 13 overall pick, is one of the most powerful hitters in college baseball, and he showed it in the fourth inning. His three-run blast moved him into a tie for the SEC home run lead with Louisiana State’s Mason Katz.
You Might Have Missed: Renfroe wasn’t the only big star to dazzle Friday. Oregon State left fielder Michael Conforto might have gone 0-for-4 at the plate, but he made two outstanding defensive plays. In the second inning, he tracked down Wes Rea’s drive to the warning track, making a jumping catch while crashing into the wall. In the fourth, Conforto caught Trea Porter’s flyball in foul ground, and Rea tagged up and tried to score from third. Conforto threw a strike to the plate to throw him out (though replays showed Rea actually slid in ahead of the tag).
“Here’s a guy that runs into the wall full speed, makes an unbelievable play on the ball Wes hits,” MSU coach John Cohen said of Conforto. “And then he throws Wes out on a bang-bang play at the plate, but almost takes the ball out of the stands there to make a great throw to the plate. I think he saved at least a run, maybe two, with his defensive play, even though he didn’t get any hits.”
“It just seems like the ball’s knocked down no matter how hard you hit it,” said hulking MSU first baseman Wes Rea, who crushed a deep fly ball that Michael Conforto caught while crashing into the wall in left-center in the second. “Fortunately, Hunter learned from me hitting mine more towards the gap. He said, ‘I’m going to turn mine a little bit more and be able to get one out of the yard.’ . . . This guy hits a few more home runs than I do, so he can tell you how to do it, I guess.”
The Bulldogs were up just 1-0 heading into the fifth, when Oregon State first-team All-American Andrew Moore recorded two quick outs to start the frame. Adam Frazier and Alex Detz hit back-to-back groundball singles, bringing up Renfroe. Moore fell behind 3-1, then hung a 73 mph curveball that Renfroe deposited over the left-field wall.
“I tried to bury it because I knew we had a base open,” Moore said. “I made a mistake, left it up a little bit. He’s a great player, and he made me pay for it.”
“I didn’t think it was going out right away,” Renfroe said. “I was running out of the box right away, going for a double. I kind of hit it on the end of the bat, really, but was able to get enough backspin to hit it out to left field. Like Wes said, once it gets into the gaps between the 375 signs, it’s not going out. The ballpark plays huge, and the wind makes it play even bigger. It’s a real groundball, line-drive park, and that’s what our team is made for.”
Sure, but having a first-round pick in the middle of the lineup is an awfully nice luxury. The No. 13 overall pick by the Padres, Renfroe smacked his 16th home run of the season, tying him with LSU’s Mason Katz for the Southeastern Conference lead. It was just the third home run of the CWS in 11 games. But it was Renfroe’s first long ball since May 4.
“We did what we’ve always done: We got the hit when we really needed it,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “Of course, Hunter’s ball that left the ballpark was different. It was a difference maker, obviously, in the ballgame, because we knew they were going to score eventually at some point—they’re too good a ballclub not to. But that was a big, big blow in the ballgame. He’s so strong, he’s able to flick his hands and the ball left the ballpark.”
A 4-0 lead at TD Ameritrade Park is always commanding, but especially against Mississippi State’s pitching staff. Bulldogs senior ace Kendall Graveman struggled a bit in his first start against the Beavers on Saturday, allowing four runs (two earned) on six hits in 4 2/3 innings, but he was in control Friday. He held the Beavers to one run on four hits and a walk over 5 2/3.
“I thought the whole story of the ballgame was Kendall going out there, shoving the baseball in the strike zone, moving it on both sides of the plate, having it sink, getting to the bottom, getting a lot of early contact,” Cohen said. “That’s a very good Oregon State club we just beat.”
Graveman showed some 90-92 mph heat early in the game, but his sinker tends to move more when he throws it with less velocity. It was moving plenty Friday.
“Coach Cohen says when I’m 87-88, that’s when I’m at my best,” Graveman said. “Today my body didn’t feel great. There’s been a lot of innings so far, but I think if Coach Cohen had his choice, he would not want me to feel great all the time.”
The Beavers never quit, scoring a run in the sixth and putting runners in scoring position in the seventh, eighth and ninth against lefty Ross Mitchell, but the three-run deficit created by Renfroe’s homer proved insurmountable.
“Going into that ninth inning with a three-run lead felt like we were winning by 100,” Rea said. “That’s just how these games have been lately.”