-- Oregon St. Baseball (@BeaverBaseball) June 24, 2017
OMAHA--They could’ve been the greatest team of all-time.
And maybe they still are. Maybe with the right formulas, in the right context, with the right analysis, the 2017 Oregon State Beavers will still stand favorably among the elites. Their 56-6 record is a program-best. Their 90.3 winning percentage is the fourth-best in NCAA history, just shy of Arizona State’s 91.4 mark in 1972--when the college game had far less parity. They have the country’s best team ERA at 1.93--almost a full run better than the next-closest team. They went a record-breaking 27-3 in Pac-12 games. They put together two 23-game winning streaks, carrying the latter into the College World Series.
But there’s one milestone the 2017 Beavers don’t have, and can never get:
A national title.
It turns out the Beavers’ most recent streak was the one that did them in--two straight losses.
For the first time this season, the Beavers lost back-to-back games, both against Louisiana State. The latest, a 6-1 loss on Saturday afternoon, spelled the end of a nearly flawless season. For 60 games, Oregon State could do little wrong. For a two-game stretch in Omaha, little went right.
After LSU closer Zack Hess threw his final pitch and the final out at second base was made, after both teams exchanged handshakes on the field, juniors Michael Gretler and K.J. Harrison and their head coach Pat Casey took the post-game dais and showed little in the way of emotion--mostly a look of disbelief. A week before, when Oregon State came back to beat Cal State Fullerton, the Beavers talked after the game about how the thought of losing never crosses their minds. And for good reason. In 2017, losing simply didn’t happen.
“I told the guys, ‘It’s a tough day when you’ve had such a great year,'” Casey said. “And now is not the time to really think about that or talk about it, but I know there will be a time when they get to sit back and reflect and realize what they accomplished.
“And I know they’re not satisfied. But they’ll feel better about it in a few days. I can tell you that.”
The last two days were, in many ways, a shocking turn events given Oregon State’s near-perfect season and the fact that the Beavers blew out the same LSU team earlier in this tournament, 13-1.
Credit LSU pitching for that drastic turnaround. Starting with junior righthander Alex Lange on Friday and continuing with sophomore righty Caleb Gilbert--who started in place of the injured Eric Walker on Saturday--the Tigers held the Beavers to a .085 average (5-for-59) over the last two days.
Tigers head coach Paul Mainieri said his players drew inspiration from the 1989 LSU team, which defeated a 58-5 Texas A&M team twice to make it to Omaha. With some of the great teams he’s coached and coached against, Mainieri knows as much as anyone that even the best clubs can stumble in the postseason.
“It’s unbelievable what (the Beavers) did this year,” Mainieri said. “To lose four games out of 60 when they came here, you don’t do that accidentally . . . It’s hard to do that. It’s like once in a blue moon something like that happens. And you pretty much think of them like they’re invincible, that they don’t have any weaknesses. And they don’t.
“They have a very balanced team. They pitched great. Great defense. Offensively, they had table-setters, power guys. They had it all. But you still have to go out and play the games. . . . We felt if we played up to our potential, we could compete with them.”
The Tigers managed to shut down the table-setters at the top of Oregon State’s lineup in both games, holding Steven Kwan and Nick Madrigal to a combined 1-for-13. The umpiring didn’t do the Beavers any favors. On Friday, a drive down the line by Kwan--which hit the yellow line on the wall--was ruled foul and not reviewed. At least one run would’ve scored on that play had it been called correctly. On Saturday, home plate umpire Greg Street’s strike zone was clearly wide. Six of Gilbert’s seven strikeouts came looking, and overhead camera views showed at least a couple of those strike calls were balls that crossed the white line of the batter’s box.
But the Beavers didn’t make any excuses.
“I mean, we didn’t adjust,” said Gretler, whose eighth-inning homer Saturday was Oregon State’s only run. “I think it’s as simple as that. Both teams have to deal with the same umpire, and we didn’t make any big adjustments.”
Harrison said he could feel the team tightening up early in the game, and Casey said the strike zone could’ve contributed to that frustration. When Harrison popped up for the second out in the ninth, he threw his helmet against the dugout bench. LSU players, on the other hand, said they loosened up considerably after catcher Michael Papierski hit a three-run homer in the second inning--the first of two home runs.
The homer came off of starter Bryce Fehmel, who wasn’t the Beavers’ announced starter coming into the game. Casey had said in Friday’s press conference that righthander Drew Rasmussen would get the ball, and that’s the starter LSU prepared for. But about an hour before game time, Mainieri got word that Fehmel would be the starter, which he said angered the Tigers players.
“We had thought about it yesterday after the game, and we thought we’d go with Ras,” Casey said. “And then we said let’s sleep on that and visit it in the morning. And we changed. We just felt it was in our best interests to make sure we had Ras at the end of the game.”
Rasmussen did in fact enter the game in the fourth inning, but by that point, the Tigers already had a 5-0 lead.
Perhaps the game would’ve turned out differently if the Beavers went with Rasmussen at the start. And perhaps, too, the CWS would’ve turned out differently had Luke Heimlich--who removed himself from the team following an Oregonian report that he had committed a sex crime as a teenager--been available. Heimlich led the country with a 0.76 ERA and likely would’ve gotten the ball on Friday or Saturday.
There are a multitude of factors one could point toward for the Beavers’ unraveling, but the Beavers weren’t finger-pointing after the game.
“I love all these guys so much,” Gretler said. “It’s been an unbelievable season. And I think that’s just a testament to how much we love each other. We’re truly brothers. I mean, I look forward to every 6 a.m. weight room, every practice, every game. Every moment I get to spend with these guys is very special. And that’s what I’m going to remember the most, is the relationships.”
Many of those relationships will remain intact. The Beavers fielded a lineup with six freshmen and sophomores Saturday, and the returning core of Nick Madrigal, Cadyn Grenier, Kwan and Adley Rutschman means the Beavers should once again be one of the most talented teams up the middle next spring.
But the Beavers aren’t yet looking ahead. They aren’t looking behind. They’re looking squarely at the loss they never thought would come.
“I think to a man they’d tell you that we’ve played better baseball, that’s for sure,” Casey said. “But I told them that there will be a time rather shortly that you’ll realize what you did and how amazing of a season you had and how you guys fought through so many things. And you’re playing in the College World Series and playing a really, really good team.
“We couldn’t get that thing turned around, the momentum. And we were down a little bit there with a couple bullets. And we just never could get anything going. But I do think they’ll reflect on this in a short period of time, and it will be something that they’ll be very proud of.”