OMAHA--Life is zipping by Drew Rasmussen--faster than one of his 97 mph fastballs. At times he has to stop, open his eyes and just absorb.
It's Thursday, around noon. He's sitting in the lobby of the Hilton hotel just across the street from T.D. Ameritrade Park Omaha, trying to find the right words to describe exactly what the last couple of weeks have been like.
"My girlfriend's here and we were hanging out the other day," he says. "And I looked at her and said, 'We're in Nebraska!'"
He still has a look of wonder in his eyes as he repeats that line, as though Nebraska were Disney World. As though this were fantasy.
The day before, Rasmussen was cracking non-stop dad jokes with his Oregon State teammates at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo ("Are you guys ready to zoo it?"). A few days before that, on June 17, the redshirt sophomore righthander emerged from the Beaver bullpen and threw a perfect ninth inning in his first-ever College World Series appearance. Five days before, on June 12, Rasmussen heard the Rays call his name with the 31st pick of the draft.
And before that?
Before that, nothing was moving quickly. Nothing at all. Rasmussen spent more than a year on the shelf, making the slow, grueling comeback from Tommy John surgery. He tore his UCL on March 24, 2016, in the midst of a 4-1, 3.31 season as Oregon State's Friday ace. He wasn't cleared to pitch until the final weekend of April this spring.
As Oregon State got off to a torrid, historic start, snapping off 23 straight wins at one point early in the season, Rasmussen was doing tedious range-of-motion work, then playing catch from 30 feet, then gradually-gradually--transitioning to bullpens.
All he could do was watch and hope that the Beavers played deep enough into the postseason that he could emerge as a real factor. Not just a guy making his way back from surgery--but an electric, dangerous weapon.
That time is now.
On June 17, he filled the role of closer. When Rasmussen emerged from the bullpen in the Beavers' 6-5 win over Cal State Fullerton, he took a 360-degree turn around the mound just to take a mental snapshot of his surroundings--to try to appreciate the present. Then he struck out his first two batters, sat 94-96 mph and shut the door on the Titans in dominant fashion.
Now, Saturday, Rasmussen hopes to play the role of savior. Stopper. Hero. With Oregon State coming off a 3-1 loss to Louisiana State on Friday, the Beavers are locked in an elimination game with the Tigers. Win, and advance to the CWS finals. Lose, and go back to Corvallis, Ore.
The Beavers are entrusting Rasmussen with the ball, despite the fact he's appeared in only seven games this season, has made just four starts and has thrown just 22.2 innings. In what feels like no time at all, Rasmussen has gone from playing catch on the sidelines to starting the most important game of the year.
The one-time ace wouldn't have it any other way.
"Me getting to come back off of surgery and getting the opportunity to pitch here in Omaha has been an absolutely amazing experience," Rasmussen said. "I keep using the same two words: amazing experience. But that's really all that can come to mind about pitching here."
It's a blur. It's happening all so fast. And Rasmussen doesn't want it to end anytime soon.
Match Made In Corvallis
There are two sides to this story.
Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie tells it like this: One day he got a call that Rasmussen, a rising senior at Mount Spokane (Wash.) High, was suddenly touching 88-90 mph--a 4-5 mph jump--and that Yeskie should take a look at the pitcher at the upcoming Area Code Games tryouts.
On his way to those tryouts, Rasmussen stopped by the Oregon State campus and toured it with Yeskie. He was there almost all day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., soaking it in, laying down initial connections with his future pitching coach. Yeskie hadn't seen him throw a single pitch yet, but he knew he wanted Rasmussen on his staff.
"I said, 'if he pitches half as good as he is as a person, I'll take it,'" Yeskie said, laughing.
The feeling was mutual.
Here's Rasmussen's side of that story: When the young pitcher returned to his car after that visit, he immediately told his parents, "This is where I want to go--if I get any sort of offer, even a walk-on spot."
Clearly, Oregon State and Drew Rasmussen were the perfect match. Yeskie said he could just tell their personalities aligned. Head coach Pat Casey instills a winning, hard-working, blue-collar culture at Oregon State--a place where players develop as long as they're willing to work for it. Rasmussen specifically remembers Casey telling him, "We're going to win with you or without you." Rasmussen loved that straightforwardness. He was more than willing put in the necessary effort.
A larger-framed kid who had difficulty maintaining his weight, Rasmussen had already explored multiple avenues to improve his physical conditioning. He had reached out to Kyle Boddy at Driveline Baseball and was one of Boddy's first trainees as a full-time coach.
Based in Seattle, Driveline helped build a foundation for Rasmussen, who started working 88-92 mph his senior year in high school and could've signed out of school. Oregon State--known for its player development--carried the torch from there.
"He went from a big fish in a small pond to kind of an out-of-shape fish in a big pond," Boddy said, laughing. "He needed to get in shape, and kudos to him, he lost a ton of weight when he got there."
Boddy remembers getting a call from Yeskie just before Rasmussen's freshman spring, telling him that Rasmussen was going to be Oregon State's closer. Yeskie said Rasmussen might work in the upper 90s. Boddy responded with an expletive and said, "No way."
Boddy watched him throw out of the bullpen in a February game against Kansas that year and sit 94-96 mph. He was dominant. Explosive. Before long, Rasmussen ascended into the weekend rotation--and he only kept ascending.
On March 21, 2015 against Washington State, Rasmussen threw the first--and still only--perfect game in Oregon State history, striking out 10 in a masterful performance.
When Rasmussen thinks back to that game now, he remembers the way his team played around him--the game catcher Dane Lund called behind the plate, shortstop Trever Morrison's play up the middle and first baseman K.J. Harrison's pick on the other end, right fielder Joey Jansen's athletic catch near the foul line.
When he focuses on his own singular performance, he sees nothing but room for growth.
'I was a puppy then," he said. "I didn't understand how to pitch . . . but coach Yeskie and (Casey) and the entire staff has helped me develop into a much better pitcher than I was when I walked in the doors.
"As a freshman, I just threw hard, and I could throw a change for a strike and bounce a breaking ball when I got to two strikes. That would've been my scouting report I made for myself. But since then, I've developed fastball command to both sides of the plate, sharpened up the breaking ball, and firmed it up a little, too."
Rasmussen started seeing those changes more and more in himself throughout his sophomore year. His confidence as a pitcher--not just a thrower--was growing daily.
Then his UCL snapped.
The worst day wasn't the day of the surgery. It was the day of the selection show.
After he went down, Rasmussen had to watch helplessly as his team sputtered without him. The 2016 Beavers (35-19) managed to put together a resume that most viewed as regional-worthy, yet come Selection Monday, Oregon State was nowhere to be found in the field.
"We felt like we were sucker-punched watching the selection show, and it was one of the worst feelings of my life," Rasmussen said. "It was probably one of the worst days of my life, which goes to show you how good I've had it. Because if that's about as bad as it gets, my parents and my family have done something right along the way.
"For the freshmen on our team this year, they don't know the valley we were in last year, the depths we were in, how down we were."
Rasmussen had his own personal depths to crawl out of; he had to try not to wallow or dwell on how his injury might've impacted his team down the stretch. Shortly after the injury, he met with Yeskie in his office.
"I said, 'What you do between now and when you step back on the field is going to dictate what's going to happen from that point forward,'" Yeskie said. "Unfortunately your parents and our coaching staff and the people close to you, they feel bad for you, but outside of that I don't know that there are a lot of people who do. In order to deal with this, for you, here's what you need to do.'
"And I gave him a checklist of things from changing his body in the weight room, changing his body with the nutritionist, keeping a positive frame of mind with everything he does."
To Rasmussen's credit, he never left his teammates' side. He was a positive, influential force on the team's younger players and participated in whatever drills he could participate in. Yeskie said the goal was to keep Rasmussen as involved as possible, so that when he finally did come back, there would be less of an adjustment period.
"He was such a great teammate," fellow starter Jake Thompson said. "Always up front on the dugout and always being pretty much our No. 1 fan."
Rasmussen maximized his rehab and actually became stronger physically. He dropped 20 pounds from his thick 6-foot-2 frame, and when he finally did return to action, scouts remarked that his delivery looked freer and easier. His upper 90s velocity returned, and he's struck out 24 to just five walks in his 22.2 innings.
"The thing that stands out," said one scout, "is that he used his injury as an opportunity to get better."
Added Yeskie: "His work opened those doors. He worked his tail off. There were teams that passed on him. There were teams in our own league that didn't think he was very good, and that became a motivating factor for him."
Paul Kirsch, the Rays scout who drafted Rasmussen, said he's wanted Rasmussen since he saw him in high school. Even before Rasmussen came back from Tommy John, he was the No. 1 target in Kirsch's northwest area.
"You cannot find a guy who says a bad word about him," Kirsch said. "Just like I told my club, this type of kid right here is the kind of kid you put your money on."
Kirsch cited Rasmussen's improved feel for pitching and durability, his plus makeup--and the program he comes from.
"Oregon State does a very good job developing players," Kirsch said. "I really appreciate what they are doing down there."
Rasmussen certainly appreciates Oregon State's player development, too. He was effusive in his praise for Casey, Yeskie, the team's athletic trainers and his teammates for helping him recover from Tommy John--both physically and mentally.
"You start to feel annoyed when people keep asking you how you're feeling, how you're doing," Rasmussen said. "And looking back at it, you start to realize it's only because they care. They only want to know how I'm doing because they love me and they hate to see me go through it, and they know I'm going to come back stronger, especially because of the help and support from them."
Rasmussen's head coach once told him the Beavers will win with him or without him--and he was right.
But if Rasmussen has his way today, they’ll win because of him.