Kevin Abel Carries Oregon State Into CWS Finals
OMAHA, Neb.—Kevin Abel closed his eyes, and for 10 minutes, he simply breathed. In, out, in, out, from his hotel room Friday night.
The freshman Oregon State righthander didn’t know then that in roughly 24 hours he’d make the most significant, most anxiety-inducing, most consequential start of his young life. He wouldn’t find out until an early afternoon meeting with pitching coach Nate Yeskie on Saturday that he would get the baseball—mere hours before the Beavers took on Mississippi State in a do-or-die semifinals matchup in the College World Series.
In that meeting, Yeskie first wanted to check in on how Abel was feeling mentally. Abel couldn’t have felt better. He wanted this. Two months ago, when Abel’s confidence was as fleeting as his fastball command, making a start—even pitching—in Omaha seemed like the remotest of possibilities.
That’s when he asked for help. In late April, at the suggestion of OSU director of player development Tyler Graham, Abel sat down with renowned pitching mind Alan Jaeger and learned the importance of flushing his negativity and the power of positive thinking. He learned the difference between good nerves and bad nerves. Most importantly, he learned how to meditate.
Abel has been a different pitcher since, gradually bolstering his self-belief with every outing. The Beavers, too, have started believing more in him.
In preparation for a potential start, Abel meditated Friday night. He meditated again Saturday afternoon. Then he stepped on the TD Ameritrade Park mound Saturday night, took another deep, exaggerated breath, and threw the best outing Oregon State has seen from any pitcher in Omaha.
The Beavers defeated the Bulldogs, 5-2, to move into the CWS finals—against Arkansas—for the first time since they won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
And a freshman pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes two months ago was the one who carried them there.
"I was extremely impressed with Kevin tonight,” said sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman, who supported his batterymate with his CWS-leading 10th RBI. “Just the strides he's made over the season. A lot of you guys haven't been able to see him but at the beginning of the season, no one would have said he would have been starting in the College World Series.
“But here he is on the biggest stage there. Some of the innings he didn't have the pitches he wanted, didn't throw them where he wanted, but he battled through it, and (I’m) just extremely impressed, and I was fortunate to be able to catch him and see him work tonight.”
Abel’s ability has never been in question. He came to Oregon State as the team’s prized pitching recruit, an advanced righthander with a 90-93 mph fastball, devastating changeup, solid curveball and even the occasional screwball. But, like many freshmen, Abel had trouble adjusting to the pressures of Division I baseball—particularly on an Oregon State team with national championship standards.
Gradually, as Abel gained more of a mental grasp, the Beavers coaching staff starting working him into bigger and bigger situations.
“I remember at Arizona,” coach Pat Casey said, “he had the game won and he's in there dialed up, throwing the heck out of it. And all of a sudden—ball four to the nine-hole guy, hits the lead-off guy. Before we get the guy up in the bullpen, he's loaded the bases.
“And we had to come back with him again after that to show him if we've got confidence in you, somewhere along the line you're going to have to get confidence in yourself—and he did.”
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The breakthrough game came in the Corvallis Regional, when Abel threw eight scoreless innings, allowed just three hits and walked one against Louisiana State to send Oregon State to super regionals.
The Beavers sorely needed a repeat of that effort Saturday night, and they got it. Neither starters Luke Heimlich or Bryce Fehmel—dependable workhorses all season long—had pitched beyond the fourth inning in any of their four combined starts. Tasked with coming through the losers' bracket, the Beavers’ pitching staff was spread as thin as thin could be.
But Abel didn’t dwell on any of that. He didn’t worry about going deep.
“Just make this pitch, make the next one, make the next one,” he said. “I knew they were going to score runs. You can’t stop that lineup for a very long time. I don’t care what anyone says. They’re very, very good.”
Yet Abel held the tenacious Bulldogs in check, retiring his first six batters and not allowing a hit until left fielder Rowdey Jordan knocked a two-out RBI single in the third inning.
By that point, the Beavers already had five runs on the board, erupting against Mississippi State ace Ethan Small for a five-spot in the top half of the frame. Middle-of-the-order hitters Trevor Larnach and Rutschman both hit RBI singles, and designated hitter Tyler Malone hit his third home run of the CWS—a three-run bomb—to give Abel the only run support he needed.
Abel was by no means perfect. At times he left his mid-80s changeup elevated, and the command of his mid-70s breaking ball wavered in the middle innings. But Abel never buckled mentally. He took deep breaths when he needed to and remained positive. It certainly helped, too, that he had the country’s best defense playing behind him.
Abel allowed just one run on three hits, walked three and struck out five, going seven innings on 95 pitches, before giving way to lefty closer Jake Mulholland.
True to the way they’ve played all postseason, the Bulldogs didn’t make it easy on Mulholland. Their last month has been defined by the comeback win and the Rally Banana. And, fittingly, the man who started the Rally Banana craze stepped to the plate as the potential game-winning run with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Freshman Jordan Westburg, who hit a grand slam earlier in the CWS against North Carolina, was unable to repeat the banana magic, hitting a sharp ground ball to shortstop.
Watching from the dugout, Abel never panicked.
“Mully is a drama queen,” he said, laughing. “He likes to make things fun. We never doubted him.”
That same trust Abel has in his closer is what he also needed to develop in himself. It took time and effort to build, but fortunately for him and for the Beavers, he’s unlocked the ability both he and his coaches always knew he had.
“Nothing's changed physically,” Abel said. “I'm not throwing any new pitches or anything. It's all been in my head and believing in myself. And I have the best head coach in the country that believes in me, and the best pitching coach in the country that believes in me. I have the best team behind me that believes in me.
“And it was just me that needed to believe in me.”