Arkansas and Oregon State will kick off the College World Series finals on Monday evening, giving the college baseball world a matchup that has looked entirely plausible from the very first pitch of the 2018 season.
Arkansas began the season as the preseason number two team in the College Baseball Central preseason top 25, with Oregon State coming in at number three, and while there were the typical ups and downs of a full season along the way, both teams ended up living up to those rankings throughout the regular season. Due to some stumbles from Florida down the stretch and their own high level of play, Oregon State actually ended the regular season as the number one team in the nation, while Arkansas survived some bumps and bruises in SEC play to get back safely inside the top ten to end the season, a place they resided for most of the season.
Each also used the 2017 season as a jumping off point for their success this season. Arkansas got most of the key pieces back from a 2017 team that hosted a regional, including ace Blaine Knight, who was not expected to return after being drafted last summer. OSU enjoyed a dominant 2017 season where they spent most of their time as the top-ranked team in the country, only to be upset by LSU in the CWS to be denied a spot in the championship series. Like the Razorbacks, they returned a good chunk of the most important players from that team to serve as catalysts for this run.
When it comes to how they’ve gotten here, just two wins away from a national title, they’ve also been similarly dominant.
The Razorbacks are 8-1 in postseason play, with the only loss coming in game two of their home super regional against South Carolina, which they quickly remedied with a blowout win over the Gamecocks in game three. The Beavers are 9-1 coming into the championship series. They went undefeated in winning a home regional and home super regional before taking a CWS-opening 8-6 loss to North Carolina in a game that featured uncharacteristically sloppy play from a team known for their steadiness.
All they did after dropping into the loser’s bracket in Omaha is rattle off four dominant wins in a row — 14-5 over Washington, 11-6 over North Carolina, 12-2 over Mississippi State, and then a 5-2 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night that was not really as close as that score would suggest.
Perhaps no offense is performing as well at this juncture as Oregon State’s.
They were already a dangerous bunch, and they’ll come into the finals hitting .323/.419/.494 as a team. Household names like Nick Madrigal, Trevor Larnach, and Adley Rutschman have all held up their end of the bargain during the CWS, but their success offensively over the last week-plus has also been due in large part to big performances from players outside of that nucleus.
Tyler Malone has been the biggest example. A part-time player for much of the season, Malone has turned it on since arriving in Omaha, connecting for three home runs. The first one was a pivotal blast in the win over Washington, the second was in the elimination game against North Carolina, with the third coming as the big blow in the five-run third inning that led OSU to the win over MSU on Saturday night.
Just as impressively, the Beavers have plated 48 runs in five games mostly without the services of Steven Kwan, the team’s usual leadoff hitter, who left the game against Washington after two at-bats due to a hamstring injury. He pinch-hit in the second game against UNC and then pinch-hit and played the final inning in the field against MSU on Saturday night, but he hasn’t played a full game since the CWS opener more than a week ago.
The thing about Oregon State’s offense playing so well is that they’ve kind of needed it, because the starting pitching hasn’t been as steady as they would have hoped.
Twice in the College World Series, ace Luke Heimlich was hit around by North Carolina. In the first game, he surrendered six runs on four hits in 2.1 innings. In the second go-round, it was three runs (two of which were earned) on six hits in 2.2 innings. In between Heimlich’s starts, Bryce Fehmel hasn’t been a ton better. Against UW, he lasted four innings, giving up seven hits and four runs. Then, in his start against Mississippi State, he gave up four hits and two runs in 3.2 innings.
It took turning to freshman Kevin Abel, who has ridden a roller coaster of results in 2018, to get a quality start from an Oregon State starter. In the win Saturday night, he threw seven innings, giving up just three hits and one earned run. This came after he threw four innings of one-hit, one-run baseball in the win against Washington.
Also picking up the starting pitchers is the bullpen, and in particular, Brandon Eisert and Jake Mulholland.
The former, in two games, has thrown 9.1 innings, giving up six hits and two runs (one earned) with two walks and seven strikeouts. His best work was in the first game against Mississippi State, when he threw 5.1 scoreless innings in relief, giving up just one hit and one walk with three strikeouts. The latter has thrown six innings across three games, giving up three hits and one run. His best work came in closing out the UNC win, when he threw three shutout innings, giving up just one hit along the way.
Heimlich and Fehmel are still huge keys for OSU this coming week, as they will each take the mound to start a game against a physical, veteran Arkansas lineup, with a national championship on the line.
Speaking of which, that group has been impressive in their own right since arriving in Omaha, scoring 23 runs total in three wins against Texas, Texas Tech, and Florida, the last of which featured the Razorbacks scoring four runs in five innings against first-round pick Brady Singer.
As teeming as their batting order is with veterans like Carson Shaddy, Luke Bonfield, and Jared Gates, underclassmen have made as loud a statement as anyone else.
Freshman Casey Martin is 8-for-14 in three games, fellow freshman Heston Kjerstad went 3-for-5 in the first CWS game of his career, against Texas, including an RBI single in his first-ever CWS at-bat, and sophomore Dominic Fletcher is 8-for-16 in three games, including going 4-for-4 with a double, a homer, and four RBI against Texas Tech.
As far as pitching goes, the Arkansas starters haven’t been all that much more successful than OSU’s. Blaine Knight was solid but unspectacular against Texas, throwing five innings, giving up four hits and two runs with one walk and four strikeouts. Kacey Murphy provided more of the same against Texas Tech, throwing 4.2 innings, giving up two hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts.
Like OSU, to offset their top-line starters not getting deep into games, they’ve also gotten some help from the bullpen and an outstanding pitching performance that they might not have expected coming into the tournament.
The bullpen has been led by Barrett Loseke, who put in his best work against Texas Tech. Coming in for Knight in the fifth inning, immediately after an RBI double had plated two runs to get Tech back into the game, Loseke got a ground ball to get out of that inning, and then threw 2.2 more innings after that, giving up two hits and no runs with no walks and five strikeouts. This after he threw 1.2 scoreless innings against Texas two days prior.
Their surprising pitching performance came from Isaiah Campbell. He was a huge wildcard coming into his start against Florida on Friday night. As a member of the starting rotation all season long, he had flashed stuff that was consistently very good, but command that was anything but consistent. Earlier this season against Florida, in fact, Campbell could only get through one-plus inning, walking four Gators along the way, and in the regional against Dallas Baptist, he walked two DBU hitters in the first inning and didn’t end up recording so much as a single out.
This time around against Florida, however, it was a much different story. He threw 5.1 innings, giving up just two hits and two runs with no walks and eight strikeouts, nothing short of an outstanding outing when you consider his history this season, the weight of the moment, and the opponent.
From a pitching standpoint, with so much about their lead-up to the finals looking like a mirror image, the difference between OSU and Arkansas is how rested their starting pitchers are.
For the Beavers, Heimlich and Fehmel have already each started twice, and with starts in the championship series, will have started on traditionally short rest, although certainly not egregiously short rest, each time. And it’s not as if either of them will come into the week with a ton of momentum from their previous appearances. Even Abel, who only started the one game, has thrown starter’s innings, when you consider the four-inning relief appearance he logged earlier in the CWS, and once again, if he gets the ball in a hypothetical game three on Wednesday, it will be on short rest.
On the other side of the spectrum, each Arkansas starter has only thrown once, and Knight, in particular, will be well-rested. When he steps on the mound on Monday, it will have been eight days since he took the ball against Texas. Murphy, the presumed game two starter, will have pitched just six days prior, but that’s no less rest than any of OSU’s starting pitchers. Only a hypothetical Campbell start on four days rest in game three would be rest as short as what the Beavers will be dealing with, but if you assume that Abel would pitch opposite Campbell in that game, the Arkansas righty would have a one-day advantage in terms of rest.
It’s hard to imagine a matchup in the CWS finals that would provide the mirroring that Arkansas and Oregon State do. Each came into the season with high expectations, each met them throughout the season, both have been dominant for the most part this postseason, and from a team construction standpoint, each is led by a veteran offense that can put up runs in bunches against anyone.
In other words, it’s hard to imagine a more fun pairing to finish off another outstanding college baseball season.