Omaha, Neb. — Oregon State has won 109 of 127 baseball games over two seasons with mostly the same cast of players. They see winning a national championship as the only way to validate their body of work.
“Ultimately,” Beavers coach Pat Casey said Sunday, “nobody cares how many games you win unless you win the last one.”
Standing between Oregon State (53-11-1) and the title is Arkansas (47-19) in the best-of-three College World Series finals starting Monday.
The Beavers lost their CWS opener and staved off elimination four times to reach the finals for the first time since 2007, when they won the second of two straight championships.
The Razorbacks swept through their bracket in three games, knocking off defending champion and No. 1 overall seed Florida to make the finals for the first time in the best-of-three era. Arkansas was runner-up in 1979.
Oregon State showed up in Omaha last year as the No. 1 seed and with a 54-4 record, the highest winning percentage (.931) of any team entering the CWS since Texas came in 57-4 (.934) in 1982.
The Beavers won their first two games, then lost two straight to LSU in a shocking ending.
The Beavers have been on a redemption tour in 2018 with an everyday lineup including all but one player from last year and a pitching staff that returned two weekend starters.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is in awe of what the Pac-12’s Beavers have accomplished.
“To win that many ballgames, it’s almost amazing to me, because I how hard it is to win,” he said. “We talk about it all the time. How are they doing it? It’s not like they’re in Houston where they can just run down the street and grab players. They’re going all over the place and they’re doing it with kids from their region.”
The Razorbacks, previously in Omaha in 2015, have been ascending since going 26-29 and failing to make the NCAA Tournament in 2016. They lost in a regional final last year and now are in position to play for the title.
Like Oregon State, Arkansas has many of its key contributors back. The Razorbacks also have two of the best freshmen in the country in third baseman Casey Martin and left fielder Heston Kjerstad, who have combined for 27 home runs.
“After the 2015 season when we came to Omaha, we were a little bit on our high horse and we might not have worked as hard as we needed to,” Carson Shaddy said. “Just coming back after that and going through the worst has really put a lot of pressure on us to perform at our best, and that’s what happened the last two years to try to climb back where we need to be.”
Arkansas’ Blaine Knight (13-0) will start tonight, followed by Kacey Murphy (8-5) on Tuesday and Isaiah Campbell (5-6) if a game is necessary Wednesday.
Casey didn’t name a Game 1 starter. Ace Luke Heimlich (16-2) would be coming off four days of rest after not getting out of the third inning in either of his starts in Omaha.
Heimlich’s appearances at the CWS have drawn reaction on social media but little to none in the stadium, other than support from Beavers fans. Last year, he left the team before the CWS after it was revealed he had pleaded guilty to molesting a young relative when he was 15. The university allowed him to return to the team this year. He served two years of probation and went through a treatment program but denied wrongdoing in recent interviews with Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.
Another SEC champ?
Arkansas could become the fifth Southeastern Conference program to win the national championship since 2009.
“This is my 16th year in the SEC, and the league was the deepest it’s been,” Van Horn said. “You have Mississippi State this close to getting to the championship series and they came in fourth or fifth place in the Western Division. It definitely prepares you for just about anything that’s coming your way.”
Lots of Omaha-area fans are cheering for Van Horn, who was at Nebraska from 1998-2002. Before returning to his alma mater, Van Horn led the Cornhuskers on their best five-year run, including two CWSs.
“The five years I spent here were huge,” he said.
“I mean, we took that program from basically last place in the Big 12 and everybody kind of thought, ‘Hey, you’re just a football school, to very respectable.’ It was really hard to leave, just because of all the success. And there was only one place I would go, and that was Arkansas.”
Oregon State is batting .449 (35 of 78) with two outs, and 28 of its 47 RBIs have come with two outs.
“I would prefer that they would start that a little sooner before we get two outs,” Casey said.
College World Series
Championship series (Best-of-3)
Monday: Arkansas (47-19) vs. Oregon State (53-11-1), 7
Tuesday: Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 7
x-Wednesday: Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 7