Oregon State won 56 of its first 60 games in 2017, getting within one victory of reaching the College World Series finals, where a championship would help them lay claim to being the best college baseball team of all time. Then Louisiana State destroyed that dream by eliminating the Beavers with back-to-back defeats.
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Oregon State made its way back to Omaha again this June, only to lose its CWS opener against North Carolina. The Beavers rallied to win four straight games, putting themselves in position to win the national title that eluded them a year ago. They'll face an Arkansas team that has breezed through its CWS bracket, winning three straight games and eliminating defending champion Florida. The best-of-three series begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET.
"I think this year it really sinks in more," catcher Adley Rutschman said after Oregon State reached the finals with a win over Mississippi State on Saturday. "You have the opportunity to kind of take a step back and see it's kind of the route that we've taken, two years of hard work. Just to come up short last year and this year to lose the first game and just kind of see guys . . . who pitched quite a bit and pitchers coming in on sore arms, they're getting the job done, to me is phenomenal. And I just can't say enough how much I'm proud of the team and how far they've come. So it's a blessing just to be able to play for a national championship and play for the goal that we've had for the entire year for two years now."
Both teams are loaded with pro prospects. Playing for the third CWS championship in school history after winning consecutive titles in 2006-07, the No. 3 national seed Beavers (53-11) have a pair of 2018 first-round picks in second baseman Nick Madrigal (No. 4 overall, White Sox), the best hitter in this year's Draft as well as a plus runner and plus defender, and right fielder Trevor Larnach (No. 20 overall, Twins), who offers power, patience and arm strength. Cadyn Grenier, the best defensive college shortstop available, was a supplemental first-round choice of the Orioles.
Left-hander Luke Heimlich led NCAA Division I with a 0.76 ERA in 2017 and 16 wins this spring, and his ability to pinpoint a low-90s fastball and solid slider wherever he wants could have landed him in the top two rounds. But he has gone undrafted the last two years after news surfaced that he pled guilty in 2012 to a felony charge of molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was 15.
Rutschman, a sophomore who's batting .529 in Omaha with a CWS-best 10 RBIs, is an early contender to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 because of his switch-hitting ability, developing power, quality receiving and cannon arm. Freshman right-hander Kevin Abel has won both of his CWS starts (including the semifinal clincher against Mississippi State) and can flash three plus pitches, which could make him a first-rounder in 2020.
The No. 5 national seed Razorbacks (47-19) seek their first national title after reaching the finals just once previously, losing 2-1 to Cal State Fullerton in 1979. They ranked second among college programs with 11 players drafted in June, headlined by right-hander Blaine Knight (Orioles, third round), who has ridden a 90-97 mph fastball and mid-80s slider to a 13-0 record, including a CWS first-round win over Texas. Right fielder Eric Cole (Royals, fourth round) is a switch-hitter with the potential for average tools across the board, while catcher Grant Koch (Pirates, fifth round) has raw power and gets the job done behind the plate.
Despite all of that 2018 Draft talent, Arkansas' underclassmen are even more impressive. Left fielder Heston Kjerstad's power and third baseman Casey Martin's combination of pop, speed and versatility should carry them into the first round in 2020. Kjerstad set a school freshman record with 14 homers this year, while Martin has 13 and is tied for the CWS batting lead at .571.
Martin shares that batting lead with sophomore center fielder Dominic Fletcher, another possible first-rounder thanks to his power, speed and quality defense. The Razorbacks have two more youngsters with first-round upside in sophomore left-hander Matt Cronin, who throws 92-95 mph and could move into the rotation next year, and freshman right-hander Bryce Bonnin, who pairs a mid-90s fastball with a power slider.
"I definitely feel like our team is clicking right now," Cronin said after matching a school single-season mark with his 13th save in Friday's semifinal clincher against Florida. "We're doing well offensively and on the mound and on defense. And I think it's just the right time to get hot, and I feel like we have a great chance to make a run at this and win it."
Because Arkansas avoided the loser's bracket and required just three games to reach the finals compared to Oregon State's five, its pitching is set up well. Knight will pitch Tuesday's opener, followed by polished left-hander Kacey Murphy (Tigers, 11th round) on Wednesday and right-hander Isaiah Campbell (Angels, 24th round) if necessary on Thursday. Campbell can reach 98 mph and miss bats with his curveball and cutter/slider, which he did while striking out eight in 5 1/3 sharp innings against the Gators on Friday.
For the Beavers, Heimlich will start the opener, despite giving up nine runs over five innings in his first two CWS outings.
College World Series championship series schedule
Tuesday, June 26
Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 7 p.m. ET
Wednesday, June 27
Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 7 p.m. ET
Thursday, June 28
Arkansas vs. Oregon State, TBD (if necessary)