OMAHA, Neb. –– In section 116, they were ready to party the way they never had after an Arkansas baseball game. Thousands of Razorback fans had one finger in the air. One more out. And then they’d really let loose.
“Looked like it was right there for us,” Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy would say later. Right there.
Oregon State’s Cadyn Grenier was at the plate, the tying runner in a 3-2 game at third base. He hit a pop-up foul heading down the right field line, with three Razorbacks converging on it. The thunder from the stands rose to a crescendo, anticipating that last, championship-clinching 27th out — and then the blessed dogpile to come.
But suddenly, the ball plopped on the dirt, uncaught. An 11th-hour, 59th-minute, 59th-second reprieve. Many of the Hog backers buried their faces in their hands, understanding the baseball gods had been tempted to change their minds. In the Oregon State dugout, they all were sure what would happen next.
“I watched the fielders kind of look at each other, I knew we had a chance,” Nick Madrigal said afterward. “Once it dropped. I made a comment to Adley (Rutschman), who was sitting next to me, `Watch, something’s going to happen now.’ When you get a second chance in baseball, usually something crazy happens.”
In the next locker over, teammate Steven Kwan concurred: “Baseball’s kind of poetic that way.”
Two minutes later, Grenier had singled in the tying run, Trevor Larnach had sent a two-run laser shot of a homer to right, and the Beavers had gone from a sad second place in the College World Series to forcing a winner-take-all game Thursday night. The ultimate survive and advance in a 5-3 win.
AN INSTANT CLASSIC.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 28, 2018
“We live,” Michael Gretler said in the Oregon State locker room, “to fight another day.”
It had to come to this, didn’t it? It had to go to the very limit. A team that will not die, in a College World Series that will not end, and a season that will never be easy. Not for any of them. Not even the champion, whomever it will be Thursday night.
What can be said about Oregon State? Down to its last at-bat, down to its chance, down to its last strike. This team that has won four consecutive elimination games in Omaha, eyeball-to-eyeball with extinction. Now, make that five.
“I’ve seen it for a while with this club and this program. Just that will to keep going,” coach Pat Casey said. “The character is off the chart.”
How could they possibly lose again, after such a comeback? It was a win to talk about forever in Corvallis, depending on Thursday night.
“We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves. We’re playing for each other. When you’re playing for your teammates, anything’s possible,” Gretler said. “The job’s not done yet. Everyone in here knows that.”
What can be said about Arkansas? Its first baseball national championship was close enough to taste, to smell, to touch. But it all seemed to . . . evaporate after that foul pop.
“What do you do?” coach Dave Van Horn said. “You got a chance to play for the national championship going down to the last day. Just gotta fight through it.”
How could the Razorbacks possibly recover, after such a stake to the heart? It was a loss to mourn forever in Fayetteville, depending on Thursday night.
While the massive Arkansas crowd stood in general disbelief afterward, and the Oregon State Beavers hugged in joyful deliverance, Van Horn gathered his shocked players in a huddle in shallow left field for a message.
“It was quick. It was just, ‘hey, we get to play one more game.’ And what more could you ask? You gotta move on, you can’t take it back, you know? It’s over. So get your head up and start getting your mind right, because it’s going to be tomorrow before you know it.”
The players listened. “We’re all ready to play,” Grant Koch said. “It’s one more day for us to be a Razorback . ., . one of two teams left standing on the last day of the College World Series. You can’t ask for much more.”
THE COMEBACK IS COMPLETE! pic.twitter.com/Em8t0aYLXi
— Oregon State Baseball (@BeaverBaseball) June 28, 2018
What can be said about this NCAA tournament? The super regionals were high drama, six of them going to the limit. It figured the College World Series should follow.
It took a lot to get there Wednesday night. It took the Oregon State bullpen’s brilliance again, picking up for ineffective starters. In two games against Arkansas, Beaver relievers have given up two runs in 11.2 innings, and struck out 22 — count ‘em — 22 Razorbacks.
It took Grenier’s brass, in dropping a bunt with the bases loaded to drive in a run in the fifth. “All I can say about that is learn to bunt kids, it’s important,” he said.
And Zak Taylor’s obstinacy, starting the ninth inning revival by working an eight-pitch walk against Arkansas closer Matt Cronin.
And Grenier’s poise, in answering that foul pop second chance with his season-saving single through the hole at short. “You have to give a lot of credit to him. That’s not an easy spot when the whole crowd is rooting against you and the pressure’s on,” Madrigal said.
“As soon as you see the ball drop, you have another life. And really all I thought was I just need to refocus and make the most of the extra life that we got,” Grenier said. “That’s all we can do. You take as . . . that’s a gift, and it’s a new life. And do what you can with it.”
It took Larnach’s sense for the jugular, immediately following that with his homer. His reaction when he hit it? “I just said `get going, get going,’ and it went. From there, I don’t really remember.”
Most of all, it took fickle fortune, when that pop went up, and came back down.
“I was running and didn’t hear anybody call it. So I just kept running and trying to make the play and overran it,” Shaddy said.
“A tough play . . , kind of that no-man’s land,” Van Horn said.
So much had to happen. So much.
“It takes everything to go your way to win a national championship,” Gretler said.
Now this College World Series has hit one final crossroads. Go one way, and Oregon State will have put on one of the great displays of resilience ever seen in this tournament. Go the other way, and Arkansas will always be admired for how quickly it repaired a torn psyche.
As Oregon State’s players were walking up the ramp to their clubhouse, they were all getting high-fives from mascot Benny Beaver. But that had to stop a minute, while two TD Ameritrade Park workers carried a table from the field. It had been there to hold the hardware for a victory ceremony that never happened.
It finally will Thursday.