OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Kevin Abel and Jake Mulholland made it look easy for Oregon State.
Until it wasn’t.
Abel turned in the Beavers’ best start of the College World Series and the usually reliable Mulholland came on in the eighth inning with a four-run lead and retired the first five batters he faced.
But Mississippi State proved to be no easy out this postseason and, suddenly, the Bulldogs were down three runs with the bases loaded and Jordan Westburg — founder of the team’s Rally Banana and hitter of a grand slam four days earlier — at the plate.
The Beavers could breathe again after Westburg grounded to shortstop Cadyn Grenier, who double-clutched before throwing to second to finish the 5-2 win that secured Oregon State’s spot in the best-of-three CWS finals against Arkansas.
“Mully is a drama queen. He likes to make things fun,” Abel said, drawing laughs. “We never doubted him. We know he’s been phenomenal all year coming in at the end of games when we’re up 10 runs or in a one-run ball game. He’s been lights out. And he got a little tired and made a couple of mistakes, but he got the job done.”
Abel and Mulholland combined on a four-hitter and Tyler Malone hit his third home run of the CWS as the Beavers cleared the hurdle they couldn’t last year when they brought a 56-4 record to Omaha but lost twice to LSU in the bracket final.
As they did in 2006, when they won the first of two straight national titles, the Beavers came back from losing their CWS opener to win four straight and make the finals.
“Our guys, you could see, were running on fumes,” OSU coach Pat Casey said.
Mississippi State played from behind in four of its eight wins in the NCAA Tournament and had made comebacks in 21 of its 39 wins this season. The Bulldogs’ head coach was fired, they were a sub-.500 team in late March, and they sneaked into the tournament as an at-large selection after sweeping SEC champion Florida to end the regular season.
There were three walk-off wins, and Westburg came up with the Rally Banana good-luck charm that spawned all kinds of memes and unified the team and fan base.
There was to be no rally Saturday, however, in what was their sixth elimination game since the regionals started.
Abel allowed three singles, walked three and struck out five in seven innings as Oregon State (53-11-1) held down Mississippi State’s offense for the second straight day. Beavers pitchers gave up five hits in a 12-2 win Friday that forced the Bracket 1 final rematch.
Mississippi State (39-29) mostly shut down an Oregon State offense that came into the game batting .377 and averaging 10.8 runs in four games in Omaha. All of the Beavers’ runs came in the third inning.
“If you told me we would throw up eight zeroes, I would have taken that. Certainly not the five-spot,” Bulldogs interim coach Gary Henderson said. “We really didn’t get to a spot we could solve Kevin Abel. Give the Beavers a lot of credit for their pitching the last two days.”
Five of the Beavers’ eight hits in the game came in succession in the third after Bulldogs starter Ethan Small (5-4) got two quick outs. Adley Rutschman and Michael Gretler had RBI singles before Malone’s three-run homer barely cleared the fence in right center.
Abel (6-1) retired the first six batters he faced, striking out three of them, and took a one-hitter into the fifth. A baserunning blunder by Jake Mangum got Abel off the hook in the fifth, and an inning-ending double play got him out of trouble in the sixth when the Bulldogs had runners on second and third with one out.
“I was extremely impressed with Kevin tonight,” said Rutschman, the catcher. “Just the strides he’s made over the season. 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 is, and just being a competitor out there. I was fortunate to be able to catch him and see him work tonight.”
TIME TO REMOVE INTERIM TAG?
Henderson took over as interim head coach after Andy Cannizaro was forced out because of off-field conduct and led the Bulldogs to the final four of the NCAA Tournament. Now Henderson waits to find out whether athletic director John Cohen will remove the interim tag and make him the permanent coach.
“Who wouldn’t want to be the baseball coach at Mississippi State?” Henderson said. “I do.”
He added: “It’s a wonderful group. I love my assistant coaches. We would love to continue what we started.”
Oregon State’s Nick Madrigal, the Chicago White Sox’s first-round draft pick, was 15 for 15 on stolen bases this season until catcher Dustin Skelton threw him out at second in the seventh inning. Madrigal got a good jump, but Skelton put his throw on a line to second baseman Hunter Stovall, who put the tag on in time on a close play.
Arkansas vs. Oregon State on Monday night in the opener of the best-of-three CWS finals. The Razorbacks are playing for their first national championship and will be appearing in a title game for the second time. They lost to Cal State Fullerton in 1979. Oregon State is in its third finals and going for its third championship.