Tempered by pain: Razorbacks had memorable 2018 CWS run with stinging end

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, June 21, 2020
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn motions toward an umpire before making a pitching change during the College World Series championship game Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn motions toward an umpire before making a pitching change during the College World Series championship game Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The 2018 Razorbacks might be the best baseball team ever assembled at the University of Arkansas.

Coach Dave Van Horn's roster was a nice blend of veterans and high-impact freshmen, plus power and speed and the ability to hit for average up and down the lineup.

Those Razorbacks were one well-defended foul pop away from claiming the school's first national championship in baseball. Oregon State's eventual rally in Game 2 of the three-game final at the College World Series and subsequent 5-0 blanking in the finale were painful for Razorback fans, but those final 10 innings in Omaha do not take away from what was likely the most loaded roster in school history and the fun that bunch had blasting through the season.

"Yeah, what a fun team to be around," Van Horn told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this month. "We felt like we were going to have a very experienced team, a bunch of guys that knew each other, and we knew the camaraderie was good and that the locker room was going to be good. We knew we were going to have a really good season."

Van Horn said the staff -- led by pitching coach Wes Johnson and hitting coach Nate Thompson -- could feel it in fall scrimmages and preseason practice. Confidence and talent could be found in abundance.

Junior pitcher Blaine Knight, who had been draft eligible, announced his return not long after the Razorbacks fell to Missouri State in the 2017 NCAA Fayetteville Regional final. Soon, seniors Luke Bonfield and Carson Shaddy said they'd return, adding a steely, veteran backbone to the potent lineup.

Junior position players like Grant Koch, Eric Cole and Jax Biggers had been through the SEC wars and knew the ropes. Sophomore outfielder Dominic Fletcher was a plus player in the field and at the plate. He led the young guard, which featured newcomers Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, who put up tandem freshmen seasons like few before them.

Jared Gates and Jordan McFarland split time at first base, while Evan Lee, Hunter Wilson, Jack Kenley and Casey Opitz played key reserve roles.

Knight would post the first 14-0 record at Arkansas, leading a starting staff of Kacey Murphy, Isaiah Campbell, Caleb Bolden, Kole Ramage and a few others.

Matt Cronin set the school record with 14 saves as the left-handed ace of a sharp bullpen that also featured Barrett Loseke, Jake Reindl, Cody Scroggins, Ramage, Lee and Zebulon Vermillion.

"You could just tell the team was extremely confident," Van Horn said. "They were talking amongst themselves, because we don't mention it a whole lot, but they were talking about not only getting to Omaha, but winning the national championship."

The Razorbacks went 19-11 in SEC play, tying Ole Miss for the SEC Western Division title. They knocked off No. 5 South Carolina (13-8) and No. 1 Florida (8-2) in the SEC Tournament before being eliminated by No. 8 LSU (2-1) in Hoover, Ala.

Arkansas won the opener with Knight on the mound in four of its five SEC road series -- at No. 2 Florida, No. 4 Ole Miss, LSU and No. 13 Georgia -- but lost each of those series, and was swept at Mississippi State.

Home games at Baum Stadium were another story.

The Razorbacks posted home sweeps of Kentucky, Auburn, Alabama and No. 20 Texas A&M en route to a school-best 35-5 home record.

"We played an incredibly tough schedule," Van Horn said. "And we didn't ... finish up series on the road very well, but we kept finding ways to win. We swept some teams at home and had an incredible record here at Baum-Walker Stadium."

Martin, who led the team with a .345 batting average and eight stolen bases, said it was probably the most fun year of his life and in baseball.

"It was a blast," he said. "It was like we had no worries. We could just go out there and be kids again.

"With the talent we had, it just made it so much easier just to go out there and play the game instead of stressing or worrying about the outcome. I think that's what made us so successful. Plus we had a good team chemistry, and that's what makes up ... great teams."

Arkansas powered through its home regional with consecutive victories over Oral Roberts and Southern Miss by identical 10-2 scores, then a 4-3 squeaker over Dallas Baptist.

The Hogs were paired with tricky South Carolina, the only SEC team to win at Baum Stadium in the regular season, in the NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional.

The teams split the first two games. Arkansas won the opener 9-3 to improve to 14-3 in games started by Knight, and the Gamecocks prevailed 8-5 in the second.

The Razorbacks then racked up a 14-4 victory in the finale. Cronin closed out a clean ninth inning and the Hogs piled up around the mound to celebrate their ninth trip to the College World Series.

"I think we've handled the expectations well," Shaddy said that day. "This is a really talented team and we know how good we are. We like the expectation because it makes us play better. I'm so happy for my brothers and excited everyone is getting to experience this like I did my freshman year."

Two-year anniversary

Two years ago today, these 2018 Razorbacks were about halfway through what turned into an epic run at the College World Series.

Arkansas started 4-0 in the CWS, and the fun began with an 11-5 rout of Texas, the Hogs' one-time nemesis in the Southwest Conference.

Arkansas had already downed the Longhorns 13-4 and 7-5 in mid-March at Baum Stadium. The second game of that series was intense -- it featured Cronin flashing the 'Horns Down sign while coming off the mound in a pique of jubilation -- but it did not hold the gravity of the meeting in Omaha.

The Razorbacks turned their 3-2 lead into a rout with an eight-run sixth inning against six Longhorn pitchers, four of whom did not record an out. Ten consecutive Razorbacks reached base on both sides of a 2-hour, 49-minute weather delay.

Rain and thunderstorms delayed or pushed back almost every Arkansas game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., on that trip, but the Razorbacks kept plugging away, enduring the delays with professional ease.

"We'd just joke around, goof around, just staying loose," Martin said of the numerous delays. "We never really kept it that serious. I mean it was serious, but we kept it loose and we had fun with it, which I think really helped us get a lot of the jitters out, which is why we made such a long run."

"We did a great job in that first rain delay against Texas," Van Horn said. "I think we had already had a little rally going when it hit. We came back out and got a big hit and there we were."

Five consecutive Razorbacks got on base prior to the weather delay, and five more reached in order after the delay.

"It was awesome," said Fletcher, who had a two-run single in the big inning after the delay. "We had two walks right before the rain delay, then we came out and just pounded a bunch of hits in a row."

A highlight came in the fifth inning with Texas leading 2-1. Kjerstad, who was 3 for 5 with 2 runs scored and 3 RBI, beat out a double play throw to first base which would have ended the inning and possibly made a move toward second base when the throw went awry.

The Longhorns quickly retrieved the ball as Kjerstad hustled back to first base. When he arrived, first baseman Jake McKenzie was occupying the bag. Kjerstad bumped into him with some power, knocking McKenzie to the ground and riling Texas second baseman Kody Clemens, son of Roger Clemens, the ex-Texas star and seven-time Cy Young Award winner.

"You can watch the replay and [Kjerstad] didn't do anything on purpose," Van Horn said. "He's a big kid, running down the line. You've got a first baseman who's not as big as Heston, who was probably a little off balance when Heston hit him. I don't think he hit him as hard as it looked."

Arkansas fans, who traveled to Omaha in droves, loved it.

"To be in that stadium and there's like 28,000 fans and 25,000 of them are wearing Arkansas red, that was unreal," Kjerstad said.

The winner's bracket game against Texas Tech, another former Southwest Conference rival the Razorbacks had beaten earlier in the year, was delayed a day by severe weather. Arkansas bolted to a 5-0 lead and won 7-4 behind Murphy. Fletcher went 4 for 4 with a home run and a double, and Gates also homered. Cole and Martin both had two hits and ignited a 2-run first with a single and a double.

That victory set up a rematch with Florida, the defending national champion.

The Gators turned to sophomore ace Brady Singer, whom the Razorbacks had raked for 8 runs in 1-plus innings at the 2017 SEC Tournament. Arkansas would counter with sophomore right-hander Isaiah Campbell, who had a disastrous start against the Gators early in the conference season but was coming on strong with a solid start in the super regional clincher.

"Going into the Florida game, we were super confident with who we had on the mound," Martin said. "Zay had an up-and-down year that whole year, but man, what a hell of a game he threw right there. Probably his best game of that entire year. He was dominant. He was elite. He was a big-league pitcher."

Campbell (5-6) had a perfect game through four innings.

"Isaiah Campbell, that was kind of his coming-out party, so to speak," Van Horn said. "He was incredibly good that day. You could just see it coming."

Campbell struck out 8 and allowed a pair of runs on 2 hits and no walks through 5 1/3 innings.

Facing the Beavers

Oregon State entered the season ranked No. 1 with sky-high expectations under Coach Pat Casey, who had led the Beavers to back-to-back national titles in 2006-07. They opened the season 13-0 and 20-1 and blasted through the Pac-12 with a 20-9-1 record.

Oregon State entered the playoffs seeded No. 3 and after an 8-6 loss to North Carolina in their CWS opener, won four consecutive games, including 12-2 and 5-2 over Mississippi State in the bracket finals, to reach the Razorbacks.

"When you look at the Oregon State series and you look at where their players were drafted ... and they were preseason No. 1 in a lot of polls, we knew we were going to have to play probably a perfect series to win it," Van Horn said.

Shaddy's take on the final: "I cannot wait to hear that Hog call. It's going to be so freaking loud."

Oregon State was led by switch-hitting catcher Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles after the 2019 season, and right fielder Trevor Larnach, flanked by quality talent all over the diamond. The Beavers entered the final series with a .323 batting average, third-best in the country.

Oregon State benefited from yet another projected storm, which caused a one-day delay to open the best-of-3 final series.

Knight would be working on seven day's rest to start the finals, followed by Murphy and Campbell. Knight recognized the Beavers' lineup as a difficult one.

"Look at what they've been doing all year long and what they've done right here so far in the College World Series," Knight said. "They can swing it. Their 1 through 5 [hitters] are really dangerous and the bottom half is really, really good. We've got our work cut out for us, but I think we can handle it."

Knight certainly could. He handcuffed the Beavers on seven hits in a 4-1 victory that wrapped up his pristine 14-0 season.

Arkansas scored only in the fifth inning, knocking out ace left-hander Luke Heimlich (16-3) in the inning. Freshman lefty Christian Chamberlain shut the Razorbacks out for 4 2/3 innings on 2 hits with 11 strikeouts.

The Razorbacks chose to close with Cronin, who threw 15 pitches and struck out two in the ninth.

"Probably what really hurt us in that game was we had a chance to score a few more runs and we wouldn't have had to throw Matt Cronin late in that game," Van Horn said. "We didn't want to, but we couldn't let that game slip away. It was just too tight of a game, and they're so explosive."

Game 2, pitting Murphy against Oregon State right-hander Bryce Fehmel, was tight throughout.

Arkansas went up 1-0 in the second inning when Gates was hit by a pitch and scored on a wild pitch. Fehmel was pulled after walking Kjerstad to open the third, but reliever Brandon Eisert struck out the side. Rutschman's home run tied it 1-1 in the fourth inning.

Cadyn Grenier's bases-loaded bunt single off Reindl gave Oregon State a 2-1 lead with one out in the fifth inning and the bases loaded. Ramage came on to strike out Larnach and get Rutschman on a ground ball to first.

Bonfield and Shaddy had RBI singles in the fifth inning to score Martin and Kjerstad, who also singled, to give Arkansas a 3-2 lead.

That score held steady, thanks to quality work from Ramage and Loseke out of Arkansas' bullpen.

Oregon State freshman Kevin Abel struck out the side in the Arkansas eighth to set up the most dramatic half-inning of the series.

Eight-hole hitter Zak Taylor drew a full-count walk off Cronin to open the ninth. Casey called a sacrifice bunt to move pinch-runner Zach Clayton to second base. When Cronin retired leadoff man Nick Madrigal on a bouncer to first base, the Razorbacks were one out away from the title.

Cronin got ahead of Grenier 1-2 and induced a twisting foul pop down the right-field line on a 2-2 delivery. Cole in right field, Shaddy at second base and Gates at first converged on the ball, but Shaddy over-ran it and it fell to the turf as Razorback fans gasped and the Beavers breathed a sigh of relief.

"When it left the bat, from our dugout, it looked like it was in the seats," Van Horn recalled. "I think the wind pushed it back. You know, our right fielder got a bad break on the ball. Our second baseman, we had him playing more up the middle, because the hitter at the plate, the scouting report was pull on the ground and when he hits the ball in the outfield, it usually goes to the opposite field.

"So we pretty much had everybody where they needed to be, and obviously the ball blew back in and it dropped between my right fielder and my second baseman. My first baseman had no shot at that ball. It's not his ball. It was a tough play. We still just needed one more strike and we win the game."

Cronin, working on back-to-back days, left a manageable pitch in the zone and Grenier slashed it into left field to tie the game. Larnach blasted a two-run home run over the right-field wall on a 2-0 pitch moments later to stun the Razorbacks.

During postgame interviews, Arkansas players vowed to compete and give themselves a shot at the championship the following night. But an emotional switch had been flipped.

Abel, who had thrown 23 pitches in Game 2, befuddled the Razorbacks with a complete-game 2-hitter on 129 pitches to notch a 5-0 victory in the finale.

The deflating loss hurt all the more for how close the Razorbacks had come to taking the series in a two-game sweep.

"Man, that was unreal to come into Omaha and do damage like that," said Kjerstad, who was taken by the Orioles with the No. 2 pick of the draft earlier this month. "While I was in that moment and we were there, I didn't really realize the feat of everything we'd done and how hard it was to accomplish it.

"Then, looking back, you kind of understand it better. Like, wow, that was an impressive team. The way we went in there and clinched our path to the finals was really awesome."

Oregon State's pitchers ruled the series after Arkansas took the 3-2 lead on Shaddy's fifth inning single that brought home Kjerstad in Game 2.

"We didn't score, I don't think, after the fifth inning of the second game," Van Horn said. "Their pitching staff was incredible and they proved it. You know it was a tough loss, but what a great season. What a great bunch of guys, and something that they'll remember the rest of their lives.

"The game of baseball, maybe it's a cliche, but it's a lot like life. It's up and down. I think we learned a lot from that."

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