The College World Series has a proclivity for chaos, which makes this next sentence less common than you might think: The two best college baseball teams in the country will play for a national championship this week in Omaha. Oregon State and Arkansas both earned top-five national seeds and lost just once on their way through the NCAA tournament, recovering quickly to advance through the bracket as the postseason’s most surprising teams eventually ran out of magic.
Arkansas sealed its spot in the final best-of-three series with a perfect 3-0 week on its side of the eight-team CWS bracket, capped off by a 5–2 win over consensus No. 1 Florida, as the Gators’ inconsistent month caught up with them at last. Oregon State prevented a second consecutive all-SEC final by beating red-hot Mississippi State twice on Friday and Saturday, ending the Bulldogs’ Cinderella run.
One way or another, history will be made over the next three days. The Razorbacks have a chance at the school’s first national title in baseball; the Beavers can become the first program to win three since 2000. Any one of the factors below might make the difference.
TD Ameritrade Park has been decidedly hitter-friendly this year, with at least 14 runs scored in seven of the 13 games played so far. Expect another shootout or two in the championship series, which pits two of the 18 Division I teams that hit .300 or better this season.
Of the two loaded lineups, the Razorbacks have a little more pop, with 98 home runs this year (tied for third nationally) and 14 in nine postseason games. Four Arkansas players hit double-digit dingers during the regular season, and centerfielder Dominic Fletcher has now joined them after going deep in back-to-back wins that knocked out Texas Tech and Florida. But the engine of the Razorbacks’ lineup is their pair of freshman All-America selections, third baseman Casey Martin and leftfielder Heston Kjerstad, who have combined for 12 hits in three games.
The Beavers clawed their way through the loser’s bracket with only the limited services of star centerfielder and leadoff hitter Steven Kwan, who injured his hamstring in their first elimination game and has entered as a pinch-hitter in both wins over Mississippi State. In his absence from the starting lineup, all Oregon State has done is score 42 runs in four games. Even more demoralizing to opposing pitchers is the way this offense heats up once it smells blood: The Beavers scored at least four runs in eight different half-innings during that four-game stretch. The 3-4-5 stretch of this order—No. 4 MLB draft pick Nick Madrigal, team home runs leader Trevor Larnach and catcher Adley Rutschman—is as good as any in the nation, and Tyler Malone has hit three home runs since entering as a pinch-hitter against Washington last Monday.
Oregon State found itself in an unfamiliar position twice during the first week of its stay in Omaha: bailing out Luke Heimlich. The Beavers’ ace—who led the nation with a ridiculous 0.76 ERA in 2017 and is 16–2 this year with 154 strikeouts in 20 games—has failed to make it out of the third inning in both of his CWS appearances. (His second start came on short rest, but blowing a 3–0 lead also played a role in the early hook.) All eyes were already going to be on Heimlich, whose status on the team has been a topic of flashpoint for controversy since it was revealed last year that he pled guilty in 2012 to a felony charge of molesting his six-year-old niece, but until last week his sterling play had been the constant.
Arkansas has a level of starting pitching depth that the Beavers haven’t yet dealt with this postseason. Junior righthander Blaine Knight is 13–0 with a 2.88 ERA in his 18 starts this season and redshirt sophomore righty Isaiah Campbell retired the first 14 hitters he faced and finished with eight strikeouts to silence Florida’s explosive lineup on Friday night.
Neither team has had to white-knuckle a ninth-inning lead since the tournament’s opening weekend, but with so much rally potential on both sides, it wouldn't be a shock to see at least one closer under duress this week. Arkansas sophomore Matt Cronin (13 saves) rebounded from a shaky appearance with a five-run cushion against Texas Tech to turn in two scoreless closeout innings against Florida, and Oregon State’s Jake Mulholland (15 saves) has allowed just four hits in six CWS innings.
Soft factors and miscellany
The Beavers know they were the best team in the country last year and blew a shot at history by getting swept out of Omaha by LSU, scoring just one run in their final two losses as the bats of a 56-win squad went quiet at the worst time. The sense of unfinished business has simplified head coach Pat Casey’s job in keeping this year’s team focused, and its killer instinct has been on full display as the Beavers moved through the loser’s bracket.
As for Arkansas, it has the best name still standing: shortstop Jax Biggers. After pacing the Razorbacks and all SEC shortstops with a .338 average in 2017, Biggers has turned in some timely hits from the bottom of the order as the stakes have risen this season.
Arkansas in three. Kwan’s availability is a huge question mark—Casey expressed some regret about even using him as a pinch-hitter in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State. Combine that uncertainty with a wobbly week for Oregon State’s best arms, and it’s hard to see how the Beavers keep pace with a Razorbacks team that seems like it hasn’t blinked in a month.