Adley Rutschman, Kevin Abel Form Legendary CWS Battery
OMAHA, Neb.—Don’t call Adley Rutschman a kicker. He’ll sneer, and then he’ll correct you.
Yes, he kicked field goals in high school, and, yes, he place-kicked for the Oregon State football team in 2016. But Rutschman has long had the heart and build of a linebacker. Just ask running back Christian McCaffrey—the former Stanford Cardinal turned Carolina Panther—whom Rutschman pinned to the ground on the 38-yard line as the last-ditch defender on a kickoff return two years ago.
That was Rutchman’s last great tackle—at least until Thursday night, in the dwindling twilight, on a baseball field in Omaha.
A tackle to seal a national championship.
It happened just how Rutschman had dreamed it would, on a strikeout, his catcher’s mitt closing around the baseball as the batter stood frozen. Rutschman leaped to his feet, ripped off his mask and charged like Lawrence Taylor toward an opposing quarterback. He wrapped both arms around Kevin Abel and pushed him back four, maybe five, yards before knocking him to the grass and pinning him there, as body after body after body piled on top of them.
“I was just trying to get Kevin to the ground safely,” he said of the dogpile afterward, grinning. “Obviously I'm going to put a little form into it, if I can. You know, gotta show the football side a little bit, even though I'm a washed-up vet.”
Added Abel, laughing: “I haven’t taken a hit like that since eighth grade.”
How appropriate it was that Rutschman and Abel formed the bottom blocks of that Oregon State pyramid, after the Beavers defeated Arkansas, 5-0. How fitting that the game’s final seconds were as simple and pure as Abel quarterbacking a perfectly placed ball to his star receiver.
The Beavers could not have won the 2018 College World Series without Rutschman, and they could not have won without Abel. On a team that has won 111 games between the last two seasons and produced three first-round draft picks just this June, it was a sophomore catcher and a freshman righthander that proved indispensable in Omaha. That battery, together and individually, reached heights greater than any TD Ameritrade Park has ever seen.
A day after earning his third win of the CWS in a 23-pitch relief outing, Abel hurled a 129-pitch two-hitter against an Arkansas team that boasts one of the most powerful lineups in the country. Using a low-90s fastball, a devastating low-80s changeup and a biting upper-70s curveball, Abel retired the last 20 batters he faced. He struck out 10 and walked just two. He became the first pitcher in College World Series history to win four games. No other pitcher has ever won two games in the same three-game final.
Meanwhile, Rutschman, Abel’s switch-hitting batterymate, shattered a CWS record by recording his 15th, 16th and 17th hits of the Series. He drove in his CWS-leading 13th run with a single in the first inning, supplying Abel with a lead he’d never relinquish and matching the second-highest RBI total in CWS history.
The statistics are video game-like; the list of broken records pages long.
In eight games, Rutschman went 17-for-30 (.567)—8-for-13 in the finals alone—homering twice, knocking two doubles and reaching base at a 65-percent clip, all while playing elite defense behind the dish. He was an easy choice for the College World Series’ most outstanding player.
“You just look back at our come-from-behind wins in the elimination games, and he was always right there in a big key at-bat,” junior shortstop Cadyn Grenier said. “And you look at it again today, and he was coming up big. He’s been a rock behind the plate all year, and for him to come here and catch, I don’t know how many games straight in Omaha, it just speaks to his character.”
On the mound, stunningly, Oregon State didn’t receive a single quality start from the six combined outings starters Luke Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel made. But Abel filled that vacuum with alarming success, leading the CWS with 21 innings pitched and going 4-0, 0.86—allowing just two runs on seven hits and striking out 23 to seven walks. His 10 scoreless innings in the finals set yet another CWS record.
All of that for a freshman who could barely find the strike zone in the first half of the season. He spoke after his win in the semifinals against Mississippi State about how incorporating meditation into his pregame routine was essential in building up his confidence—and that showed clearly Thursday night.
Head coach Pat Casey said the plan going into the contest was to limit Abel to four or five innings. But after working out of a one-out, bases loaded jam in the third inning, Abel simply never relented. The Beavers maintained steady activity in their bullpen with the intent to pull Abel the second he allowed a baserunner or got into a trouble.
He never did.
“Abel just kept coming in saying, ‘This is the easiest I've ever thrown.The ball's just coming out of my hand. I'm relaxed. Loose. I have no stress,’” Casey said. “I just looked at the guy and I said, ‘I know I should be taking you out of the game, but how can I do that?’”
There’s nothing remotely flukish about either batterymate’s performance. Abel drew pro interest out of high school, and though only a freshman, he has all of the makings of a future first-rounder. His changeup already grades as plus. His curveball flashes above-average. He’ll touch 92-93 mph with his fastball, with cutting action, and he has room to grow into more velocity.
Rutschman, after a .408/.505/.628 regular season and a CWS MOP award, could very well be the leading candidate to go No. 1 overall in next year’s draft.
“He is what championship-caliber programs are built around,” said an area scout based in the Northwest. “He’s the whole package—a plus hitter from both sides of the plate who plays above-average defensive up the middle. He can impact the game on both sides of the ball. He’s a natural leader on and off the field. What more could you ask for?”
With their combination of pure talent and record-smashing achievements, the case could be made that Rutschman and Abel are the best battery to take the field in Omaha. Certainly, the best at TD Ameritrade Park, which opened in 2011.
North Carolina First Baseman Aaron Sabato Joins The College Podcast
UNC first baseman Aaron Sabato joins us to talk about the Tar Heels and his preparation for the 2020 season.
Yet despite their heroics, Rutschman and Abel displayed the utmost humility in the moments after they hoisted the national championship trophy. Good luck trying to get them to gloat about themselves.
They will, however, gush about each other.
When Abel suggested he didn’t have feel for his breaking ball in the post-game press conference Thursday, Rutschman shook his head, tearing up as he interrupted him.
“This guy went nine innings, complete-game shutout in the biggest game of the year, and he said he didn’t have his best stuff,” Rutschman said, voice breaking ever so slightly. “I’m just baffled right now. Shows how good he’s going to be.”
Abel was just as effusive about his catcher.
“He steals strikes better than anyone. He probably stole about 25 for me tonight,” Abel said. “And he was phenomenal. Kept the ball in front of him. He's just unreal. He's very calm. He has really matured (too), just being able to come calm us down and talk to us and help us through tough situations.
“And then he just rakes, he hits the ball, doesn't matter who it is, what side of the plate, he just hits. He's been a big spark for us this year. I've never seen anything like that.”
Neither has anyone else. From either of them.
“It was pretty special,” Casey said, as he tried to think of another battery that came anywhere close. “I can tell you Jonah Nickerson was a warrior here in 2006. I know he shut out Rice and he got us our first win ever in the College World Series in 2006 against Georgia. Mitch Canham was the catcher, ended up being a first-rounder.
“But what (Rutschman and Abel) did here was—it will be remembered for a long time.”
So will the tackle.