OMAHA, Neb. — Arkansas didn’t hit much against Luke Heimlich and Christian Chamberlain in Game 1 of the College World Series finals. In fact, the Razorbacks struck out 16 times.
Somehow, some way, they sit on the cusp of their first national championship in baseball after beating Oregon State 4-1 Tuesday night.
They capitalized against a faltering Heimlich in a four-run fifth inning, got a strong start from Blaine Knight with shutdown relief pitching and mixed in a few big defensive plays. That enabled the Razorbacks to win on a night when they mustered just five hits.
“I feel fortunate to win the game,” Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said. “Baseball is a little different game sometimes, and you have eight innings where you don’t do much and you put together one inning. You pitch good enough and play defense, you can win. That’s kind of what went on tonight.”
The finals opener, delayed a day because of rain, seemed to have a little bit of everything — a fly ball lost in the sun that went for a ground-rule double, a runner interference call against Oregon State and an overturned foul call on a ball hit down the right-field line.
Nothing turned the game more than the sudden collapse of Heimlich.
“He started to lose it,” OSU coach Pat Casey said. “He didn’t throw the ball where he needed to. He’d been real good all year long, and certainly really struggled in that inning.”
After failing to get out of the third inning in both of his previous CWS starts, the Beavers’ ace was in full command while striking out five and limiting the Razorbacks (48-19) to one hit through four innings.
In the fifth, though, the senior left-hander issued a walk and hit two batters.
“He lost command of his fastball a little bit and was out of the zone, so as hitters we’re all just trying to be patient, see him in the zone, and he ended up also missing his spots a few times,” Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad said. “That equaled a few more runs for us.”
Arkansas starter Blaine Knight (14-0) went back to the mound with a 4-1 lead, pitched another inning and left having allowed seven hits with six strikeouts. Barrett Loseke and Matt Cronin combined to pitch three scoreless innings of relief.
Michael Gretler’s base hit in the second put Oregon State (53-12-1) up 1-0. The Beavers looked ready to add to the lead when Kjerstad lost Trevor Larnach’s fly in the sun and it bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double.
Adley Rutschman was on first and Larnach on third when Tyler Malone grounded to first and Jared Gates threw to second to start a double-play attempt. Rutschman ducked as he approached the bag — rather than sliding or peeling off away from the play — and was called for interfering with shortstop Jax Biggers. It was ruled a double play, Larnach was ordered back to third base, and Knight struck out Gretler to end the inning.
“It appeared Rutsch was doing everything he could to get out of the way,” Casey said. “The ball left the guy’s hand. They weren’t near one another, so I don’t agree with the call. We had that run taken off the board right there, so that makes it tough.”
The play seemed to swing the momentum Arkansas’ way.
Heimlich (16-3) issued a walk and gave up back-to-back singles for the Razorbacks’ first run in the fifth. Heimlich then hit two straight batters to bring home another run. Arkansas extended its lead to 3-1 after second baseman Nick Madrigal’s bobble trying to throw to second on a grounder.
Christian Chamberlain replaced Heimlich and walked the first batter he faced, making it 4-1. Chamberlain struck out 11 in 4 2/3 innings but also walked five.
Oregon State is in the same position it was in back in 2006 when it won its first title. The Beavers lost their CWS opener and lost Game 1 of the finals against North Carolina before winning the last two. They also are the first team since 2010 to make the finals after losing their first game in Omaha.
“We have to come out tomorrow with more of an edge,” Rutschman said. “There’s something about facing elimination that you can’t really explain. I hope we come with fire and energy tomorrow.”
Heimlich’s first two appearances in Omaha didn’t draw much reaction from the crowd other than cheers from Oregon State supporters. That was mostly the case again Tuesday, though there were scattered boos when he was introduced before the game and a woman behind the Arkansas dugout stood and gave a thumbs-down with her right hand.
Last year, Heimlich left the team before the CWS when it was revealed he had pleaded guilty to molesting a young relative when he was 15. The university allowed him to return to the team this year. He served two years of probation and went through a treatment program but denied wrongdoing in recent interviews with Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.
Game 2 is Wednesday. The winner of Game 1 has won 11 of the 15 finals since the best-of-three format began in 2003.