Beavers' Abel ready to strike out competition on the mound
CORVALLIS — Life hasn't changed all that much for Kevin Abel since he set the college baseball world on its ears last June in Omaha, Nebraska.
All the freshman right-hander did was win four games in pitching Oregon State to the College World Series championship — an unprecedented feat in a tournament that had been held for 72 years.
"A lot more people know my name, but from a baseball standpoint, nothing has changed," says Abel, who opened practice Friday with his OSU teammates to begin preparation for the Feb. 15 season opener against New Mexico at Surprise, Arizona. "I'm still trying to get better every day. It's about anything I can to help the team and to go about my business as I did before."
So he hasn't gotten a swelled head over his accomplishment?
"Well, if you ask my mom, she might say something different," Abel quips.
In at least one way, it will be a different Kevin Abel as he toes the mound to begin his sophomore campaign. Through a summer and fall of strength and conditioning, the 6-foot San Diego native has gained "about 13 pounds" to a chiseled 195.
"My body feels better than it ever has," he says. Being a little bigger "has taken some getting used to, but I feel great. I recover a lot faster now and feel stronger on the mound and just in general."
OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie shut down Abel from pitching during the summer and fall to rest the arm and "give my body a break," Abel says. "I eased back into throwing during the fall, starting with some really light stuff, then working to long toss and strengthening my arm and getting my body conditioned to have a better season this year and compete a little more than I did last year."
It's hard to believe Abel started only seven games all season — four during the regular season, once against LSU in a 12-0 Super Regional win and twice during the College World Series. Abel came to Corvallis after going 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA, striking out 120 in 81 1/3 innings as a senior at Madison High.
"I'd never seen a kid come in with such high expectations, perform below those expectations because he put so much pressure on himself to perform, and then really find himself and become who he thought he could be," Yeskie says. "The timing of it was cinematic. Kevin had a flair for the dramatic."
It took Abel nearly the entire season to crack the starting rotation.
"For a while, there was that high school thing, where he felt he had to strike everybody out," OSU head coach Pat Bailey says. "Then Kevin realized it wasn't quite that important, and that he had a good defense behind him."
Yeskie recalls a conversation with Abel's mother, Carrie, after Kevin had pitched superbly in a 4-3 nonconference win over Oregon on May 1, allowing one hit over 6 1/3 shutout innings.
"I think he's starting to turn a corner," Yeskie told Kevin's mother. "He just went at guys, which was a big step in his development."
"Don't forget that a lot of times in high school, if you don't take the bull by the horns and strike people out, who knows how they play behind you defensively?" she answered.
"Once we convinced him, 'If you throw it over, we have eight guys who will do a good job behind you,' and he started seeing those plays made, he slowed the thing down and the pieces fell into place," Yeskie says.
Abel calls it a "maturity thing."
"You go from being a guy who didn't get hit a whole lot," he says. "On every high school team in San Diego, there was at least one, if not a handful of guys, who were Division I or draft prospects on every team. But it's still not the same as a college lineup, where one through nine in the order, everyone can do some damage.
"For me, it was about focus and understanding what my role was and my strengths were and using that to the best of my ability."
It all came to a head in Omaha, where he was at his best when the chips were down against Arkansas. Abel hurled a two-hit, 129-pitch gem, striking out 10 with two walks in a 5-0 victory. No pitcher had thrown a complete-game two-hit shutout in a CWS championship game.
OSU catcher Adley Rutschman, who had 17 hits and 13 RBIs in the eight games, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
"They should have a Most Valuable Player and a Most Valuable Pitcher," Bailey says. "Kevin should have gotten a 'most valuable' award, and Adley deserved one as well."
Abel finished the season with an 8-1 record and 2.88 ERA, striking out 108 in 81 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .181 batting average in 23 appearances. He was named National Freshman of the Year by Baseball America and D1Baseball.com.
"Kevin can beat you in a variety of ways," Yeskie says. "He's really mature. This year, he will have a better identity of who he is, of how to assist those around him, how to help them improve at their game.
"When you start factoring in all of the positive qualities he possesses as a teammate, it makes it much easier for him to just go out and play the game."
Yeskie arrived at OSU in 2009, when Jorge Reyes was a junior. As a freshman in 2007, Reyes had earned the Most Outstanding Player Award in pitching the Beavers to the CWS title.
"The next year, he felt like he had to be the 'MVP Jorge' every pitch, day in and day out," Yeskie says. "He put some pressure on himself to perform.
"I shared that perspective with Kevin. If people expect you to throw a two-hit shutout every time, that's unrealistic. I want him to focus on what he can control. That's going to breed more consistency for him as well as his team, and he'll do a better job of leading by example."
Abel says his biggest personal goal is to show more consistency, taking a cue from Luke Heimlich, who went 27-4 during his last two seasons in a Beaver uniform, including a remarkable 16-3 in 2018.
"Luke was Mr. Consistent for two years, if not the best pitcher in college baseball," Abel says. "He was a guy who showed up, day in and day out. He had eight or nine starts with 10-plus strikeouts. When he pitched, you knew what you were getting.
"I aspire to do that. I'm not worried about numbers or my record. It's about being consistent and being the best pitcher I can be. On the days I pitch, I want the guys to know what they're going to get out of me."
The Beavers lost six starters among position players from last year's national championship club. But they return Rutschman and all but Heimlich from one of the nation's best pitching staffs of a year ago.
"This team can be just as good as any," Abel says. "We may not post the hitting numbers. but this team is going to fight. The main thing we're focused on is being together. It's going to take all of us. We know what our strengths and weaknesses are.
"There's a lot of talent here that people don't know about — guys who have been hiding behind the Nick Madrigals and Trevor Larnachs and Cadyn Greniers and Steven Kwans. We're all hungry. That's going to benefit us when we start going up against teams. It'll be fun to watch, I can promise you that."
One other major thing has changed. Bailey has moved over a seat to take over as head coach for Pat Casey, who retired after 24 years at the helm.
"It's pretty much the same, really," Abel says. "They both say they are in the business of building men, and I believe that to be true. I can honestly say they both have helped me to grow as a person as well as a player.
"Practice is similar. Maybe a little more loose now, but if 'Bails' sees something out of line, he's not afraid to drop the hammer, just like 'Case' did. They each have their own qualities. It's been a good transition. I'm glad to see 'Bails' get his opportunity."
Abel pauses and chuckles.
"Hey," he says, "he's undefeated so far."
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