Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 18, 2020.
Just over a year before being selected in the first round of the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, a 17-year-old Mick Abel toed the rubber for the Jesuit High School Crusaders on perhaps the biggest stage in Oregon high school baseball — the Class-6A state championship game.
Abel would soon accomplish his personal goal of being selected in the draft, but at this point in time, the high school junior was set to pitch the last game of a season where the team goal was to win the state championship. In what would end up being the final game of his career at Jesuit, Abel was on the mound to finish a journey the Crusaders wouldn’t have been on without him.
Heading into the season, Jesuit felt it had a very good shot at the championship. Head coach Colin Griffin’s team had taken home the state title in 2016, and he believed that the Crusaders’ talent was strong enough to win it all again if the players were able to make some strides throughout the season. Of course, Jesuit had a solid group of players that included one of the best pitchers in all of high school baseball in Abel, but winning a state championship is about more than just the names listed on the roster.
“Going into last year’s season, we knew that we had a very talented ball club,” Griffin said by phone last week. “It was just that the kids were going to have to … buy into one another, accept their roles, challenge each other appropriately in practices and then learn throughout the course of the season.”
It seemed that the team was able to handle these tasks throughout their season. When a team has a player with national recognition like Jesuit did with Abel, there can sometimes be issues with team chemistry. This was not the case with the Crusaders in 2019, as Abel and his teammates meshed well because of how the Oregon State signee handled himself and the way the rest of the players played off of him.
“He wasn’t arrogant. He wasn’t cocky. He wasn’t demanding [people’s] attention, but people knew and noticed what Mick was doing,” Griffin said. “His classmates all just had this certain maturity about it. The group last year — the junior class and the senior class — they just complemented each other.”
Joe Angeli, a senior on last year’s team, said the team dynamic was so strong because of how everyone viewed each other. Many of the Jesuit players knew Abel from all the way back in Little League. They just saw themselves as teammates. Abel was not one to brag to his fellow players about his personal accomplishments, and the coaches did not put him on a pedestal.
“I think it was kind of the combination of Mick never talking about how talented he is, and the fact that nobody else really needed to hype Mick up because he could do it himself [with his play],” Angeli said about how the team got along so well with a teammate who got so much attention.
Griffin realized that the Crusaders’ relationship as a team would not be a problem during a midseason trip to Anaheim, California over their spring break. Worried that staying in hotel rooms could create cliques within the team, the head coach mandated that the players would switch roommates each night of the trip. His concerns subsided on a day off from games during a trip to the Disney California Adventure theme park.
“I knew things were different with this club, because they made a point to get together at one of the rides in Disneyland and got an entire team picture without being prompted by a coach,” Griffin said. “So that, right then, put me at ease. Like these kids get it — they understand the importance of team unity in order to win.”
That team photo was taken after the Jesuit players waited in line for the Incredicoaster until they could all ride one 24-person train together, which Angeli described as a major bonding experience for the team. He said that the trip as a whole helped the team throughout the rest of its season by making them closer.
“I think we were all a little bit nervous before our spring break trip,” Angeli said, “which I think really made us realize what a strong team connection we actually had. … That’s really where our expectations changed — when we realized how strong of a team we actually were.”
As for the play on the field, Jesuit knew how good the team could be and how overpowering Abel could be to opposing hitters. But what was not so certain was whether the team had a catcher that could handle Abel as a battery mate.
Abel took a big jump between his sophomore and junior seasons, and the Crusaders needed a backstop that could handle that. Not many high school catchers have to receive fastballs in the mid-90s and wipeout sliders, but Jesuit’s would have to. Griffin called on Angeli to handle the task in the opening game on March 13 against South Salem.
“I’ll never forget — the first time Mick threw a slider,” Griffin said, “… our catcher stuck it, and I walked to our pitching coach, tapped him on the back and I go, ‘We got a chance to win this whole thing.'”
Griffin now had his star pitcher and the catcher to work with him. Angeli, who now plays baseball at High Point University in North Carolina, embraced the challenge of catching Abel and came to appreciate how advanced his arsenal was even further by catching him.
“I just think it was a really big humbling experience for me by just understanding Mick’s talents to a greater extent,” he said.
Pitching coach Jeff Jensen, who Griffin praised for his work and game planning with Abel and the rest of the Jesuit pitching staff, remembered that moment with his head coach, as well as the dominant performance that Abel put up in the first game of the season. The right-hander struck out 12 batters in six shutout innings, walking none and allowing just one hit.
“[It was] basically everything you want to see from your ace pitcher any time and for us as a team with what our expectations were,” Jensen said. “It was just really, really cool to see it all come together for him. And he never really let up from there.”
Abel continued to cruise on the mound throughout the season, and batted in the middle of the Jesuit order as the designated hitter when he did not pitch. He posted a 10-0 record throughout the entire year with a 1.26 ERA. The Crusaders finished the regular season at 21-5, earning the top seed in the 32-team, single-elimination state playoff bracket.
With the team holding home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Abel pitched on Monday, May 20, at Jesuit in their first-round game against Wilson. He gave up just one hit over 5 1/3 innings as Jesuit won 4-0.
This was a planned short outing for Abel so he could pitch again in the quarterfinals, as long as Jesuit did not need him to keep pitching against Wilson.
“We’ve always been really cautious with not trying to overuse Mick,” Jensen said. “So, the rule was he had to stay under 85 pitches in order to be able to come back and pitch on Friday, so that was our plan.”
Jesuit then played No. 17-ranked Southridge, a team the Crusaders had already played and beaten three times, on Wednesday. With the game tied in the bottom of the seventh and runners on first and second, shortstop Will Spitznagel grounded a ball toward third. The third baseman made a diving stop and fired to first, but Spitznagel beat the throw. Griffin, manning the third base coach’s box, sent runner Connor Kollas all the way home from second. Kollas slid in safely and walked the game off 7-6.
“The reason why I did it,” Griffin recalled, “was because Southridge had their one- through four-hitters up … and I was thinking to myself, ‘We are not going back through that top of the order, so we’re rolling.’ And it panned out.”
With Abel available for Friday, the Crusaders took on Beaverton, who Jesuit had also played and beaten three times, in their quarterfinal game. He completely took over in an intense environment, pitching a complete game with 11 strikeouts and hitting a double in a 5-1 victory.
“The fans for the other high school did everything they could to get under Mick’s skin,” Griffin said, “but all it did was motivate him more to be better and better.”
Jensen said, “Every big moment, Mick stepped up and just threw an outstanding game.”
The semifinal on May 28 was against South Salem, the same team that Jesuit opened their season up with. And just like he did by sticking that slider in the first game, Angeli provided a big moment.
With the game tied 2-2, the catcher came up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning with a runner in scoring position and snuck a single into right field for a game-winning RBI. The hit sent the group of players to the state championship, as celebration ensued.
“When I hit that little dinker through the four-hole, it was pretty electric,” Angeli said, “especially getting greeted by my entire team at second base.”
The Crusaders were now set to take on Central Catholic in the state championship at Volcanoes Stadium, home of the minor-league Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Central Catholic had left-hander Dylan MacLean, a 2020 fourth-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers, ready to start on the mound.
While confident in his team, Griffin knew that facing a pitcher like MacLean would not make things easy. But the Jesuit players still felt that they had the upper hand.
“I knew that we had Abel on the bump,” Angeli said, “and we had played Central earlier that year and Abel dominated. I also just think that our lineup was coming together by that point, too.”
The game took place on June 1 with two of the best pitchers in Oregon facing off.
“Both Mick and Dylan had shown all year that they could pitch with a lead and put games away for opposing offenses,” Central Catholic head coach Brian Grant said by email. “As a coach who just loves baseball, I was excited to see how it was going to play out.”
Abel showed out, pitching eight innings of one-run baseball.
“Mick wasn’t wasting pitches. The slider was striking people out. Mick was dealing,” Griffin said. “… But I remember looking at Mick after it, and it was a hot, hot day and that stadium doesn’t have any shade, … and Mick was probably on the verge of heatstroke. He was so exhausted, but he just kept barring down.”
With the score locked at 1-1, the teams needed 13 innings to decide the winner.
“It was an emotional drain for 13 innings,” Grant said. “So many mental factors those players had to endure.”
Five innings after Abel was removed from the mound, Jesuit’s Kevin Blair hit an RBI single to win the state championship in the bottom of the 13th.
The Crusaders were state champions, walking off three of their five playoff games. Led by Abel and many others, the Jesuit baseball team captured the title in some of the most dramatic fashion, and created a legacy that will never be forgotten by those from the school.
With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 season, Abel and his teammates did not have the opportunity to defend their title. And while nobody on the team was happy about that, Griffin told this year’s seniors he believes that they may be the group of kids that can handle it.
“If there was a team that I was OK not having this year because I feel that they were ready and they were mature enough to leave high school, it was that group,” Griffin said. “And like I said, so much of that is who Mick Abel was and is.
“They’ve left a legacy of what it means to put your ego aside. … They were humble. They understood our team’s objective. They understood our team’s mission.”
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