Much on line as national powers collide in Civil War series at Goss

CORVALLIS - Regular-season series in Pac-12 baseball don't get a lot bigger than this weekend's three-game finale between Oregon and Oregon State, which begins Friday night at Goss Stadium.

For both sides.

For Oregon (41-14 overall, 19-8 in Pac-12 play), it's a chance to wrap up at least a share of the conference championship and the loop's top seed in the NCAA Tournament by winning the series.

Oregon State (35-18, 15-12), which stands in sixth place in the Pac-12, could solidify its bid for the postseason as well as climb as high as second in conference with a sweep.

'You want to play the best opponent possible in your last series, and that's what we're getting' with the Ducks, OSU coach Pat Casey says. 'There's nothing you can do but tip your hat to them for the season they've had.

'We'll have to play tremendous baseball just to stay with them. They've been consistent from the start to finish. It should be a heck of a series.'

It has been a dream season in George Horton's fourth season as coach of the resurrected Oregon program. The Ducks - riding an eight-game win streak - are ranked as high as No. 1 (Collegiate Baseball) and are in the top 10 of all six national polls. They hold a one-game lead over second-place Arizona. Two victories over the Beavers would ensure a co-title and the league's top seed in the NCAA Tournament; a sweep would guarantee the Ducks the league crown.

Publicly, Casey says the Civil War matchup is no more important than facing any other opponent in the Pac-12. Nor will he say the opportunity to prevent his team's arch-rivals from claiming a conference championship is added inducement.

'It's less about preventing them from winning than for us winning' games, the OSU mentor says. 'I never got into keeping somebody else from doing something as much as getting to where we want to go. Winning will help us more than the other part of it.

'If we don't win the Pac-12 in any particular year, there's nobody else I pinpoint as, 'I want them to lose.' I want us to win them all.'

That's only partially true, of course.

There is always going to be a little more motivation to knock off your in-state rival, particularly one that has provided recruiting competition and stolen some thunder from a program that won back-to-back national championships only a few years ago.

I don't believe Casey has any particular antipathy for Horton, though I'm sure he hasn't forgotten when his adversary accepted the Oregon job four years ago, Horton declared an intention to dominate Northwest college baseball.

Horton hasn't dominated this season, but he has risen to the top primarily by virtue of an outstanding pitching staff, in particular Alex Keudell and Jimmy Sherfy.

Keudell, a senior out Jesuit High, was Oregon's No. 4 starter as a junior but has been the Pac-12's premier starter this season, fashioning a 10-3 record with a league-best 1.80 ERA.

Sherfy, meanwhile, is the conference's top closer with 16 saves. What is most remarkable, though, is that he ranks fifth in the league with 81 strikeouts in only 52 innings. Only four starters among the Pac-12's 11 teams have more K's than the sophomore righthander. That's mindboggling.

The closing role has been the biggest difference between Oregon and Oregon State this season. Tony Bryant, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore last year for the Beavers, has been sub-par this season, posting a 4.03 ERA while blowing several save opportunities.

Oregon ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in batting average (.266) but is first in ERA (2.93) and tied for first in fielding. The standout pitching and solid defense are big reasons why the Ducks are 15-4 in one-run games and 8-2 in two-run contests this season.

Consider that Oregon State was picked fifth and Oregon seventh in the Pac-12 coaches' preseason poll.

The school the coaches predicted as the Pac-12 champion, Stanford, 'is the most talented team in the league,' Casey offers. 'That doesn't take anything away from Oregon or UCLA or Arizona State. Oregon has played the best baseball, there's no doubt about it. (The Ducks') record states that.

'Maybe surprised isn't the way you'd say it,' Casey says, 'but they have played good baseball. They have gotten through some injuries and done a great job from start to finish. They have played above and beyond.'

Oregon State - ranked as high as 20th in the polls - has done pretty well, too, with a lineup that, pitching excluded, is superior to Oregon's.

OSU's major weapon is Michael Conforto, the leftfielder from Woodinville, Wash., who has put together the best season by a freshman position player in school history.

The 6-1, 210-pound Conforto is tied for the Pac-12 lead in home runs with 13 and is a runaway leader - and second nationally - in RBIs with 69, already a school record, all the while hitting .349 with an on-base percentage of .440.

'Michael could be the best offensive player in the conference as a freshman,' Casey says. 'I always thought he would be special, but most freshmen go through a lot of ups and downs and are challenged in this conference.'

Conforto has hit only .284 but has belted eight round-trippers with 34 RBIs in 27 conference games.

'It's almost amazing the numbers he has put up in the conference we play in,' Casey says. 'And he has played more than a good left field.'

'I wanted to make an (immediate) impact, and I knew I could,' Conforto says. 'I had that confidence in myself. But never could I have dreamed of having the season I've had.'

When all-star centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox was a sophomore at Oregon State, Casey predicted he would be a major-leaguer some day. The OSU coach is already saying such things about Conforto.

'I don't throw those kind of things around lightly,' Casey says. 'We're talking physical and mental presence, work ethic - and Michael has plenty of room to develop. I think he's going to be a big-leaguer and play for a long time.'

Ellsbury and Conforto, Casey says, 'are so different.'

'Jacoby could outrun a baseball, catch everything in centerfield and showed flashes of brilliance, and you could see how explosive he was going to be,' Casey says. 'But he didn't put up the kind of offensive numbers Conforto has.

'I think about the unbelievable year Cole Gillespie had for us when he was the league's MVP in 2006 (13 homers, 57 RBIs in 66 games). Conforto has 13 home runs with 69 RBIs in 53 games. It's more than impressive.'

Conforto modestly deflects praise to Oregon State's coaches and 'a lot of the players who helped me learn how to deal with situations against pitching I've never seen before. A lot of my success is owed to other people.'

Including Casey.

'He expects nothing but the best from you,' Conforto says. 'If you're (underachieving) or underselling yourself, he'll be the first person to let you know. He'll get on you, but you have to respect him for it.

'He has helped me mature as a player more than anyone I've ever played under. Especially with the baseball IQ part of it - knowing how to approach baseball in general, whether hitting, defensively or on the bases. He has helped me become an overall better player.'

With his next victory - his 614th at Oregon State - Casey will break a tie with Jack Riley and become the school's winningest coach after having passed another legend, Ralph Coleman, a couple of years ago.

'There's a reason there have been so few coaches at Oregon State,' says Casey, a three-time Pac-12 coach of the year who took the Beavers to national titles in 2006 and '07. 'It's because it's such a good job. It's humbling to think I'm in a position to be one of those guys they look at and say, 'He was there a long time, won a lot of games and continued to make Oregon State baseball what it is.' The longevity of success I've had at Oregon State is something I'm proud to be a part of.

'Somebody asked me the other day, 'Do you ever think about the national championships?' I said, 'Yeah, I think about them all the time.' They're motivating. Those are so team-oriented you can feel better about them. Because I'm not winning games, my players and coaching staff are.'

The end of recent seasons has left Casey - now in his 18th year at the OSU helm - drained and pondering retirement. I'm not catching the same vibes from him this season, in no small part to the large number of underclassmen such as Conforto and Jace Fry who offer so much promise for the future.

'I'm feeling great,' Casey says. 'I don't even think about those things at this point in time. I'm just worrying about trying to play better baseball this weekend.

'The young guys have been fabulous this year. It has been fun watching their development. We are getting a lot of production out of a lot of young people.'

So are the Ducks, with a bevy of freshmen and sophomores in a lineup that could develop into even a better unit next spring.

With a national RPI at No. 5, the Ducks are locked into playing host to a regional next weekend. The Beavers, with an RPI of 38, are unlikely to host but can greatly improve their chances at a No. 2 seed at regionals by winning the Oregon series.

There is an awful lot on the line this weekend, a fact not lost on the Beavers as they prepare to face their highly touted rivals at Goss.

'As soon as that last series (at Washington State) was over, it was like a full-on shift' of focus, Conforto says. 'Now we're on to something big.

'Just hearing stories about last year and years before that (from teammates) ... the Civil War is historic. It's awesome to be a part of it.'

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