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These Pat Casey Beavers are tough – but so is the rest of the schedule

by: ETHAN ERICKSON Jared Norris, senior first baseman, says Oregon State's team chemistry is better this season.

Teams often taken on the personality of their coach - but not always.

The last two years, Oregon State's baseball team has played much softer than its coach, Pat Casey.

I've been around some competitors in my 35 years in the sports writing business, but I'm not sure any more tenacious than Casey.

This year's Beavers don't have a Jacoby Ellsbury or Darwin Barney or Cole Gillespie or even an Adalberto Santos or Stefen Romero, stars of the 2010 OSU club.

But they have a togetherness that reminds Casey of his national championship squads of 2006 and '07.

'Team chemistry is definitely up a notch from the last two years,' said senior first baseman Jared Norris, who got on base all four trips in Tuesday's 6-1 victory at the University of Portland's Joe Etzel Field. 'We don't have the same kind of talent, so we've had to play together it like that.'

You don't often hear a player make such a concession. Usually, they want to believe they're as talented as anyone.

That's not as important as a heavy dose of esprit de corp.

'It doesn't matter who you have out there, if guys play for each other,' said Norris, hitting .297 with a .434 on-base percentage this season after going 2 for 2 with a pair or walks. 'I want to play for Tyler Smith, for Ryan Barnes, for Carter Bell. If they don't get it done, I'm going to get it done. If I don't get it done, they'll get it done.'

That's not just lip service. The coaches notice it, too.

'The kids love each other,' assistant coach Pat Bailey said. 'That's the key. They care about one another, care about being successful together.'

It shows. How else to explain a 30-8 record, a Pac-10-leading 10-2 mark in conference play and a No. 3 national ranking?

Well, there's pitching.

The Beavers have plenty of that, with a 2.80 team ERA. There's ace Sam Gaviglio (7-1), second in the Pac-10 with a 1.68 ERA and a .181 opponents' batting average. And Saturday southpaw Josh Osich (5-1, 3.30), with one of the best heaters in the conference.

On Tuesday, Casey used James Nygren (7-1, 3.04) and Ben Wetzler (5-1, 4.12) to stop the Pilots on five hits with 13 strikeouts.

Matt Boyd (0.99, four saves) and Tony Bryant (3-1, 1.47, six saves) have shared the closer role.

'Our pitching has been awesome,' Norris said.

The offense has been harder to come by, especially with the hand injuries to catcher Andrew Susac (.364) and infielder Jake Rodriguez (.319). Also missing against the Pilots was third baseman Bell (.281), who has a strained quad muscle.

Since the Pilots have a bye weekend coming up, they used No. 1 starter Owen Jones. He wasn't bad, but the Beavers put together six straight singles for four runs in the fourth inning and added two runs in the eighth, with Norris' run-scoring double the big blow.

But shortstop Ryan Dunn stumbled on what appeared to be a game-ending doubleplay ball in the ninth, and the Pilots scored an unearned run before the Beavers secured victory. I had a feeling Casey would be grumbling a bit when we spoke afterward.

'Maybe a little lack of focus there, I don't know,' he said. 'We're disappointed we didn't swing the bat better. We knew they'd throw their No. 1 guy at us, and he was good.

'We only scored in two innings; we have to do a better job than that. I was disappointed in the way we attacked the game. We were a little lackluster. Sometimes midweek games are hard, but if you're a club that wants to play at the end of the year, you'd better take on that challenge.'

Oregon State definitely wants to play at the end of the year. That would mean a return visit to Omaha for the College World Series, where the Beavers took up residence from 2005-07.

But even with great pitching and camaraderie, teams need to score runs to advance in the NCAA Tournament. And the Beavers aren't there yet. There's a minefield of Pac-10 opponents remaining, beginning with three games at UCLA - ranked as high as 13th nationally - starting Friday.

The Bruins (21-14 overall, 10-5 in Pac-10) are mirror images of the Beavers. So-so hitting, but superlative pitching, led by junior right-handers Trevor Bauer (8-1, 1.42, 127 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings) and Gerrit Cole (4-4, 2.78) and freshman righty Adam Plutko (2-3, 1.69).

'We're just not going to score very often on them, with that pitching and a great defense behind it,' Casey said. 'I don't understand the games they've lost. If we swing the bat the way we swung it today, it's going to be a long weekend.'

Oregon State has won four Pac-10 series. The Beavers have five series left, plus a pair of non-conference games.

'We'd better not feel complacent or satisfied,' Bailey said. 'We'd better get after it. We have a great opportunity ahead of us. We can win the Pac-10. We'd better be playing with our hair on fire the next 17 games.'

Susac and Rodriguez are out until at least mid-May. Bell could return this weekend. And freshman right-hander Adam Duke - idle all season with arm troubles - is close to being ready.

'He threw today and felt great,' Casey said. 'Maybe this weekend.'

Earlier in the season, Casey told me had Duke been healthy, he could have been OSU's No. 2 starter this spring. If he's OK, he'll provide some quality depth in the bullpen. You can never have enough of that.

Casey makes no excuses. He doesn't want his players thinking about who's not playing. It's who is playing that counts.

'It's great that we're winning games with the injuries we have,' he said. 'But we have good enough players, we have to combat that a little bit.'

The Beavers will get an opportunity starting Friday at UCLA, with the Pac-10 championship in their sights. If they can keep winning, they can win their first conference title since 2006.

'That's starting to set in a little bit,' Norris said. 'But you still have to go out and do it. We're 10-2, but we have to keep going, one at a time, and not worry about what everyone else is doing.'

The Beavers have to compete, have to be tougher than the opponent. Take a cue from the coach, fellas.