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Shaken-up Pilots aim to straighten up, fly right

Inauspicious loss to Beavers countered by three wins in Arizona
by: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND, Senior Ari Ronick helps give the University of Portland pitching staff depth, and the team some hope, despite a 16-0 loss to Oregon State on Tuesday.

One game does not make a season. For the University of Portland, that is a very good thing.

The Pilots hope there will be little hangover from their embarrassing 16-0 loss to Oregon State on Tuesday at Joe Etzel Field, because signs up to that point were promising.

It's been six years since the Pilots posted a winning West Coast Conference record. In the five seasons since then, they've gone 28-103 in conference play and 74-192 overall.

Things could be a little different on the Bluff this spring. Last week, the Pilots won three of four games in Arizona - including a 4-3 upset of eighth-ranked Michigan - and dropped a competitive 5-2 contest to No. 1-ranked Arizona State.

The Michigan game 'was a really good win for a lot of reasons,' 11th-year coach Chris Sperry says. 'And then we come away from the Arizona State game thinking, 'We just lost a close game to the No. 1 team in the nation.' If you could sign up for (a week like that), you'd take it.'

Against OSU, however, the UP defense blew up with six errors, the pitching yielded 18 hits and the Pilots were held hitless through 7 1/3 innings against the two-time defending national champions.

But Sperry is convinced the Pilots are equipped for success, largely because of a deeper pitching staff that includes senior left-handers David Gruener and Ari Ronick and junior right-hander Mark Triolo as starters, and junior right-hander Matt Lange and freshman right-hander Zach Varce out of the bullpen.

WCC coaches predicted Portland to finish seventh of eight teams, 'but I think we're better than that,' Sperry says. 'It's been a while since we finished in the top half of the conference, but this club is capable of that.'

• Oregon State coach Pat Casey was concerned before Tuesday's game with his offense - 'pretty much anemic,' he said - but the Beaver bats exploded.

Sophomore shortstop Joey Wong came into the game hitting .208 and left batting .333 after going 5 for 6 with a home run. He tied the school record for most hits in a game.

• Junior second baseman Jason Ogata has entrenched himself as the Beavers' No. 3 hitter with a fast start at the plate. The former state player of the year out of Westview High is batting .429 with two home runs and 10 RBIs in seven games.

'The way he's going, we'd like him to hit No. 3, 4, 5 and 1 for us,' Casey jokes.

Ogata's defense was suspect last season, but he had a big part in the key defensive play of last Sunday's 5-4 win over Georgia at PGE Park. After the Bulldogs' Matt Cerione's laced a double down the right-field line in the fifth inning, Daniel Robertson got the ball in quickly to Ogata, whose relay throw was on the money to gun down Cerione trying for third base.

• The 5-8, 175-pound Robertson went 3 for 4 against Portland to raise his batting average to .333. Against left-handed pitching, he'll probably be the smallest No. 4 hitter in Division I baseball.

The senior transfer from NAIA Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., walked on after earning MVP honors for the Green Bay (Wis.) Bullfrogs of the Northwoods Summer League. OSU reliever Mark Grbavac was his roommate and helped convince him to transfer.

'We built a friendship, and I probably never would have been a Beaver without that,' says Robertson, a burner on the base paths who runs the 30-yard dash in 3.53 seconds. 'I think I've seen every shot of Jordan Lennerton's home run (against North Carolina) at Omaha (Neb.), and every highlight of last season, and it just grew on me.'

• All five OSU pitchers who worked against UP looked good, but none was more impressive than Josh Osich, a 6-3, 195-pound left-hander from Boise, Idaho, who hit 95 mph on the radar gun and struck out all three batters he faced - looking.

'Once he gets it together, look out,' pitching coach David Wong says. 'Some day, he's going to be a millionaire. He might be the best of our freshman arms when it's all said and done.'

• Freshman closer Kevin Rhoderick hits 94 mph, but the 6-0, 190-pound right-hander from Scottsdale, Ariz., also has a nice slider and a nasty curveball. In four innings, he hasn't allowed a hit or run and has five strikeouts.

'Rhod has been nails for us,' David Wong says. 'He's a competitor. His slider is really a tough pitch to hit. It's there, and it's gone.'

Rhoderick, who got a pair of saves against Georgia, says he was juiced up by the big PGE Park crowds but not unnerved by them.

'My team gives me a lead, I don't want to lose it,' he says. 'I've pitched a lot of big games for Team USA (in high school). I just try to go out there just like it's another inning.'

• Casey, 49, is wearing braces for the first time.

'Got half of them six weeks ago and the other half a week ago,' he says. 'It's making me younger.

'The (dentist) has been telling me for 10 years I have great teeth, but the way I chew I was going to eventually have problems. Then he said if I'd do a radio commercial for him, he'd do it for free.'

• Casey, on the 4-3 Beavers: 'We're very inexperienced compared to the rest of the conference. This club can be real, real good again next year, and we'll get better this year. We're not a very strong offensive club, so we'll have to … play defense, scrap to get runs and pitch the heck out of it. There'll be days when we'll pitch good, and there'll be days when we're frustrated we don't have a (Georgia shortstop Gordon) Beckham on our club who can run a few out of the yard. We have some power coming. It's just not here yet.'

• Oregon State faces Loyola Marymount at 2 p.m. today in the first of four games at the San Diego State tournament. Portland (6-4 going into a pair of Thursday games) plays today at Sacramento State.

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