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Ex-Cleveland High pitcher makes most of Beaver opportunity
by: ©2008 RICH DARBY, Josh Keller has found himself a niche in long relief for Oregon State, using an effective sinkerball to induce batters into groundouts.

CORVALLIS - Josh Keller has been around the Oregon State baseball program long enough to have covered three College World Series appearances and a pair of national championships.

Unfortunately, Keller never has been to the mecca of college baseball.

'That's the real goal, to get my own trip to Omaha,' the junior right-hander from Cleveland High says.

In 2005, when Oregon State made it to the CWS for the first time in 53 years, Keller was a redshirt freshman.

In 2006, when the Beavers won their first national title, Keller was knocking the socks off opposing hitters for Lower Columbia Community College in Longview, Wash.

In 2007, when the Men in Orange won the championship again, Keller was in Corvallis, back with the OSU program but not a member of the team's 25-man travel squad.

Finally, it seems, Keller has carved a niche for himself in long relief.

Going into Thursday's Goss Stadium home opener against Pepperdine, the 6-4, 235-pound sinker baller was 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in five appearances and nine innings. He had allowed seven hits with three walks and 11 strikeouts, with an opponents' batting average of .206.

'Josh has done a good job,' Oregon State coach Pat Casey says. 'He had a couple of games where he wasn't as good as he could have been, but then he recovered. He had good outings against Portland and Nevada, which was good to see. He's somebody we're going to need out of the bullpen this year.'

NWAACC stint a plus

Keller was first-team all-state and the Portland Interscholastic League player of the year as a senior at Cleveland, going 12-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings. But it was his work playing American Legion ball that summer that impressed Casey enough to consider him a prospect.

Keller got buried amid the Beavers' amazing staff of pitchers, however, so he went to Lower Columbia in 2006 for some seasoning. He was outstanding pitcher of the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges regional tournament and finished the season 10-0 with an 0.55 ERA.

'I didn't want to see the guy go two years without pitching any innings,' Casey says. 'We knew we liked him as a prospect, but he needed to get some innings under his belt. It was real beneficial for him.'

Back at Oregon State, Keller pitched two innings as part of a no-hitter at Hawaii-Hilo on opening day last season, 'and then he never saw the mound again,' OSU pitching coach David Wong says. 'We had a whole bunch of arms, and he was kind of stuck in a numbers game.'

Last summer, Keller pitched with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Apple Sox of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League, continuing to hone an altered delivery with pitching coach Ron Hippi, who also had been his coach at Lower Columbia.

'I've lowered my arm slot a little to try to become more of a groundball pitcher, and I've worked on locating the changeup, too,' Keller says. 'The lower angle gets more sink and produces more ground balls. I'm less of a strikeout pitcher and more of a contact pitcher.'

'I don't know that Josh is improved over last year - the opportunity is there for him now,' Wong says. 'He throws a hard sinker and gets a lot of ground balls. That's his biggest plus.'

Pitcher fits many roles

Wong says Keller is best-suited for long relief, but Casey isn't ready to limit him to that.

'Josh keeps the ball down, and he has been able to throw strikes,' the 14th-year OSU coach says. 'That's one of the things we need, especially since we haven't been getting as much out of our starters as we thought we'd get. He can go a short stint or a long stint.

'There's some value to the flexibility we created with last year's pitching staff, where both (Daniel) Turpen and (Joe) Paterson filled roles as starters and relievers. With as many games as we play in a bunched-up schedule, there's a possibility in the right situation, Josh could even start.'

That's music to Keller's ears.

'I'd like to be a starter,' he says. 'I'd like to do anything that will get me on the mound.'

Keller shares a house in Corvallis with teammates Mark Grbavac (a pitcher from Central Catholic) and Daniel Robertson (an outfielder from La Puente, Calif.) and another OSU student.

'We're in bed by 9 o'clock every night,' he says with a smile, noting that he is more serious about baseball than he has ever been.

'Being a part of the team the last few years, I have people come up and say, 'Great job,' ' Keller says. 'I'd like to have more of an impact there. This is my time. It's coming down to the wire - this year and next. I want to make the most of it.'

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OSU Beavers

Oregon State suspended pitcher Jorge Reyes and outfielder John Wallace, after they were arrested Tuesday in Corvallis and accused of shooting bullets from a rifle that struck a neighboring house and car.

Reyes, Wallace and ex-OSU pitcher Anton Maxwell were charged with unlawful use of a weapon - a Class C felony - and criminal mischief.

The three were shooting at soda cans at Maxwell's residence in the early hours of the morning. At least six of the bullets went through a fence, striking a neighbor's house and car. One of the bullets went through a car window.

• Coach Pat Casey says poor infield defense has contributed to poor stats for the Beavers' main two starters, Mike Stutes and Reyes.

Fourteen of the Beavers' 20 errors in their first 13 games were committed at second base, third base or shortstop.

'The main thing is, we have not defended the way we can and have not gotten (Stutes and Reyes) off the field in key situations,' Casey says. 'Nobody likes the fact we're not getting the type of starts we anticipated, but it's not indicative of the way those guys have thrown. I want to get better outings out of our starters, and we will.'

• Drew George has carved himself an everyday role at third base. The senior from Lebanon, who hit a disappointing .259 last year, batted a team-high .429 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in his 10 games.

• Outfielder Daniel Robertson - the senior transfer from NAIA Concordia University in Irvine, Calif. - also has earned a starting role. The 5-8, 175-pounder was hitting .357, with four stolen bases and a team-best .509 on-base percentage.

• Senior Lonnie Lechelt broke out of an early hitting slump by going 3 for 4 with five RBIs in the Beavers' 17-10 win at Nevada last Saturday.

OSU's third baseman the second half of last season, Lechelt has been getting most of his recent time at second base.

• Also playing second is the team's best defensive infielder thus far, walk-on freshman John Tommasini from Roseburg, who was hitting .333.

-Kerry Eggers