Sophomore emerges from competition as a big bat in lineup

CORVALLIS - Ryan Ortiz began the season in a battle with senior Erik Amman for playing time at catcher.

Now, as Oregon State prepares for its Pac-10-opening series with Washington beginning Friday at Goss Stadium, Ortiz is the Beavers' Big Papi.

The 6-3, 200-pound sophomore from San Diego is off to a sizzling start at the plate and has won the starting catcher job for the two-time defending national champions.

Going into Monday's game at BYU, Ortiz is hitting .347 with five doubles, three home runs and a team-high 24 RBIs in 16 games. Not bad for a player who went 0 for 4 in seven appearances as a true freshman last season.

'I'm pleased,' says Ortiz, the third-string catcher last season behind third-team All-American Mitch Canham and Amman. 'I came in fighting for a job, and I'm playing and getting a chance to show what I can do. I feel like I'm in a groove right now.'

Ortiz has proved himself as a clutch hitter, too. His grand slam keyed a 10-run uprising as Oregon State rallied from a 10-2 deficit to beat Santa Clara 12-10 on March 9. And last Friday, he blasted another grand slam as the Beavers, once trailing 7-1, came back to beat Pepperdine 9-7.

'I like getting the opportunity to knock in runs,' says Ortiz, who thinks his last grand slam came in Little League. 'I'm feeling confident at the plate, and I've been able to score some people at important times.'

Pat Casey is not often given to superlatives, but the veteran OSU coach gushes about the 6-3, 200-pound Ortiz.

'Ryan is off to a wonderful start,' Casey says. 'He's maturing and learning the things he has to do to help our (pitching) staff, and he's swinging the bat beyond our wildest imagination. I'm happy for him. He's really helped us out.'

Ortiz caught every inning of Oregon State's three-game series with Pepperdine, 'and we have a staff that can be tough to catch,' Casey says. 'I was proud of him. (Pitcher Josh) Osich was all over the place, and Ryan did a good job with him.'

After considering Cal Irvine and Long Beach State, Ortiz signed with Oregon State.

'A Pac-10 school with great coaches, and I felt at home in Corvallis,' Ortiz says. 'I thought I'd come up here and have some fun.'

Last season, Ortiz - who smacked eight home runs as a high school senior - mostly sat and learned from Canham, one of the nation's premier catchers.

'It wasn't that hard,' Ortiz says. 'It was good to watch Mitch, see how he played the game, learning how to be a leader out there. Really, everything about it was good.'

The leadership part is a work in progress for Ortiz, by nature reticent.

'Marty (Lees, an OSU assistant coach) has been working with Ryan,' Casey says. 'He's come along more so far this season than he did all of last season. We're not going to Disneyland here. We're in a fistfight. You have to jump in there and compete.'

'With Ryan, it's really mostly about demeanor, and how important it is for a catcher to have a presence. It's right up here,' says Lees, pointing to his noggin. 'It's working with pitchers and the mental part.

'But I think he's starting to believe he can be pretty good. He has the tools. He's big, he can throw, he can hit. The stuff is all there. He's going to be a good one.'

Casey goes even further. The OSU coach, who has predicted a major-league future for Canham, has the same kind of faith in Ortiz.

'I really believe he's going to be a big-league catcher some day,' Casey says. 'Catchers who can hit with power are hard to find, and he'll have even more power down the road.'

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OSU Beavers

Next: Oregon State (9-7) plays the second of a two-game series at Brigham Young today.

Unless freshman left-hander Tanner Robles (shoulder) is ready, the Beavers - who won two of three games from Pepperdine at home last Thursday through Saturday - may go with plans to use Jorge Reyes to start one game and several relievers to work the other game against the Cougars.

Reyes and outfielder John Wallace have completed their three-game suspension for their involvement in last week's shooting incident in Corvallis.

• With Reyes unavailable, freshman James Nygren started Saturday's 8-5 loss to visiting Pepperdine. He held the Waves to one run and four hits in five innings and left the game with a 2-1 lead.

'James threw tremendously for his first career start,' Casey says of the Henley High grad. 'Our pitching staff bowed (its) neck through the series, and our guys battled all weekend.'

• The Beavers might have earned a sweep of Pepperdine if not for a pair of errors by third baseman Drew George that led to six unearned seventh-inning runs in Pepperdine's victory.

George - OSU's top hitter with a .447 average - had made several good defensive plays to that point, including the start of a double play.

Casey also pointed to a two-out walk that opened the door for the Waves after pitcher Blake Keitzman had a 1-2 count on the batter.

'It's a shame we didn't play the fundamental part of the game,' Casey says. 'You don't walk a guy at 1-2, and you just have to play catch (on ground balls). Our nemesis were the basics of baseball, something we've been very good at in the past.'

• Mike Stutes will start Friday's 5 p.m. series opener against Washington. The senior right-hander (1-3, 6.12 ERA) was sensational while pitching four perfect innings against Pepperdine in the first game of the series.

'That's the best I've ever seen Mike throw,' Casey says. 'His stuff this year, really, has been better than it was last year. It's just that 1), when he misses, it's been a home run; 2) we haven't gotten him off the field (because of errors) a couple of times, and 3) he's faced some pretty good clubs.'

• Casey says he's encouraged by the play of his many freshmen and sophomores.

'We're going to be fine,' the 14th-year OSU coach adds. 'If these guys all stay together and continue to improve, this team is going to be very, very good someday.'

- Kerry Eggers

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