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Pac-10 play's hard work

Beavers look good in conference, but a few formidable rivals loom
by: COURTESY OF OSU, Catcher Mitch Canham will provide a hot bat and be a stabilizing force for the OSU pitching staff.

UCLA baseball coach John Savage got his team into the NCAA Tournament last spring in his second year at the Bruins' helm. He figures the Bruins can make another run at a regional berth this season, but if you ask him for a favorite in the Pac-10 race, he's looking elsewhere.

'It's Arizona State and Oregon State, in my book,' Savage says. 'Arizona State's offense has been scary in terms of what they've done against some pretty good arms. And the way Oregon State is playing, (the Beavers) are at the forefront, too.'

Savage says he is not surprised that Oregon State, under national coach of the year Pat Casey, has been able to win back-to-back Pac-10 championships along with the College World Series last season.

'It's taken them some time to get all the pieces in the right place,' Savage says. 'But with the job Pat has done and all the homegrown players that have come out of that state the last several years, it was just a matter of time until they would battle to the front end of the Pac-10. And this will be the third straight year they've done that. It's no fluke. That program is here to stay.'

Casey's take is a little different. Considering all the players he lost from his championship squad of a year ago (Pac-10 player of the year Cole Gillespie, CWS MVP Jonah Nickerson, Friday starter Dallas Buck, closer Kevin Gunderson), Casey figures the favorite's role belongs to the Sun Devils.

'I put Arizona State at the top, with Stanford and UCLA right behind them,' Casey says. 'Those three teams are really good. (The Sun Devils) are so good offensively, they can afford to be a little less on the mound. They're just absolutely loaded at the plate.'

Casey can be accused of playing possum, since his Beavers already knocked off Arizona State 12-4 in nonleague action. A third straight title is not out of the question, but it will have to be earned, and there is plenty of competition.

Conference play begins March 23. The Beavers, who open at home Thursday with three games against Evansville, begin league play March 30 with a three-game set at Arizona. Pac-10 teams that will visit Goss Stadium this spring include Southern Cal, California, Washington State and Arizona State.

The Sun Devils have three returning all-conference players in sophomore catcher Petey Paramore, junior third baseman Eric Sogard and 6-5, 210-pound Ike Davis, a pitcher-outfielder who was Pac-10 freshman of the year. Junior left-hander Josh Satow was the Pac-10 pitcher of the week Feb. 5-11 and is 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings. Junior left fielder Matt Spencer (batting .440 with four home runs and 21 RBIs) is a 6-4, 225-pound transfer from North Carolina, which played OSU in last year's College World Series.

Focus switches to hitting

The Beavers have six regulars batting over .300, including junior catcher Mitch Canham, freshman second baseman Joey Wong, junior outfielder Braden Wells and senior outfielder Mike Lissman. Junior shortstop Darwin Barney was the preseason Pac-10 player of the year.

Opponents are hitting .235 against an OSU pitching staff that includes starters Mike Stutes (3-0, 2.86), Joe Paterson (2-1, 3.14) and Daniel Turpen (4-0, 2.45) and relievers Mark Grbavac (1.35 ERA), Blake Keitzman (1.86) and Eddie Kunz (2.70).

Last season proved a salad year for starting pitching in the Pac-10, with Washington's Tim Lincecum; Oregon State's Nickerson and Buck; California's Brandon Morrow; UCLA's Dave Huff; and Stanford's Greg Reynolds all moving on to the pro ranks.

'It was an unbelievable year for arms in the Pac-10, and a lot of those guys are gone,' Casey says. 'The pitching depth will still be good, but not the top-end stuff like we saw last year. The pitching will be balanced throughout the conference, and it's going to be an offensive league. You're going to have to score some runs to win.'

It's a big, tough conference

Savage and Casey are in agreement on one thing. There's no baseball conference in the country like the Pac-10.

'It's the best conference,' Savage says. 'With Oregon State winning the national championship, with the players getting drafted year in and year out, with the emergence of some of the lower teams, we're top to bottom the toughest conference in the country. I'm proud to say that.'

'Without question,' Casey agrees. 'We're at a disadvantage for RPI rankings because not all of us can play home games early like members of the Big 10 and Southeastern Conference. But there's no question about the strength of the Pac-10. It's an unbelievable league, and it will be balanced again. The bottom four teams will be stronger, no matter who they are.'

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2007 preseason Pac-10 poll

(records through Sunday)

1. Arizona State (12-5)

2. Oregon State (13-3)

3. Stanford (10-5)

4. UCLA (7-7)

5. Arizona (13-5)

6. Southern Cal (13-7)

7. California (7-10)

8. Washington State (6-4)

9. Washington (2-8)

2006 standings

Team Conf. record Overall

x-Oregon State 16-7 50-16

z-Arizona State 14-10 37-21

z-UCLA 13-10 33-25

Arizona 12-12 27-28

y-Stanford 11-13 33-27

Southern Cal 11-13 25-33

Washington 11-13 36-25

Washington State 10-14 36-23

California 9-15 26-28

x-won national championship

y-reached Sweet Sixteen

z-made NCAA Tournament