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Expectations can be curse

Despite target on their chests, OSU keeps fighting
by: DENISE FARWELL, Jason Ogata and the Oregon State Beavers had a tough time in the first two conference series, but they think they’re back on track after taking two games from USC.

CORVALLIS - It's a long Pac-10 baseball season - 24 games, with enough twists and turns to make for a good Malibu Grand Prix course.

So Oregon State's 2-4 conference start is disappointing but not disastrous. And the Beavers - who rose to a No. 2 ranking nationally before being swept in their Pac-10-opening three-game series at Arizona - consider themselves back in stride after taking two of three games from Southern Cal.

'It feels good, coming off our lost weekend at Tucson,' catcher Mitch Canham says. 'If we keep winning series, that's going to put us where we want to be.'

The eighth-ranked Beavers (25-7) lost so much talent from last year's national championship club, it didn't seem possible for them to reach the College World Series this June for the third straight year.

When they got off to a remarkable 23-3 start, though, expectations 'got a little out of hand,' coach Pat Casey says.

A Pac-10 schedule that includes national powerhouses Southern Cal, Arizona and Arizona State 'is no easy task,' says Casey, the 2006 national coach of the year.

Add to that the bull's-eye the Beavers wear on their chests from back-to-back league titles, and it means they must be on top of their game, which they weren't during much of the past two weeks.

Saturday's 9-8 victory over SC in eight innings was an old-fashioned gut check, with Mike Lissman, Eddie Kunz and Jordan Lennerton passing the hero's role among themselves in a game the Beavers couldn't afford to lose.

'It's no secret we've been scuffling at the start of the (Pac-10) season,' Casey says. 'We haven't been doing a lot of little things right. To come out and get that win is a true test of our character.

'We're not last year's club. That doesn't mean we can't be a good club. But we have to quit trying to live up to that expectation and just do the right things and be the best club we can be. We're capable of beating anybody; we're capable of getting beat by anybody because of our inexperience.'

Lissman's two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth tied the score at 8-8 after Oregon State had squandered an early 5-0 lead. Lennerton, a junior first baseman in his first year after transfering from El Paso (Texas) Community College, won it with a walk-off opposite-field blast in the 11th.

Then there was Kunz, the man-mountain fireballer who inherited the closer role from the great Kevin Gunderson. The 6-6, 250-pound Parkrose grad worked a sensational 5 1/3 innings in relief, allowing two hits with five strikeouts, pinning the Trojans on their ears while gaining the victory in the 11th.

'When you have guys stepping up like that, with Eddie coming in and throwing zeros for us - huge. I'm stoked,' Canham says.

Sunday was Kunz's 21st birthday. He celebrated a day early, not only for himself but for his father, Ray, who also was born on April 8. Ray, a Lucky Limousine driver, had to work Saturday and missed his son's finest hour.

'I did it for my dad,' says Kunz, whose previous long college outing was 3 2/3 innings against Sacramento State last season. 'In my heart, he was right here with me.

'I was really wanting to get that win. I wasn't going to let anyone take it from me. I was working my butt off trying to do my best - short innings, extended innings, didn't matter. We had to have it.'

Throws picked up whole team

Had not Lennerton won the game with his 11th-inning homer, Kunz wouldn't have gone much longer, says OSU pitching coach Dan Spencer.

'I'd just gone down to the bullpen to tell (reliever Mark) Grbvac, 'The big man's just about out of gas. He's going to pitch to two left-handers and you're coming in,' ' Spencer says. 'Then Jordan smoked one out of the park.

'I don't know how you could be any better than Eddie was. He had all three pitches working - fastball, slider, changeup. He threw a lot more changes today because of all (SC's) left-handed hitters. He had tremendous sink - that's why we went with him so long.'

Adds shortstop Darwin Barney: 'I've never seen Eddie's changeup look that good. He spotted up all day. You knew he had the right mind-set. That's a veteran going in there, doing his job and pretty much picking up the whole team.'

Snatching two of three from the Trojans 'is so much better than going 1-2,' Lennerton says. 'It gets us back on our feet. … We have to keep grinding, and wins will come to us.'

Next up is today's nonconference home game against Portland, then a three-game series against California that begins Friday at Goss Stadium.

'We put Arizona behind us, and winning (the SC) series is big for us, big for our confidence,' Barney says. 'We're a club that once we get on a roll, we're pretty tough. That resilience we showed (Saturday), I hope it'll rub off on everyone.'

Graphic:

Beavers progress report