The Oregon State baseball team is headed back to the College World Series, thanks in big part to the pitching exploits of Lake Oswego's Mike Stutes.
The former Lakers star, who is now a junior at OSU, turned in one of his best performances of the season on Monday when he tossed a three-hit, nine-strikeout gem over eight innings as Oregon State registered an 8-2 victory over Michigan. It was the Beavers' second super regional victory over the Wolverines, which qualified Oregon State for its third trip to the College World Series in as many years.
After winning the national title last year, the Beavers were relegated to the role of underdogs this year after they barely qualified for the national playoffs.
But the Beavers are playing their best ball of the season, and Stutes and his teammates feel they can beat anybody right now. Their confidence was especially high after the Beavers won the first game of the super regional despite logging just one hit. And while the Beavers were riding an emotional high, Stutes said he could see that the Michigan hitters were beginning to lose their confidence.
'I think we knew we had 'em,' Stutes remembered thinking as OSU warmed up for Game 2 in the series.
In that nationally televised game, Stutes displayed the same kind of confidence he had when he was virtually untouchable during his senior year in high school while leading Lake Oswego to the state championship.
'It was definitely my best (outing) in my last couple of starts,' Stutes said. 'My curve was pretty effective … That's because I've working on it for the last couple of weeks.'
The key was changing the grip on that curveball, Stutes said. He went from gripping the ball along the two seams that are close together to gripping it across the seams that form a horseshoe on the side of the ball. The result was a pitch with a nasty break that started at the top of the strike zone and ended somewhere around the batters' knees.
'A couple of those (Michigan) guys were really struggling with (that pitch),' Stutes said. 'Coming into the game, I knew I would be able to come right at them.'
Stutes had great command of the strike zone in that game as he gave up just one walk. And it wasn't just the curveball, or the slurve, as Stutes calls his new pitch, that was keeping hitters off balance. He was also spotting a fastball, that was clocked at about 92 to 93 mph, to get ahead in the count. Then, with his sharp-breaking, 12-to-6, slurve working perfectly, the Michigan hitters often found themselves swinging at air.
Before the grip change, Stutes said his old curveball was usually clocked in the mid-70 mph range. On Monday, his slurve was clocked several times at 84 mph, and Stutes was able to place the pitch where he wanted it.
'It's a lot easier to control when you throw it harder,' he said.
There was only one Michigan batter than Stutes had trouble with on Monday. That was Eric Rose, who was hitting No. 9 in the Wolverines' lineup. He had two solo home runs in the game - one in the sixth inning and one in the ninth. That last one knocked Stutues from the game.
It hardly mattered at that point, though, because Oregon State was already well on its way to victory after scoring eight runs against four Michigan pitchers.
One of those Wolverine hurlers hadn't lost a game all season. But he was no match for Stutes, who seems to perform better as the stakes increase.
'I like getting the ball in big games,' Stutes said.
Now it's on to Omaha, where the College World Series is held. The Beavers have become such fixtures there it's almost as if they're the hometown team. They might be well liked in Nebraska, but they'll still be underdogs when the tournament starts on Friday.
'I don't think we will ever be considered the favorites,' Stutes noted. 'But we have just as good a chance as anyone.'
Whatever happens during the next week, this will likely be Stutes' last trip to Omaha, regardless of what Oregon State does next year. After being picked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth round of amateur baseball draft last week, it seems likely that Stutes will turn pro after the College World Series.
'I told every team that was talking to me that I was going to come out after this year,' said Stutes, who posted a 10-4 record this season.
The former Lake Oswego star had been projected to go as high as the third round, but he slid a bit after a couple of rough outings late in the season. Regardless of where he wound up, the Cardinals will be getting a solid prospect.