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Brothers in arms

Tightknit pitching trio elevates OSU to top tier
by: Courtesy, Kevin Gunderson came to OSU and became the best closer in school history.

OMAHA, Neb. - Three years ago, when he turned down what he says was a $500,000 offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dallas Buck told the Portland Tribune, 'We are going to be pretty tough in a couple of years.'

Buck was speaking about an OSU baseball program that hadn't made the College World Series since 1952 or even an NCAA regional since 1986. He was prescient.

Oregon State coach Pat Casey was licking his chops when he signed a trio ofPortland-area pitchers (Buck from Newberg, Jonah Nickerson from Oregon City, Kevin Gunderson from Central Catholic) to what amounted to a three-year contract to lead the Beavers out of the college baseball wilderness. It couldn't have worked out more perfectly for Casey, a former University of Portland standout whose seven-year pro career as an outfielder took him as far as Triple-A ball.

'I can't put into words what those three guys have meant to our program,' Casey says.

Buck will step to the mound Saturday when the fourth-ranked Beavers (44-14) face eighth-ranked Miami (41-22) in the opening round of college baseball's biggest spectacle.

All three hurlers went early in the June 6 major-league draft - Buck in the third round to Arizona, Gunderson in the fifth round to Atlanta, Nickerson in the seventh round to Detroit.

'Their reward is much more than an opportunity in pro baseball,' Casey says. 'They have two Pac-10 championship rings, two appearances in the College World Series, three years of college education, the chance to play in one of the greatest conferences in the country and and the time to form relationships with teammates they will have the rest of their lives. College baseball is a wonderful opportunity in so many facets, from weight lifting and conditioning, skill development, academics, college social life and camaraderie. Those are things you can't replace.'

Buck, Nickerson and Gunderson have become close friends.

'Our friendship has grown over the three years together,' Gunderson says. 'When Jonah is on the mound, Dallas and I are happier to see him win than anybody on the team. Jonah and I root for Dallas, and they both appreciate when I save games for them. It's been a dream come true, to be honest with you. It's hard to believe some of the things we have accomplished at Oregon State. This kind of thing doesn't happen to too many people.'

Buck was a four-sport star at Newberg, a 6-3, 190-pound football quarterback, basketball guard, baseball pitcher-shortstop who was a good enough athlete to qualify for the district track meet in the high jump, long jump and 200 meters.

Baseball was his specialty, but playing college football interested him, too, and signability was an issue. Atlanta and the New York Yankees indicated they were willing to draft him in about the fourth round of the 2003 draft, but Buck sought a bonus of about $750,000, more than they were willing to pay. He went in the 19th round to Pittsburgh, which he says made a belated offer of more than $500,000. He held firm and enrolled at Oregon State.

'I might take a little pay cut (when he signs with Arizona), but in the long run, it was a good move,' Buck says. 'I've gotten so much better as a pitcher. I used to just throw and get batters out by overpowering them. This year is going to help me out a ton.'

Buck played special teams as a freshman in football at OSU, then got mononucleosis at the beginning of his sophomore season. He made all the road trips and suited for games as a sophomore, but by then it was clear baseball was his future, and at that point he devoted himself to the sport full-time.

After going 12-1 using a fastball that topped out in the low 90s as a sophomore - and leading the nation with 129 innings pitched - Buck's fastball lost some of its juice this season. He compensated by developing a nasty changeup/splitter and improving on his location. Opponents have hit only .207 against him this spring.

'Dallas has always had a great slider and huge movement on his pitches,' Casey says. 'As a coach, you don't want to change that. When his velocity dropped, he worked hard on the command of his other two pitches. He's got it to where he can pinpoint them and throw it on any count. To the hitter, that 87 mph fastball may look like 90.

'He's made himself a pitcher. He's learned to set hitters up and think about what he wants to do. The confidence level in his secondary pitches has grown 100 percent. That velocity is going to come back, and when it does, you're going to have a real special pitcher.'

The other change evident this year is Buck's on-mound demeanor. In the past, a bad call or a booted grounder caused him to sulk and show his displeasure with body language. He's still not perfect in that area, but much improved.

'I've gotten better at that every year since my junior year in high school,' he says. 'It's been going in the right path. It's just maturity. It's hurt me maybe a little bit, but it looks a lot worse than it is. People who know me, my coaches and teammates, know I'm not giving up. It just looks bad to everyone else.'

The other No. 1

Nickerson says he probably would have signed a pro contract if he had been taken in the first 12 rounds of the 2003 draft, but he went undrafted after a stellar career in which he was a two-time all-state selection at Oregon City. A lucky thing for Oregon State, the first school to offer him a scholarship and the one that had the inside track all along.

'I made up my mind on Oregon State pretty early,' says the 6-1, 195-pound Nickerson, who canceled visits to California and Washington State after verbally committing to the Beavers. 'I liked the idea of playing close to home, and I had good insight into the program.'

Nickerson's older brother, Tim, had played at OSU one fall before transferring to Western Oregon. And Jonah had played on a summer all-star team with Buck and Gunderson.

'We kind of made our choice together,' Nickerson says. 'We knew the program was on the rise and they had a great coaching staff.'

After a few attempts to come out of the bullpen met with moderate success, Nickerson won a job as the third starter midway through his freshman season. He never looked back, essentially giving Oregon State two No. 1 starters his final two years.

'The best thing that could have happened to Jonah was not getting drafted,' Casey says. 'The development he has had is tremendous, with both his pitching ability and the change in him physically. He has become so much stronger, and so much better through the mental part of it.'

Casey says Nickerson reminds him of Andrew Checketts, a two-time all-Northern Division selection who was Oregon State's MVP in 1998.

'He has a plan for everything, and it all comes to fruition at game time,' Casey says. 'Jonah is precise in everything he does. He's a no-maintenance guy. He takes care of business, goes to class and acts responsibly.'

Nickerson is sneaky fast and has terrific control, with 112 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 115 1/3 innings this spring.

'Jonah has great deception,' Casey says. 'His fastball gets on you a little quicker than you think. He commands his curveball and change when and how he wants. He can pitch on both sides off the plate, and he's a competitor.'

Anchor in the bullpen

Gunderson might have wound up at Stanford if not for academic issues.

'I had gone to a Stanford camp the summer before my senior year and really liked it down there, but I didn't qualify with my SAT score,' Gunderson says. 'OSU had been recruiting me hard, too. It would have been a tough decision, but Stanford made it for me.'

Casey laughs about it now: 'After Kevin signed with us, I told him, 'Hey, you're going to pitch at Stanford - with an Oregon State uniform on, getting them out and winning.' He grinned, but he believed me. Maybe he liked that competitiveness in me. He's seeing the rewards now of coming to Oregon State.'

'It was the best fit I could ever have had,' Gunderson says.

Because he was a lefty and accommodating to the idea of being a closer, the 5-10, 160-pound Gunderson was placed in the bullpen as a freshman. Pitching in middle relief, he earned wins in his first four college appearances. Soon thereafter he was a closer, to become the best in school history.

'It can get really nerve-racking, but the more you do it, you get used to it,' he says. 'I've been in the toughest situations I could ever be put into. Ninth inning with a one-run lead, bases loaded and one out - I know how to handle myself as far as taking deep breaths and staying calm. There is no reason to get overanxious and start overthrowing.'

A blown save happens to Gunderson about as often as a total eclipse. His teammates have come to count on him.

'Kevin really competes,' Casey says. 'He feels like the deck's been stacked against him because he's small, so he goes out with a chip on his shoulder and gets people out.

'He has a knack for being loosey-goosey in the dugout before he goes out there. I'll say, 'Are you ready?' He'll say, 'Coach, don't worry, I got it handled.' He's an unbelievable kid. Any parent who has a son would want to mold him around a Kevin Gunderson.'

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