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  • 18 Sep 2014

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Pat Casey's Beavers have experience and incoming help

CORVALLIS — The temperature was a spring-like 55 degrees Wednesday, and there was optimism in the air as Oregon State put a wrap on its final baseball practice before Friday’s opener against Utah Valley in the Palm Springs (Calif.) Invitational.

The goal, sophomore outfielder Michael Conforto allowed, is simple: “Get to Omaha and win the whole thing.”

That would mean the College World Series championship, which the Beavers haven’t done since winning national titles back-to-back in 2006 and ‘07.

The Beavers return their entire pitching staff and all but three starters — third baseman Ryan Dunn, catcher Ryan Gorton and second baseman John Tommasini — from their 2012 team that went 40-20 and made the NCAA playoffs for the fourth straight year.

There will be no impact freshmen the likes of Conforto, who piled up a string of awards — first-team Freshman All-American, second-team All-American, NCBWA Freshman Hitter of the Year, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, all-Pac-12 first team — while leading the Pac-12 with 76 RBIs, tying for the conference lead with 13 homers and batting a team-best .349.

But coach Pat Casey expects some recruits — including freshman pitching ace Andrew Moore and JC transfer second baseman Andy Peterson — to provide immediate help. Conforto agrees.

“We have four or five freshmen and two or three JC guys who can make an impact right away,” he said.

Conforto and pitcher Dan Child played for the U.S. collegiate national team on a tour of Cuba and the Netherlands last summer. The 6-1, 205-pound Conforto batted in the four-hole as designated hitter while recovering from a late-season shin injury. Child made appearances in seven games as a reliever.

“We played with a lot of guys who are going to be No. 1 draft picks,” the lefty-hitting Conforto said. “It was a great experience.”

Oregon State will be short-handed for its four games in the Palm Springs event. Senior outfielder Ryan Barnes — who hit .284 with 39 runs and 24 RBIs last season — broke a bone in his left wrist last week and will be out of action another month.

Junior pitchers Ben Wetzler (pulled muscle in back) and Taylor Starr (sore shoulder) will miss at least the first weekend of play, and ace sophomore Jace Fry — who underwent Tommy John surgery last June — will be out until at least May.

The Beavers have a lot of pluses, though, as Casey enters his 19th season at the OSU helm.

“I like our club,” said Casey, who owns a career record of 618-376 during his time at Oregon State and is 789-489 including seven years at George Fox. “We have to have the right guys playing well at the right time, but we have enough pieces. I like that we have enough pitching and experience in the right (positions).”

National preseason polls have Oregon State anywhere from No. 6 to 15, and the Beavers are forecast to finish third in the Pac-12 behind Stanford and UCLA — ahead of Oregon and defending national champion Arizona.

“It’s good for our program and good for our guys,” Casey said. “If they can play to that, that’d be awesome.”

“But we can’t live through that,” Conforto said. “Preseason rankings are meaningless unless you go out and play up to them. We need to keep that out of our sights and just go out and play the way we can play.”

Eight seniors could play key roles, more than on any team in the Casey era. They include pitchers Matt Boyd, Cole Brocker and Tony Bryant, infielders Danny Hayes and Tyler Smith and outfielders Barnes, Max Gordon and Joey Matthews.

“That’s a real good thing,” Casey said. “That kind of experience can pay off. It’s nice to have some older guys who have been through it before.”

Fry, out of Southridge High, was also a first-team Freshman All-American a year ago, but he underwent elbow surgery last June 20. The 6-0, 195-pound southpaw (5-3, 2.45 ERA in 2012) was throwing easily Wednesday during the OSU practice session.

“I feel great,” Fry said. “No setbacks. Best I’ve felt physically in a couple of years.

“I’m doing long-toss now, throwing off the mound with just the fastball and changeup, no curves or sliders.”

Fry had targeted a May 21 game against Oregon in Corvallis — before the final regular-season series against Washington State — for his return.

“I’m ahead of schedule,” he said, “but we’ll see.”

Fry’s absence leaves Child (6-4, 2.95), Wetzler (8-2, 3.10), Boyd (4-0, 3.41), Starr (5-2, 4.37) and Moore in the starting rotation. Casey plans to use Child Friday, Boyd Saturday and Moore Sunday, leaving open a decision on Monday’s finale (against Cal Riverside).

Moore, a 5-11, 180-pound right-hander, “is a competitor,” Casey said. “He has a good feel for the game. Quality kid.”

The bullpen is loaded with candidates for the closer role. Senior right-hander Tony Bryant — an all-Pac-10 selection as a sophomore in 2011 — was 6-2 with a 3.82 ERA and nine saves last season but faltered too often, eventually losing the job.

“It was his job and he struggled with it,” Casey said. “It’d be nice if he got back (to his sophomore form), but it’s a position that has to be earned.

Others in the competition are rocket-armed sophomore right-hander Dylan Davis (1-1, 4.32), junior right-hander Scott Schultz (3-1, 2.56) and freshman left-hander Max Englebrekt.

“Max reminds me a lot of (former All-America closer Kevin Gunderson),” Casey said. “A lot of action on his stuff, and he pitches with poise.”

Conforto heads Oregon State’s every-day lineup. Casey doesn’t want him to worry about stats.

“It’s always a tough situation coming off a year like the one he had,” the OSU skipper said. “If he drove in 76 runs again this year, I’d be shocked, but he can be a better hitter.

“I hope his focus is what he can do every day and not get pressed by the numbers and what everybody expecting him to do statistically.”

Casey said Conforto, who played mostly left field as a freshman, could play some third base this season.

“Whatever he plays, he’s an above-average fielder,” Casey said. “He came here as a shortstop.”

Oregon State returns Smith, an all-Pac-12 first-team selection at second base last year after hitting .343 with 46 runs and 39 RBIs. Smith will move to shortstop this season.

“Tyler will have a better year than he had last year,” Casey said. “He has developed more physically and has gained some leadership skills that will be beneficial to both him and to us.”

Also back are starters Hayes at first base, junior Kavin Keyes in the infield, junior Jake Rodriguez at catcher and Matthews and Gordon in the outfield.

Hayes (.307, five HRs and 27 RBIs) will play first base and some corner outfield.

"I expect him to be an every-day guy,” Casey said. “He’s the healthiest he’s been since he has been here. He is set up for a big year.”

Keyes, who hit only .226 after earning first-team all-Pac-10 honors as a freshman, could play anywhere in the infield and might get some time at catcher. Keyes had surgery in June for a slight labrum tear that hampered him through last season.

“He tried to play, but it was tough for him,” Casey said. “He’s healthy now. He’ll bounce back.”

Rodriguez (.290, 28 RBIs) “would be our best defensive third baseman, and probably our best second baseman. He’s going to be on the field somewhere most of the time.”

Matthews (.267) broke a hand during fall ball but is healthy now. Gordon (.257) “has improved,” Casey said. “He’s stronger, and offensively he’ll be better.”

Three JC transfers could help — Peterson, who will see action at second base; Jerad Casper, who will see time at third base, and Joey Jansen, “our best center fielder defensively.”

The other important addition is assistant coach Andy Jenkins, a stalwart on Oregon State’s 2005 CWS team who takes over for Marty Lees and will coach third base.

“Andy’s going to be an important guy in our program for a long time,” Casey said.

The Beavers, whose home opener is against Bryant on March 1, have road Pac-12 series with UCLA, Arizona, Stanford and Oregon — all preseason top 20 teams. It’s a daunting challenge.

“If we play like we can, we’ll handle it,” Casey said. “We have to stay healthy. We’ve had a hard time doing that the last couple of years.”

Conforto isn’t worried.

“We’re going to pick up where we left off last year,” he said.

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