Unbeaten Beavers keep finding ways to win, as Pac-12 play looms
CORVALLIS -- On Friday, Oregon State gets started for real in its Pac-12-opening series at Tucson against defending national champion Arizona.
For now, OSU is accumulating victories as it compiles a resume for the NCAA playoffs, the latest a 6-4 win to complete a three-game sweep of Texas State Sunday at Goss Stadium.
The fourth-ranked Beavers (15-0) are off to the school's best start since 1962, when Ralph Coleman's Orangemen opened 18-0. There are two more non-conference games -- against San Francisco at Goss on Tuesday and Wednesday -- before the always demanding league schedule begins.
"We didn't play outstanding baseball today," Pat Casey said after the Beavers used a little small-ball, a moon shot by Tyler Smith and just enough pitching and defense to join top-ranked North Carolina and Florida State as the nation's remaining unbeatens. "I didn't see us playing to the level we need to win in our conference, especially offensively.
"But we won. At this point, we're winning, which is what it's all about. We're trying to get better every game."
Oregon State trailed 2-0 in the fifth inning but struck for three runs after Jake Rodriguez opened the frame with a line single. Andy Peterson followed with a bunt single after Texas State pitcher Scott Grist mishandled the ball. Smith's drag bunt was then fielded by Grist, who threw the ball away at first base, scoring Rodriguez and moving Peterson to third.
Another batter, another bunt, this time by Ryan Barnes on a squeeze play, with Peterson sliding in safely at home. After a Michael Conforto walk, Dylan Davis' double-play grounder scored Smith for a 3-2 lead.
In the fifth, Smith provided the game's big blow with a blast over the left-field wall for a three-run homer and a 6-2 advantage.
The Beavers hung on from there, with four pitchers -- including starter Ben Wetzler, working the first three innings on a pitch count -- sharing duty.
Oregon State's early schedule has been mediocre at best, with no top-25 opponents. Even so, it's been an encouraging start for an OSU team hoping to return to the College World series for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
"We have the most chemistry on a team I've been a part of," said Smith, the senior shortstop who is hitting .367 with 13 RBIs in the 15 games. "We have one goal. We've been working toward it since last season when we lost at LSU (in the regionals). That feeling we never want to have to feel that again."
The goal: To get back to the CWS?
"Not just getting there, winning it," Smith said. "That's what we've been working toward."
This Oregon State team is not of the same caliber of the '06 and '07 squads in several regards. There are no leaders of the ilk of Darwin Barney and Mitch Canham, no top-end starters such as Jonah Nickerson, Mike Stutes and Dallas Buck, no closer as nails as Kevin Gunderson, no leadoff hitter like Tyler Graham.
Even so, it's a heck of a group, with the deepest pitching staff Casey has assembled in his 19 years in Corvallis, the Pac-12's premier slugger in left fielder Conforto and terrific defense, led by Smith and second baseman Peterson up the middle. The team ERA is 1.19, with an opponents' batting average of .187.
"We have the potential to be better than any of my teams since 2007," Casey said. "But we have a long way to go to make it happen."
One of the best signs has been the resurgence of sophomore right fielder Dylan Davis, hitting .400 in the cleanup spot after slumping the second half of last season to finish at .247. The difference?
"Confidence," Casey said. "He feels comfortable this year. He is doing all the things you need to be successful at the plate. He is relaxed and confident, and it has made a lot of difference."
The Beavers don't have a lot of power outside of Conforto, but they're hitting .300 while averaging more than seven runs a game.
"We like to put pressure on teams," Smith said. "We have speed at the top of the lineup. We aren't afraid to lay down bunts all day long."
"We have a more complete lineup than in my other three years here," said Barnes, a senior first baseman/outfielder who returned to action this weekend after missing the first dozen games with a broken bone in a wrist. "We're still effective manufacturing runs, like we've always done. That's the Beaver way. But our bats are better throughout the lineup."
It's the most veteran club Casey has had, with Smith, Barnes, first baseman Danny Hayes, outfielders Max Gordon and Joey Matthews and pitchers Matt Boyd, Tony Bryant and Taylor Starr playing key roles as seniors.
Then there are freshmen Andrew Moore and Max Engelbrekt, Moore 4-0 with an 0.99 ERA as a starter with Engelbrekt leading a bullpen that has allowed two earned runs all season.
The X-factor is Jace Fry, the sophomore left-hander from Southridge High rehabbing from Tommy John elbow surgery. He is shooting for a return to action some time in May. If Fry can come back and provide help as a weekend starter from that point, it makes the Beavers' staff all that more potent going into the playoffs.
"I think we're as good as any team in the country," Smith said. "We can beat anyone on a given day, with our pitching staff and our lineup.
"We just have to make teams beat us. If we have to lose, that's what we want. We don't want to beat ourselves by making mental mistakes."
Going into Sunday play, Boyd's World pseudo-RPI list, which rates team quality while factoring in strength of schedule, ranks Oregon State as its No. 1 team in the country, followed by Furman, South Carolina, Louisiana State and Vanderbilt.
The key for the Beavers, as Casey said, will be to continue to progress and mature as a team as they move through the season. As the winning streak mounts, does the pressure increase?
"I feel like we don't have any pressure," Barnes said. "We just go out and and find ways to win."
Asked the same question, Casey shook his head.
"No, it's great," he said of the streak. "Pressure comes when you're not playing well, not winning games. We expect to win games, and we should."