OSU's Pat Casey: 'We feel like were going to get better'
CORVALLIS After losing twice in four games of a recent tournament at Surprise, Ariz., to fall to 6-2 for the season, Oregon State was ranked from No. 4 to No. 8 in the four major national polls this week as well as fourth in the Boyd's World RPI rankings.
It's not even a pimple on the rear end for Pat Casey.
"People want to rank you No. 1, 2, 3 or whatever," says Casey, in his 20th season at the OSU helm. "It makes no difference. Let's find out what happens when you play the games."
Casey will find out a little more about his 2014 squad when it makes its Goss Stadium debut at 5 p.m. Friday against Wright State, the first of four games with the Raiders.
Sunday's 1 p.m. finale will feature the season unveiling of senior pitcher Ben Wetzler, unless Oregon State's appeal to the NCAA Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee shortens his 11-game suspension for inappropriate contact with a financial advisor.
The Beavers had climbed as high as No. 1 in the polls after going 4-0 over their first week of games at Tempe, Ariz. They went 2-2 last week, losing 9-2 to Nebraska and 8-7 to Michigan State in a game in which the Beavers led 7-6 going into the ninth inning. An error by freshman shortstop Trever Morrison helped the Spartans plate two runs in the top of the ninth.
"Nebraska came out and beat us bad," Casey says. "We had the game won against Michigan State. All we have to do is field the ball. We know we're young in certain areas and knew that would come in play. We just didn't want it to come in play when it meant as much as it did. Those things happen in baseball, but we're disappointed. We feel like we gave one away.
"We need to play better baseball in order to get to where we think we should be. We're not in a position to think we're the top-ranked team in the country, that's for sure. But we feel like we're going to get better."
The defending Pac-12 champions have been using three freshmen as position starters -- Morrison, catcher Logan Ice and third baseman Caleb Hamilton -- along with freshman Jake Thompson in the rotation, with mostly positive results.
The 5-11, 175-pound Morrison, out of Bothell, Wash., is hitting .258 with three errors while starting all eight games at shortstop.
"Trever has made some great plays for us defensively and has done a decent job hitting," Casey says. "He is handling himself really well."
Ice, pressed into action when junior catcher Nate Esposito was suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules, has played errorless ball behind the plate while hitting .240. His two-run double was the key hit in a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday. The 5-9, 180-pound freshman from Puyallup, Wash., played all 36 innings at Surprise.
"Logan has done a really good job of handling pitchers, of receiving, showing leadership," Casey says. "His work (at Surprise) is a real testament to his desire to play the game."
The 5-11, 180-pound Hamilton, out of Woodinville, Wash., has won the starting third-base job, hitting .321 with only one error.
"He's been solid in every way," Casey says.
Senior first baseman Kavin Keyes is off to a great start at the plate, hitting .483 and going 4 for 4 against the Huskies.
"It's good to see," Casey says. "When 'Kav' is juiced up and excited, he's a pretty good player. It's been inspiring to see him get after it like that."
Junior left-fielder Michael Conforto -- a first-team All-American and Pac-12 player of the year as a sophomore in leading the Beavers to the College World Series -- had a tremendous first week. Conforto had seven hits and 11 RBIs in four games and was named Pac-12 player of the week. He is hitting .385 with 14 RBIs and a .553 on-base percentage.
Sophomore center-fielder Jeff Hendrix, who was hitting .500 through five games, sat out the last three games at Surprise with a strained hamstring.
"Jeff was really swinging the bat well, playing good baseball," Casey says. "It would be nice to have back this weekend, but I'd be surprised."
Senior second baseman Andy Peterson is hitting .308, and senior Nick Rulli -- filling in for Hendrix in center -- had two hits and three RBIs in an 8-1 win over Indiana.
"Nick did a really nice job for us," Casey says. "I'm excited for him."
Oregon State's ERA is a solid 3.00, but Casey says OSU's pitching has been "average at best" so far. Thompson (0.66 ERA), senior Scott Schultz (1.69 ERA) are both 2-0. Sophomore Andrew Moore (0-1, 1.42) and junior Jace Frye (1-0, 3.86) have been the other starters.
Thompson, a 6-2, 205-pound right-hander out of Siuslaw High, has pitched brilliantly in his two starts, allowing one earned run with five hits, four walks and five strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.
Relievers have yielded 13 of the staff's 24 earned runs.
"Scott has really been good, and Jake has handled himself well," Casey says. "We haven't come close in the other areas to what we need to be. We have to get better in the bullpen."
Schultz had been ticketed to share closer duties with sophomore Max Engelbrekt (0-1, 9.00) and will likely come out of the pen this weekend with the return of Wetzler.
"It will be great to have Ben back with us," Casey says. "I'm excited as heck about what he brings to our club, even when he's not pitching. Just having him around for his leadership, feeding off his work ethic it's going to be a real good shot in the arm for us."
NOTES: Junior right-fielder Dylan Davis is off to a slow start at the plate, batting .188 though with nine RBIs in eight games. JC transfer Michael Howard, who will share center-field duties with Rulli in Hendrix's absence, is hitting .200. Casey has not decided if he'll move Wetzler up in the rotation should the NCAA shorten his suspension. Wright State, out of Fairborn, Ohio, plays in the Horizon League. The Raiders are 2-4, having lost two of three games to Michigan State along with a 7-2 defeat to Arizona State. The Raiders' RPI ranking is 216. Oregon State is 2-0 over the years against Wright State, with a 3-2 win in 1996 and a 5-3 victory in 2006. The teams will square off in a doubleheader Saturday, the first game beginning at 12:35 p.m.