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Beavers ready, maybe, to defend Pac-12 crown

CORVALLIS -- Oregon State begins Pac-12 play Friday with the first of a three-game series at Utah. Are the Beavers ready?

"I'm an old dog," OSU coach Pat Casey said before his team's 4-3 victory over Ohio State Tuesday night at Goss Stadium. "I was ready when we rolled out of Christmas. I don't know if the (players are) ready.

"I like the big games. Over the years, we've always been a club that, the bigger the game, the better we play. Our guys prepare for everybody, but there's something special about games in our league."

A year ago, Casey's Beavers won a school-record 52 games, went 24-6 in claiming the Pac-12 championship with the best record since league unification in 1999 and reached the College World Series for the fourth time in the last nine years.

This year's Beavers, 15-3 and ranked between No. 4 and 7 in the five national polls, were the preseason pick by Pac-12 coaches to successfully defend their title.

"Our guys really played their tails off to go 24-6," says Casey, 685-392 and closing in on win No. 700 in his 20th season at the OSU helm. "That's not an easy thing to do. A lot of things have to go right for that to happen.

"We were No. 1 or 2 in the country earlier in the season, and we're still up there. You're going to get everyone's best shot. That's the way it should be. Duke gets everybody's best shot in basketball every single year. I love being in that spot.

"But you have to be up to the challenge. The mental part of this game is so important."

How have the Beavers played in the prelude part of their schedule?

"Very average," Casey says. "I'm not saying the effort hasn't been there. It has. But there are so many ways our veterans can be better."

On Monday, Casey asked each member of his coaching staff to list two things he'd like to see the Beavers do better.

"Every one of them said on-field leadership," the veteran OSU skipper says. "Those things can be fixed, and it will be fixed. It just takes somebody wanting to do that."

Junior left fielder Michael Conforto -- a first-team All-American and Pac-12 player of the year as a sophomore -- met with teammates on Monday.

"It was nothing serious," Conforto said, "a team-building kind of thing. We're always working on chemistry. The things we talked about (included) to keep having fun and don't let all the hype dictate the way we play.

"We're blessed to wear the uniform representing Oregon State. It's a fun thing. Don't get uptight. Play the game the way we know how."

Oregon State's pitchers went into the Ohio State game with a collective .197 ERA. OSU starters had "quality starts" -- defined as yielding no more than three earned runs in at least six innings -- on 14 occasions, far ahead of the six they had at that point a year ago.

Jace Fry's no-hitter Saturday against Northern Illinois was the gemstone, earning the Southridge High grad national pitcher the week honors by Collegiate Baseball.

"We've played half our schedule against people we should dominate," Casey says. "Wright State and Northern Illinois both had a couple of good arms, but they're behind at the offensive end.

"Our pitching numbers are a little inflated. Not that we haven't thrown the ball well. I don't care who you throw the ball against, Fry was sensational, and (Ben) Wetzler was much better the second time out than his first."

Oregon State's weekend starting trio of senior Wetzler, sophomore Andrew Moore and junior Fry stacks up with any in the country. If freshman Jack Thompson -- who gave up two hits and three earned runs before being pulled after the first inning Tuesday night -- proves good enough to serve as a midweek starter, it would allow senior Scott Schultz to anchor the bullpen.

"Having Schultz in the bullpen changes the dynamics of everything," Casey says.

Conforto is off to a strong start, hitting .382 while leading the nation in walks (23) and ranking second in RBIs (26). Senior first baseman Kavin Keyes (.339) and senior second baseman Andy Peterson (.286) are cornerstones to the Oregon State offense as well as sophomore Gabe Clark, who has won the designated hitter job with a .405 start.

"Gabe been outstanding," Casey says. "He's putting the ball in play with only two strikeouts in 37 at-bats."

The veteran who is struggling the most is junior outfielder Dylan Davis, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection a year ago who has 19 RBIs but entered Tuesday play batting .226 after hitting .335 with a Pac-12-leading 22 doubles and 61 RBIs in 2013.

"Dylan has been over-thinking at the plate," Casey says. "He just needs to relax and play the game. He is one of the best hitters in the country."

Davis went 2 for 4 Tuesday night, though one was a pop fly that Ohio State left fielder Tim Wetzel lost in the sun for a double. Davis also had a sharp-hit run-scoring single and pulled a ball foul at home-run distance in his final at-bat.

"It felt good," Davis said. "I'll take anything I can get. It's still early in the season. I just have to keep working hard, knowing I'll get out of it. It's baseball.

"I've been trying to do too much for the team, which takes away the focus away from the main goal. I'm just going to guarantee everything I can do to focus on every pitch and square up on every ball I can."

The Beavers have been extremely pleased with three freshman position starters, all from the Seattle area -- catcher Logan Ice, shortstop Trever Morrison and third baseman Caleb Hamilton.

"They've been outstanding," Casey says. "Through the history of our program, we have impact freshmen every year. Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's two. This year it's three. They're versatile and athletic and they love to hit."

Ice is batting .187 but with 11 walks has an on-base percentage of .358. With the suspension of junior Nate Esposito, Ice has started all but two games at catcher this season.

"Logan has swung the bat better than .187, and he's had to catch nearly every damn inning," Casey says. "He needs a 2-hole catcher who can pick him up a little bit, and he hasn't had that opportunity. He'll end up hitting just fine."

Conforto and Davis stressed how the freshmen have shelved their "rookie" status.

"They've played great," Confort said. "Once we get out on the field, there are no classes any more, there's just baseball players. They've bought into that. Our expectations of them are high, and they're meeting them."

"The older guys -- myself and Michael and Andy (Peterson) -- we need to do more," Davis said. "The younger guys look up to us, but they can be leaders, too. They're not freshmen anymore. They've been here since September. They can step up and bring some energy."

Oregon State swept Utah a year ago, winning 1-0, 8-3 and 4-1 in Corvallis.

The Utes "have really good pitching," says Casey, who is particularly impressed with junior right-hander Mitch Watrous (1-2, 4.37, .230 opponents' batting average) and senior southpaw closer Nick Green (0.60, six hits, three walks and 17 strikeouts in 15 innings).

"They scrap and they have a lot of guys who can play," Casey says. "We'll have to step up our game a notch to win the series."

Davis vows the Beavers will be ready.

"Everybody realizes what's at stake," he said. "This is our time. We need to come in guns blazing for the first weekend of Pac-12 play."

NOTES: Oregon State was outhit 8-5 but got excellent relief pitching in beating Ohio State (8-6). Brandon Jackson, Mak Fox, Philip Belding and Trent Shelton combined for eight innings of six-hit, no-run ball. … Fox, a freshman left-hander from New Zealand, scattered four hits with no walks in 3 2/3 innings. "Mak was real competitive," Casey said. "His stuff is going to get better. He's only been here for a couple of months." … Casey, on the Beavers' hitting against the Buckeyes: "Their pitching was solid, but you're going to see a lot of that (kind of) pitching. We should do a better job. If you don't hit in the middle of the order and swing out of the zone, you usually have a hard time." … Ice gunned down Jake Brobst at second base with one out in the ninth inning and Oregon State clinging to a 4-3 lead.

Casey will likely start Wetzler on Friday, Moore on Saturday and Fry on Sunday. Moore sat out last weekend's series with Northern Illinois with a sore elbow, but MRI tests were negative and he seems ready to go. … Oregon State leads the nation with 123 walks. "That's a good thing," Casey said. "We'd like to score more runs. We'd like to swing the batter better, but we're a disciplined club. We're not going up there to walk, but the games have dictated that for us. Michael has a lot of what I'd call 'unintentional intentional' walks." … Casey hopes sophomore center fielder Jeff Hendrix, who has been dealing with a strained hamstring, will be available for Utah. Hendrix has eight hits in 15 at-bats but has played in only six games. … Esposito, who has missed the entire season due to the suspension for violation of team rules, has been practicing with the Beavers. Coaches hope he will be eligible to return to active duty next week. … Oregon State enters the Utah series on a seven-game win streak. … Weather forecast for Salt Lake City for the weekend is sunny with highs in the low 50's and low 60's.

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