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Highly ranked Beavers eye baseball postseason, despite youth


COURTESY: SCOBEL WIGGINS - First baseman/catcher KJ Harrison (left), a Freshman All-American last year for Oregon State, is one of the Beavers' leaders going into the 2016 season.CORVALLIS — Hard to believe, but the start of Oregon State's baseball season is two weeks away.

OSU will debut Feb. 19 against Ball State at Surprise, Ariz., with a top-10 ranking in all of the national preseason polls and a legitimate opportunity to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2013.

The Beavers are picked to win the Pac-12 in a vote of the league's coaches.

A year ago, Oregon State went 39-18-1 overall and 19-10-1 to finish second in the Pac-12.

This season, OSU is the conference's top-ranked team in all the national polls, with a strong nucleus of returning starters and a freshman class considered one of the best in the country.

"The bull's eye is squarely on our back," assistant coach Andy Jenkins says. "Funny thing about that -- we have a lot of sophomores and a lot of freshmen. We'll be good, but we have a chance to be even better next season."

The Beavers have been bitterly disappointed to be eliminated in the regionals of the NCAA Tournament the past two years. Even without pitching ace Andrew Moore and center fielder Jeff Hendrix -- both now playing professionally -- they enter this season with more depth in position players than at any time during Pat Casey's 22 years as head coach.

"Usually, we're talking about our depth at pitcher," Casey says. "This year, we have better position players and more of them. We're pretty athletic as a group, and versatile. I like that we have the ability to move a lot of guys around."

Oregon State returns three players who were first-team freshman All-Americans last season -- pitcher Drew Rasmussen, first baseman KJ Harrison and closer Mitch Hickey. Rasmussen and Harrison were members of Team USA last summer.

Casey expects on-field leadership to come from Rasmussen, Harrison, catcher Logan Ice and left fielder Kyle Nobach.

"Those guys have had a lot of success and play key positions for us," Casey says. "You develop leadership. You have to work at it. You have to work at it. You have to be dedicated to it. I expect those guys to be good leaders, and to become better leaders as the season continues on."

The infield positions are stocked two-deep with players who can play multiple positions. Harrison, who also catches, and junior slugger Billy King will play first base. Juniors Trever Morrison and Caleb Hamilton, sophomores Christian Donahue and Michael Gretler and prize freshmen Cadyn Grenier and Nick Madrigal will compete at second base, third base and shortstop. Grenier is a first-team prep All-American from Las Vegas who turned down a $2-million bonus offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

"In the past, we've always had the least amount of depth in the infield," Casey says. "It's nice. Those guys are all good enough athletes that they can play multiple infield positions, and a couple of them can also play the outfield."

Sophomore outfielder Elliott Cary, who closed with a rush last season, underwent Tommy John surgery last July but is already taking part in most practice activity outside of scrimmage sessions. He has not yet been medically cleared for duty in games, but the hope is he'll be available by the third week of the season.

In the interim, Morrison -- the starting shortstop the past two seasons -- may get some duty in center field, with Madrigal filling in at short. Hamilton is another player who may find himself in the outfield, with Grenier or Gretler at third base.

Nobach will play left field. Other contenders for outfield spots include sophomores Joe Gillette and Jack Anderson and freshmen Steven Kwan and Kyle Larnach, though Larnach is likely to miss the first two weeks of the season with a foot injury.

Rasmussen, a right-hander who threw the first perfect game in school history last season against Washington State, and senior right-hander Travis Eckert will occupy two spots in the weekend starting rotation.

"Drew looks good," pitching coach Nate Yeskie says. "He knows there's a larger target on him with the Team USA experience. His fastball command is improving. He has more aptitude and awareness of what he needs to bring to the table.

"Eckert has been better than he was a year ago. He has evolved into understanding what we're expecting from him and how he needs to go about his business."

Even without last year's No. 4 starter, Sam Tweedt, who will sit out the season after Tommy John surgery, there is plenty of competition for the third spot in the rotation. The candidates include sophomore left- hander Luke Heimlich, redshirt freshman left-hander Christian Martinek, junior right-hander Jake Thompson and freshman left-hander Jordan Britton.

Martinek, who missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery, is slowed by a finger problem that will likely keep him out of action through the first two weeks of the season.

"He threw well in the fall before he had the (finger) issues," Casey says. "When he's healthy, he's a front-line starter for any team in the country."

"There are a lot of guys with spots still to be earned," Yeskie says. "There's a lot of solid depth to the (starting) staff. It will be fun piecing those things together."

Hickey, a sophomore right-hander who was 4-1 with a 2.28 ERA and 11 saves a year ago, will likely share closer duties with junior left-hander Max Englebrekt, who missed last season due to knee surgery.

"Max has been outstanding," Yeskie says. "This is what we hoped we'd get to see from him last year. Mitch has had some back issues, but he's coming out of it on the other side now. We have two guys who have done it. That's a feather in our cap."

Junior right-hander Scotland Church, who didn't give up a run in 12 relief appearances last season, and freshman right-hander Bryce Fehmel are position players who are concentrating solely on mound work this season. They'll be among those ticketed for middle relief and set-up duty. Another who might have filled that role, freshman left-hander David Brosius, will sit out the season after Tommy John surgery.

The schedule is formidable, with the first 11 games on the road -- eight over a two-week period in Surprise, then three games at San Diego the following weekend. Oregon State opens at home against San Francisco on March 11 and begins its Pac-12 slate with a three-game series against Arizona State beginning March 18.

California, UCLA, Southern Cal and Oregon join Oregon State as Pac-12 teams ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in the preseason polls.

"One-third of the top 15 clubs are from our conference, and there are some more that could be in there," Casey says. "The top end (of the Pac-12) might be the best we've seen in a long time. We may not have that one team that dominates, but there are six or seven teams that could finish in the top two in the conference."

Casey doesn't take much stock in Oregon State entering the season with its highest consensus national ranking ever.

"Those things are nice for the kids and nice for the program, but I don't look at those things," he says. "If we play well, we can be a good team. We have a lot of young kids who don't have a good understanding yet of what it takes to win games. It's going to come down to how well we pitch and if we can keep guys healthy."

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