Pat Casey assesses 2017, and 2018, for Oregon State baseball
It's hard to feel let down when you've finished a major-college baseball season 56-6 and reached the College World Series.
When you arrive in Omaha as the favorite and fail to win it all, though, it's also hard to feel fulfilled.
That's the dilemma of Pat Casey, whose 23rd season at the Oregon State helm was his most glorious, with one exception — the Beavers didn't win it all.
Casey's teams have accomplished that twice, in 2006 and '07, and had every intention of duplicating the feat at TD Ameritrade Park last month.
"We went there to win the whole thing," says Casey, honored as the 2017 National College Baseball Writers Association Coach of the Year. "We didn't get it done. It's my job to get us across the finish line. I wasn't able to do that."
The unanimously top-ranked Beavers won their first two games in the CWS, then fell twice to Louisiana State, suffering consecutive losses for the first time all season.
Given the perspective of time, Casey reflects with pride and praise for his players on the 2017 OSU team, which compiled the best Division I record in 35 years — since Texas went 57-6 in 1982.
The Beavers also posted a school-record number of victories.
"Our guys played like champions through the entire season," Casey says. "There was never a time when I questioned what they did. In Omaha, we were unable to finish. We played a really good team that had won 20 of 21 games, and their loss was to us.
"(The Tigers) played better than us on the last two days the season. It was not the way we wanted to end it, but as I told the club after the last game, there's not one guy who should leave hanging his head. It was a remarkable season. They'll probably never again be part of a team that wins 56 of 62 games in the game of baseball."
Things might have turned out differently had the ball struck off the left-field wall by Steven Kwan in the third inning of the 3-1 loss to LSU on June 23 been ruled fair — as replays showed it should have been. It was called foul by home-plate umpire Mark Winters, and Casey didn't call for a replay, in part because OSU's third-base coach, Andy Jenkins, thought it was foul, too.
The NCAA rule states the play can be reviewed only if the ball hits the ground first. Casey learned later that it's true if the ball hits the fence, too.
"I've been around a long time, and I've never heard the fence is considered part of the ground," the OSU coach says. "The crew chief should have reviewed it on his own, but I should have called an offensive timeout and provided for some time to influence them to do it. It could have changed the inning."
It could have changed the game, too, since two runners would have scored to tie the game, and Kwan would have had either a double or triple.
Casey chose to start Bryce Fehmel over Drew Rasmussen in the rubber game against LSU on June 24 for a couple of reasons. Fehmel had stymied the Tigers in a 13-1 rout five days earlier, allowing only two hits and one run over eight innings. Also, Rasmussen — who had missed much of the season while rehabbing from March 2016 Tommy John elbow surgery — would have been on a pitch count of about 80, Casey says.
"We were going to get five or six innings out of 'Razz', and he'd have been done for the entire tournament, because he would not be able to go again on short rest," the OSU coach says.
In the June 24 game, Fehmel gave up four hits and four runs in 2 1/3 innings, and the Beavers never recovered in a 6-1 loss. They managed only two hits and one runs in seven innings against LSU sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert, helped by the generous strike zone of plate umpire Greg Street.
"(Gilbert) pitched his tail off," Casey says. "It's difficult to hit a guy throwing 94 to 95 (mph) fastballs on the edge of the plate. To hit him when pitches are eight to 10 inches off the edge, it's even more difficult."
Oregon State had been a strong offensive club through the entire season, but managed only a single run in each of its final two losses.
"We weren't able to capitalize on some opportunities," Casey says. "We think we're a better offensive club than that, but we didn't get it done."
Things could have been different had the Beavers had the services of junior left-hander Luke Heimlich, who missed the Super Regional and the CWS after revelation of a felony sex abuse charge when he was 15 years old. Heimlich was 11-1 and led the nation with an 0.76 ERA. The Beavers were also without starting left-fielder Christian Donahue, left behind after failing a drug test.
But Casey wants his players to look positively at the season behind them. OSU's 2006 national champions went 50-16; a year later, the Beavers repeated with a 49-18 record.
"Think about how improbable it was, with a schedule like ours, to play 62 games and win 56 of them," he says. "That's what hard when you're a coach. Eight teams go to Omaha, and seven of them come home disappointed.
"But just getting to Omaha is one heck of a difficult task. Our guys went through some adversity and still got there. I don't want them to feel like they have to win a national championship to validate who they are. They gave everything they had from Feb. 17 to June 24. There was never a time when anybody took a day off. There wasn't a day when we surrendered.
"Our guys should be proud. I'm very proud of them."
Three Beavers from this year's team will be gone next year — first baseman KJ Harrison, taken by Milwaukee in the third round; pitcher Jake Thompson, selected by Boston in the fourth round, and senior reliever Max Englebrekt.
"That's experience," Casey says. "That's talent. That's leadership. We'll miss those guys. But it happens every year. You start creating new leaders and get after it again."
The Beavers may regain the services of one of their leaders of the past season — Rasmussen, who was chosen by Tampa Bay with the 31st pick in the draft. Tampa Bay announced Wednesday they "were unable to reach an agreement" on a contract with Rasmussen.
The Rays would have until Friday, July 15 to get something done with Rasmussen, who now may be returning to Oregon State for what would be a redshirt junior season in 2018.
There are plenty of candidates for leadership next season, starting with second baseman Nick Madrigal, a first-team All-American, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, who will spend his summer with the USA collegiate national team along with OSU shortstop Cadyn Grenier.
Starters will return at nearly every position, including Grenier, catcher Adley Rutschman, third baseman Michael Gretler, outfielders Kwan and Jack Anderson and designated hitter Trevor Larnach.
OSU coaches are unsure of the status of Donahue and center fielder Elliott Cary in terms of next season.
Heimlich will be back to lead a pitching corps that will include Fehmel, Freshman All-American Jake Mulholland, Brandon Eisert, Mitchell Verburg, Jordan Britton and Sam Tweedt.
Five Beavers will play in the Cape Cod League this summer — Britton, Larnach, Rutschman, Kwan and infielder Andy Atwood.
Nine others will participate in the West Coast League, including four — infielders Tyler Malone and Zak Taylor, outfielder Elliot Willy and pitcher Dakota Donovan — with the Corvallis Knights.
Reinforcements will arrive in the fall in the form of nine recruits. Oregon State lost only one signee to the draft — Beaverton High outfielder Kevin Watson, who signed with Arizona after being tabbed in the 18th round.
Among those coming in are right-handed pitcher Kevin Abel of San Diego, who was chosen in the 35th round by the Padres but didn't sign, and shortstop Kyler McMahan of Bothell, Washington, who went undrafted after telling scouts it would take a seven-figure signing bonus for him not to play for the Beavers next season.
Also coming to Corvallis will be right-handed pitchers Michael Attalah of Redmond, Washington, and Nathan Burns of West Bend, Wisconsin; shortstop Ryan Ober of Snohomish, Washington; outfielder Darius Foster of Atlanta; left-handed pitcher/outfielder Christian Chamberlain of Reno, Nevada; first baseman/outfielder Zach Clayton of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and catcher Troy Claunch of Vacaville, California.
"It's a strong class," Casey says. "We have some guys who will compete for playing time right away."
Casey is excited about the prospects for the 2018 season, but he knows it will be difficult to match what the 2017 Beavers accomplished.
"We didn't achieve our ultimate goal, so we want to get better next year," he says. "The difficult thing will be if people expect us to have the same kind of record we did this year.
"I remember how it was to start the '07 season after winning it all. You want to do it again, but it's a different team, a different challenge. We'll be ranked high to start the season. There won't be a team that won't want to beat us.
"But that's a statement to who these guys were this season. They play their asses off. They don't need to apologize to anybody for anything. We were a great team — one of the best teams I've ever coached. The record stands for itself."