Wetzler, Schultz and potent bats keep Beavers alive
CORVALLIS The seminal moment for what could be Oregon State baseball's renaissance came in the sixth inning Sunday against Nevada-Las Vegas.
Michael Conforto -- the two-time Pac-12 player of the year -- ripped a sharply hit single to right field to lead off the inning.
Not just any single -- the most meaningful single of Conforto's stellar college career.
Mired in a 4-for-31 slump over the previous eight games, the All-America left-fielder was a microcosm of the hitting problems the No. 2-ranked Beavers had experienced of late.
So when Conforto delivered, "it felt like a burden was lifted off us," teammate Jeff Hendrix said. "After that, we started scoring runs."
Enough runs, at least, to carry Oregon State into an 8 p.m. showdown with Cal Irvine for the Corvallis Regional title and a spot in next weekend's Super Regional.
Oregon State entered Sunday needing three straight wins in elimination games to keep the season alive.
Now it's two down, one to go.
Reeling from a 14-2 defeat at the hands of Cal Irvine Saturday night, the Beavers got off the mat to beat first UNLV 6-1, then Irvine 4-0 to force a deciding game against the Anteaters.
"We have the momentum," Conforto said late Sunday. "By no means are we going to take our foot off the pedal. We're going to get after it (Monday) in the same way we did today."
A blowout loss still counts only as one loss. The NCAA Tournament's 16 regionals are double-elimination events. Even so, any margin for error was gone for the Beavers after the debacle against Irvine.
Sometime in the wee hours Sunday, Conforto sent a group text to his teammates.
"He was reminding us of who we are," pitcher Ben Wetzler said. In the loss to Irvine, "we weren't ourselves. We didn't play anywhere near Beaver baseball. It was pathetic, to be quite frank. Mike wanted to make sure it didn't happen again."
Conforto wanted to make sure his teammates knew what was at stake.
"I was reminding the guys it may be the last time we suit up together," he said. "The theme of the message was, we're going to leave it all out there, in every phase of the game, on the mental and physical side. Not in a pressing way, but in a focused, locked-in way.
"A lot of guys responded. I think the guys really liked that."
Conforto's presence on the Oregon State team is enormous. Even though he hasn't been producing at the plate, he still had the confidence to reach out.
"Things hadn't been going the way I want, but there are still guys who look up to me, feed off my energy," he said. "I wanted them to understand I was all in for the team. This is everything I want, everything everybody on the team wants. We all just want to keep playing together."
After stroking his sixth-inning single against the Rebels, OSU's junior left-fielder stood on first base, smiled and raised his arms, drawing a huge ovation from the Goss Stadium crowd.
It was the catalyst to a five-run inning that may have saved the Beavers' season.
"Ironic it was only a single," Conforto said late Sunday night. "The guys were joking with me, that I got an ovation like that for a single. But it got the guys juiced."
The Beavers entered Sunday knowing another loss would end their dream of winning a College World Series championship.
When you have perhaps the best pitching staff in the country, it's not as daunting a task at it might seem.
First Wetzler, the senior left-hander who leads the nation in ERA, threw a complete-game four-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 6-1 victory over UNLV.
Then senior right-hander Scott Schultz, the Beavers' closer most of the season, took two hours and five minutes to spin a two-hit shutout against the overmatched Anteaters.
"Ninety-eight pitches," Schultz said. "Should be ready to go again (Monday night)."
Schultz was only half-kidding. Wetzler said the same thing after throwing 128 pitches against the Rebels. If OSU coach Pat Casey calls his number during Monday night's winner-take-all showdown with Irvine, Wetzler is willing.
Right fielder Dylan Davis is likely to start on the mound. Freshman Jake Thompson is probably next in line, with the bullpen -- given the day off Sunday due to the brilliance of Wetzler and Schultz -- ready in reserve.
"I'm going to go sit in the office with the coaching staff and talk about it," Casey said. "Dylan could throw. Jake could throw. The way Hendrix hits, maybe he could throw."
Oregon State's real issue entering Sunday was offense. The Beavers had scored only 11 runs in their previous six games, putting plenty of pressure on the pitching staff to throw up zeroes.
Something was different Sunday. The Beavers totaled 20 hits in the two games, including a first-inning double by Conforto that missed clearing the right-field wall by inches and drove in the first run against Irvine. Conforto wound up 2 for 7 with a pair of walks for the day.
"I've been saying I'm seeing the ball well," he said. "I felt good at the plate today. Maybe I was getting a little bit jumpy, but I feel in rhythm.
"With the fans we have, it inspires us. They bring us energy, and I feed off it. All the guys do."
Hendrix went 3 for 3 with two doubles against the Anteaters and Keyes was a menace in both games, going 4 for 6 for the day.
In the second game, defense was a byword, too. Keyes made two sensational plays at first base, Conforto came through with a diving catch in left-field and threw out a runner at home trying to score from second base on a single.
"You could just feel the energy in the crowd and in our dugout," Hendrix said. "It was a lot of fun out there today. It was night and day different (from Saturday). We were believing in ourselves."
Wetzler was his usual bulldog self against UNLV, improving his season record to 12-1. Schultz was phenomenal in his fifth start of the season and his first since March 8, rekindling memories of the 8 2/3-inning stint he threw in relief against Louisiana State in a regional two years ago.
"I'm more than happy to give high respect to Schultz," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "He had great rhythm, great pace, pounded the zone, in and away. He was real good."
"I'm just happy for him," Casey said. "For us to ask our closer to go out and pitch as many innings as he can then he goes nine and beats a team that destroyed us (Saturday night). pretty impressive."
After scoring 14 runs a night earlier, the Anteaters never found the scoreboard against Schultz.
"All things considered, (Saturday) night was a lot more fun," Gillespie said. "There wasn't really a lot of drama in this game. Schultz was really good. (The Beavers) played real good defense. We got two hits, but I'm not unhappy with our at-bats. We made hard contact several times.
"I'm not thrilled that we lost, but I'm happy with our team, happy with their approach. You get shut out with two hits, that looks like you got dominated. I don't feel that. it was a good game other than the team I like best lost."
Now it's one game for all the marbles.
"We came out with a lot of energy today," Casey said. "I'm sure we'll sustain that (Monday)."