Powerful OSU frosh is emerging as one of nation's best closers

CORVALLIS - Nobody is looking forward to Oregon State's weekend series at Arizona State more than Kevin Rhoderick.

OSU's standout freshman closer grew up in the shadows of Arizona State in Scottsdale, Ariz., but wasn't impressed with the Sun Devils during the recruiting process.

'They didn't do a great job recruiting me,' the 6-0, 190-pound right-hander says. 'They told me it was my duty to come to Arizona State. I wasn't too cool with that at all. They kind of talked bad about Oregon State and a bunch of other schools, too.

'I can't wait to get down there and pitch against them this weekend.'

Rhoderick proved mortal in Saturday's 6-4 loss to Stanford at Goss Stadium. Entering the game in the ninth inning with the score tied 4-4 and a runner on first base with nobody out, Rhoderick yielded a walk, a hit and an earned run - his first of the season in the last category.

'Not my best outing,' Rhoderick says. 'Threw a slider, the guy hit it, and not much you can do. Bad luck.'

Rhoderick wasn't going to stay perfect forever - but he's still pretty darn close. In 11 appearances and 16 innings, he has allowed three hits with nine walks and 21 strikeouts, boasting a 0.56 ERA with six saves and an opponents' batting average of .063.

'Kevin has to be up there among the top three closers in the nation,' says Oregon State's No. 1 starter, senior Mike Stutes. 'To have that distinction as a freshman, that's almost unheard of.

'He's a great competitor and teammate - everything you want from a guy coming in to save a game. I don't see (the Beavers) losing a lot the next couple of years. He should be leading the nation in saves like (Kevin Gunderson) did.'

Gunderson, the Beavers' All-American closer for three years who now is pitching for Class A Myrtle Beach (S.C.) in the Atlanta Braves' farm system, and Rhoderick are a contrast in styles.

'Gundy was more a finesse guy,' OSU coach Pat Casey says. 'Rhod's more a guy who will come and get you with hard stuff.'

There's not a lot of mystery when Rhoderick takes the mound. Most of the time, he intends to either blow a fastball by you or fool you with his slider. The radar gun has clocked him at 96 mph, 'and as the weather gets warmer, I think I'll be able to pump that up a little bit,' he says.

'I love when Rhod comes in,' catcher Ryan Ortiz says. 'He has a great attitude. He's ready to get everyone out and thinks he can do it.

'His fastball moves, and he has a great slider. You can't tell the difference between the two pitches. And his mental approach is amazing.'

'I like to get after people,' Rhoderick says. 'I want to throw first-pitch strikes and strike people out. If my team gets a lead, I want to hold it. My slider and my fastball are better than my changeup right now, but (the off-speed pitch) is getting there.'

An 18th-round draft pick by Detroit last June, Rhoderick wasn't able to come to financial terms with the Tigers and opted to play college ball. He had signed a letter of intent with Georgia, but Bulldog closer Joshua Fields turned down a pro offer, too, and returned to school this season.

'I was thinking, 'Damn, I want to pitch, I want to close right now,' ' Rhoderick says.

His No. 2 choice during the recruiting process had been Oregon State.

The Oregon climate bothered Rhoderick at first.

'In the fall, the weather really got to me,' he says. 'It was always raining - kind of dreary. But you get used to it. And it's getting nice now. No worries.'

Casey's biggest concern is that the Beavers haven't held too many close late-inning leads.

'We just need to get ourselves in position to use Kevin more often,' he says. 'He has such a great mentality to get people out. He goes right after them. When he gets on the mound, he has a great makeup.'

Rhoderick is setting his sights high.

'Win the Pac-10 championship and go to Omaha,' he says. 'That's all we really have to do.'

OSU Baseball

Next: Oregon State (16-12, 4-5 Pac-10) plays the Portland Pilots (16-20, 2-7 West Coast Conference) at 6:30 tonight at PGE Park.

OSU visits third-ranked Arizona State (30-4, 6-3) for a three-game series beginning Friday at Tempe. The Sun Devils took two of three at Washington State the hard way last weekend, rallying for nine runs in the ninth inning to beat the Cougars 16-13 on Sunday.

'There's no place tougher to play in the conference than Arizona State,' says Pat Casey, whose Beavers were drubbed 11-0 by ASU on Feb. 24. 'Now we really need to take two of three.'

• Arizona State hits .331 as a team, led by junior first baseman Ike Davis (.423, 14 HRs, 57 RBIs) and junior third baseman Brett Wallace (.388, nine HRs, 42 RBIs), the Pac-10 Triple Crown winner and MVP last season. The Devils have a 3.70 team ERA, topped by sophomore right-hander Mike Leake (6-1, 3.32 ERA) and junior right-hander Stephen Sauer (3-1, 3.43). Davis, who doubles as a pitcher, is 4-0 with a 1.12 ERA in 11 relief appearances.

• Oregon State had 36 hits and played errorless ball but dropped two of three to Stanford last weekend at Goss Stadium. The Cardinal came into the series ranked between No. 8 and No. 17 in the polls and had just beaten Arizona State 10-2 and 12-2 the previous weekend.

'One of the most frustrating weekends I've experienced as a coach,' Casey says.

The Cardinal took advantage of shifting winds to hit two home runs on both Saturday and Sunday, 'and we just couldn't get a hit when we really needed it,' Casey says. 'Overall, we played pretty good baseball, and our pitching was great most of the weekend. But any time we made a mistake (pitching), it really hurt us.'

- Kerry Eggers

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