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Baseball Begins In A Week!

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Evaluating an overhauled Oregon St. squad.

"Beaver Ball" is about to begin!
"Beaver Ball" is about to begin!

College baseball season begins next weekend, including for Oregon St., who will be playing in the Surprise Tournament, with their first game Friday at 1 PM AST (12 Noon PST), against Northwestern.

It's hard to believe its time to even begin think about baseball, on a cold rainy day in the northwest, without a basketball game to go to (What is the Pac-12 thinking, with none of the 4 Northwest schools mens' OR womens' teams playing on a Saturday afternoon in early February?), but since its summer all year around in Arizona, its almost time to load the gear for the season opening road trip. Which will actually last almost 2 weeks, with a second tournament in Surprise on the schedule in 2 weeks.

After that, Oregon St. fans who didn't take an extended vacation in Arizona will get their first look at the new team, as the Beavers' home opener will be on Friday, Feb. 27, starting a 3 game series against Grambling.

Goss Stadium New Turf

They will be looking at a new-look Goss Stadium, which will be sporting new field turf, including, for the first time ever, in the outfield this season, and a new patio-style seating area down the left field line, on the roof of the new locker room building that is where the Oregon St. bullpen, now relocated to where the batting cage was outside left field (thanks Jacoby Ellsbury!).

"I love grass fields. I love dirt infields. But you cannot keep up with what you want to do practice-wise without turf," Oregon St. head coach Pat Casey said.

And with the majority of the roster made up of new comers, Coach Casey, beginning his 21st year at Oregon St. has plenty of practice work to do to integrate 19 new Beavers from one of the top rated recruiting classes into what he still expects to be a team that contends for a conference championship.

"This is the first time, and also the last time I'm going to allow myself to talk about that because it's a good excuse," Casey said of the team's youth recently at Media Day. "We are what we are. We have a lot of young players who are going to have to rise to the occasion. In the fall we allowed them to be freshmen. Now they can't be."

After rising to #1 in the nation in the polls last year, and earning the #1 seed to the NCAA Tournament post season, the 2 time defending Pac-12 Champions enter the 2015 season unranked, and one of the pre-season polls went 40 deep.

That was a little hard to accept for some members of Beaver Nation, used to making the post-season a part of their regular schedule in recent years. But its not unreasonable, given the uncertainty surrounding the squad, which has to replace an incredible number of players.

The pitching staff will be without not only graduated starting pitchers Ben Wetzler, who went 12-1, and led the nation with an 0.78 ERA, and Jace Fry, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, who went 11-2,  with a 1.80 ERA, and also Scott Schultz, who was the staple of the bullpen and a spot starter, and Brandon Jackson (now a Graduate Assistant), who also graduated, but also early departures Tyler Painton and Phillip Belding, and flame throwing Chandler Eden, who transferred his 100 mph fastball.

Compounding the pitching uncertainty, Max Englebrekt, who might have been the heir apparent to Schultz as the plug and play pitcher in any role, will miss the season, redshirting after knee surgery.

The gloves and bats gone are numerous too.

Gone are early MLB draftees Michael Conforto, the 2 time Pac-12 Player of the Year, who patrolled left field and held down the 3-slot in the batting order for the last 3 years, and Dylan Davis, who hit behind Conforto all that time, and manned right field when he wasn't making an occasional pitching appearance.

Graduated are second baseman Andy Peterson, Jerad Casper, who made multiple starts at both 1st base and 3rd base, Kavin Keyes, who played 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in his Oregon St. career, and Nick Rulli, who showed up as the designated hitter, in the outfield, and as a pinch runner for the Beavers.

Also gone are catchers Nate Esposito and Mason Fishback, and outfielder Zane Yanzick.

DH Michael Howard was originally expected to be another of those missing, after off-season shoulder surgery, and he won't be ready for the start of the season. But after an initial diagnosis of the need to red-shirt this year, it does appear that Howard will be able to return to action at or near the start of the season.

So its not just the starting lineup that will have to be overhauled, the depth of the squad got a lot shallower as far as experience goes as well.

The Beavers are not without some significant pieces to build around though.

RHPs Andrew Moore and Jake Thompson will anchor the starting rotation, though he might not be ready for opening weekend, after breaking his foot in the off-season, and senior Zach Reser also returns, giving pitching coach Nate Yeski a solid start to the staff, and an experienced arm to plug in somewhere.

Moore and crew has catcher Logan Ice to rely on behind the plate as well.

Jeff Hendrix, named a preseason second-team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and his .351 batting average, also returns, giving Oregon St. an outstanding Centerfielder, which will make breaking in new corner outfielders a lot easier. Hendrix might not be the leadoff hitter any more for Oregon St. though, as that bat may find its way closer to where Conforto has been in recent seasons.

"Jeffrey Hendrix and Andrew Moore have received a lot of recognition as quality players," Casey said. Now we need some other kids who have been here to get going and give us a boost."

And now sophomore short stop Trever Morrison is back, helping make the Beavers pretty solid up the middle.

"We started three freshmen (Morrison, Ice, and Caleb Hamilton, who played multiple positions and DHed) last year, and they cannot be the same players they were, good defenders who were not very offensive," Casey said. "When you lose the RBI totals we lost somebody has to step up."

Gabe Clark will be counted on for the increased production and consistency that usually comes with experience as well, and will probably man first base, with Hamilton likely at 3rd.

Returning sophomore Billy King and junior Caylen Clardy are possibilities to flank Hendrix in the outfield, but freshmen Elliott Cary and Cooper Brunner could contribute immediately. Expect the first 8 games in Surprise to produce hopefully more clarity than surprises in setting the outfield.

Five freshmen Beaver commits were selected in the 2014 Major League draft but did not sign. They are IF/OF Joe Gillette (23rd round, St. Louis); C KJ Harrison (25th round, Cleveland); Cary (32nd round, Washington) ; IF Michael Gretler (39th round, Boston), and RHP Drew Rasmussen (39th round, Arizona).

"I like our freshman class, it's one of the better ones we've had," Casey said. "They will have an opportunity to play. We'll have to play four freshmen, and we'll have freshmen on the mound."

In addition to Rasmussen, the pitching staff has returning lefties Mak Fox and Trent Shelton, and also righty Clay Bauer, back after being suspended for off-field events. Bauer, once anticipated to be a stalwart of the staff, could be the come-back story of the year if his off-season work with the likes of Wetzler and a couple of professionally employed ex-Beavers he knows pays off.

Junior RHP Travis Eckert, who transferred from Clark Community College after a 10-1 2014 season with a 1.20 ERA will get a look at several roles as well.

Freshman RHP Sam Tweedt had a strong fall ball effort, and LHP Luke Heimlich will get a serious look, especially to get another left side arm into the mix.

Oregon St. fans will want to closely follow Jay Reece's call of the Arizona games and the box scores for more clues as to how the pitching staff will shape up, though allowing PLENTY of extra time for SSSLLLOOOWWW strolls out to the mound by Yeski in the early going would be a good idea.

The first Surprises will be coming next weekend!

Play Ball!

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com