Talented Beavers eager for return to Omaha
CORVALLIS — As Ben Wetzler watched UCLA celebrate its national title last June, a fire burned.
Oregon State had been one of the last four teams standing at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., before being eliminated by Mississippi State, which eventually lost to the Bruins.
The Beavers were as close to a championship as they've been since winning it all in 2007, and Wetzler said it's driven the team throughout the offseason, which officially ends on Feb. 14 with the season-opener against Gonzaga at the Tempe Tournament in Arizona.
"When you get fourth like we did last year, all you want is to get back and be on the bottom of that dog pile," said Wetzler, a senior left-handed starting pitcher who turned down a chance to play professionally after being selected in the fifth round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.
"I was so excited to come back," he said.
Wetzler is just one piece of an Oregon State team brimming with talent, high expectations and a No. 2 preseason ranking by Baseball America.
The Beavers set a school record for victories last season when they finished 52-13 overall and won the Pac-12 with a 24-6 record. They return two all-Americans, four first-team all-conference players, the 2013 Pac-12 player of the year and a starting rotation with three pitchers capable of being the Friday night starter.
"We will be as well prepared to play on opening day as we ever have been," said coach Pat Casey, now in his 20th season. "Now, how we play will be dictated by what happens when they start calling balls and strikes. But as far as the time on the field, the time in the weight room, the time running, the time in the classroom, everything you can think of in baseball that you need to cover, we've been covering."
Wetzler, who went 10-1 with a 2.25 ERA last season, is joined in the rotation by junior lefty Jace Fry, a freshman all-American in 2012 who pitched just 72/3 innings at the end of last season coming off Tommy John surgery, and righty Andrew Moore, a sophomore from North Eugene High School who was an all-American last season.
Moore went 14-2 with a 1.79 ERA as a freshman and his win total tied the school record. He said he added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason to help maintain his velocity during the course of a game. He's also been working on his changeup.
"(That's) a pitch I threw a little bit last year but I really wanted to improve on that and that's something I've been throwing a lot in intra-squads and I feel like that's coming along pretty well," Moore said.
Also back for the Beavers is junior outfielder Michael Conforto, the Pac-12 player of the year who hit .328 with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs. His home run total was tied for the league lead.
Outfielder Dylan Davis is also back. The junior led the team in hitting at .335, and led the Pac-12 with 61 RBIs, 22 doubles and 86 hits.
Senior second baseman Andy Peterson (.333, 49 runs, 28 RBIs) and senior third baseman Kavin Keyes (.316, 35 runs, 34 RBIs) return as well, giving the Beavers their top four hitters from a season ago.
But Oregon State did lose catcher Jake Rodriguez, shortstop Tyler Smith and center fielder Max Gordon, leaving the Beavers with a huge hole up the middle to fill.
If the season started today, Casey said he would go with sophomore Jeff Hendrix in the outfield and freshman Trevor Morrison at shortstop, though he remains undecided about what to do at catcher, and has even prepared Keyes to play the position.
"We do have to replace those people, but I think we can replace them," Casey said. "They'll be different types of players, but hopefully we're good enough in the other areas it'll help offset that."
And not do anything to derail a trip back Rosenblatt Stadium in June.
"We were there, we tasted it," Conforto said. "We saw how amazing Omaha is as a player. It really is baseball paradise. We saw how close we were, we saw who won it, and it hurt. Our goals are that high."