Column: OSU baseball ranked No. 6, must manage the expectations
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 00:02
Omaha or bust.
That’s the goal for the Oregon State baseball team this year.
Two days after the Beavers fell to LSU in 10 innings to end their season, I wrote this in a column: “Mark my words, from this day, June 5, 2012, Oregon State University will be playing at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., a little over a year from now.”
Eight months later, I still feel confident in those words.
Apparently, the preseason polls were thinking the same thing. The Beavers come in at No. 6 by Baseball America.
The bar has been set.
So how does a team manage to hold lofty expectations in check before the season has even started?
By being pragmatic.
“It is just a preseason ranking,” said junior left hander Ben Wetzler. “Look at the football rankings this year, it didn’t really show where the teams ended up. USC was No. 1 and finished out of the top 25. Notre Dame started unranked.”
Head coach Pat Casey certainly doesn’t want the preseason adornment to make his players overconfident.
“I’ll wait and see how things progress, but at this point I’m not quite as impressed with them as Baseball America,” Casey said at media day on Jan. 30.
There is something to the ranking of sixth in the nation. The Beavers return eight of nine batters in the lineup. Senior outfielder Ryan Barnes did undergo hand surgery last Wednesday though, and is expected to miss four to five weeks.
The rotation brings back two starters who broke out in 2012, Wetzler and junior Dan Child. Both pitched more than 100 innings and had under 3.00 earned run averages.
The biggest blow to the team is losing Jace Fry, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow after injuring it in the game against Belmont in regionals. The word certainty is never associated with Tommy John, but Fry expects to be back toward the end of the regular season — right in time for the postseason.
Expectations are being kept in check, but it isn’t easy.
“Looking at the polls, it’s tough to keep it out of your mind,” said senior shortstop Tyler Smith. “But we always need to get better. We have really high expectations of ourselves.”
The 2012 season ended on a gut-wrenching loss — a two-run lead blown in the final three innings, the go-ahead run scoring on a wild pitch and a scoreless ninth inning sent the Beavers packing from Baton Rouge, La.
That loss eight months ago is exactly where this season — and a team ready to prove itself — begins its journey to get to Omaha.
“As soon as that game was over, we vowed to ourselves that we didn’t want to have that feeling again,” Wetzler said.
OSU making an Omaha run is an easier sell than going to the Buffalo Wild Wings in Corvallis right now. That’s saying a lot if you’ve been there on a weekend night.
“We just have so much experience, so much coming back from last year,” said Second Team All-American outfielder Michael Conforto. “We know how it feels to lose in a heart-crushing game. We bonded over that. There’s just a feeling, I guess, that you can’t really explain that it’s going to happen. We all feel it.”
“It” being the Holy Grail of college baseball: the College World Series in Omaha.
Aside from Conforto’s obscene numbers at the plate as a true freshman (.349, 13 HRs, 76 RBIs, 1.039 on-base plus slugging percentage), there’s nothing that jumps off the page about the Beavers.
There’s also, more importantly, nothing jumping off the page in a negative way. Top to bottom, the lineup is solid and productive, yet not flashy. The rotation gets the job done.
The bullpen is the biggest question mark, especially with the team’s best reliever in 2012, Matt Boyd, taking Fry’s spot in the rotation. Casey singled out Tony Bryant — who saw his ERA dip from 1.52 in 2011 to 3.82 in 2012 — as a guy at the back end who needs to step up this year.
Freshmen Andrew Moore and Max Engelbrekt should add a boost, and if Dylan Davis can gain more command he could be great — the guy came close to 100 mph a couple times last year.
Baseball is a grind. There are 56 games to be played in the next three months before the postseason.
It still comes down to that one goal though, the end-game to a season brimming with potential for the Beavers.
Omaha or bust?
“Absolutely,” Smith answers. “We’ve had that goal since we came in the fall, and we’re working to get there.”
“It is, for sure,” added Conforto. “If you’re not playing to go to Omaha, to win the whole thing, then what are you doing?”
Conforto’s point is true and easy: Every team wants to go to Omaha.
But too often we see the team with the target on its back fail to live up to the hype, and the team flying under the radar come away with the championship.
I wouldn’t call this team overconfident, just aware. Aware of the fact that this could be a special year if things fall into place.
This may be the most hyped Oregon State baseball team since the back-to-back national championship teams of 2006-07.
Now it’s time to prove the hype’s for real.
Warner Strausbaugh, sports editor