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January 28, 2014

Strength up the middle key for Beavers

It all starts with strength up the middle.

Outstanding catchers, shortstops, second basemen and center fielders were the hallmarks of Oregon State's 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2013 College World Series clubs. That should be the case again this spring, even if 20th-year coach Pat Casey has not settled on exactly who will man three of those crucial spots with less than three weeks until the Feb. 14 season opener against Gonzaga at the Tempe, Ariz., Tournament.

"I'm always concerned when you have to replace three people up the middle," Casey said Tuesday, speaking to a large assortment of newspaper, Internet and television reporters at OSU's annual media day at Gill Coliseum. "[Shortstop] Tyler Smith, [catcher] Jake Rodriguez and [center fielder] Max Gordon were very good for us" in 2013, when Smith and Rodriguez earned all-conference honors while helping the Beavers capture the Pacific-12 Conference title and two NCAA regionals en route their CWS berth.

"Jake was the best guy in the country at throwing guys out," as he gunned down 22 of 36 would-be base-stealers. "Smitty was an eighth-round draft pick, and Max was a spark.

"There will be new players there, somebody who has never been a consistent starter. We have plenty of people who can do it. At what level they do it, and how they do it," remains to be seen.

One piece of the up-the-middle puzzle is already in place. Senior Andy Peterson (.333, 0-28) was honorable-mention all-Pac-12 at second base and smoothly transitioned over to shortstop at midseason when Smith missed several weeks with a hand injury.

In a perfect world, Casey wants Peterson to remain at second. For that to happen, either highly-touted freshman Trever Morrison of Archbishop Murphy High in Bothell, Wash., or freshman Caleb Hamilton of Woodinville High in Woodinville, Wash., must prove he can handle the rigors of the position over the taxing 56-game grind.

"We have all kinds of options," Casey said. "Obviously they're not going to be Smitty as far as being an experienced, senior guy who has been through the wars, no matter who it is."

The Beavers have a modicum of catching experience with junior Nate Esposito (.135, 0-3), a two-year letterman, ad three-year vet Kavin Keyes (.316, 2-34), an infielder who caught some with the Corvallis Knights in summer ball and then got even more experience during fall camp and again this spring.
Hamilton also did the infield/catching combo during fall and spring camps, and freshmen Logan Ice of Rogers High in Puyallup, Wash., and Mason Fishback of Rancho Cucamonga High in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., are available.

"There are all kinds of guys in there who can catch," Casey said.

Senior lefty starter Ben Wetzler said the veteran pitching staff must also play a big role in developing this year's catcher, a reversal of sorts from last year, when Rodriguez was the boss.

"Jake knew how to deal with every pitcher, knew who he could get into and who he just needed to calm down just a little bit," Wetzler said. "Now, with [an] older pitching staff, we have to lead the catcher a little bit. I'll try to room with whoever is going to start, talk to him and make sure he's caught up on all the signs and are ready to go, kind of ease him into it.

"Mike [Conforto], Dylan [Davis], Petey [Peterson] and I sat down with a couple of the catchers and told them, 'Hey, this could be your team. Whoever wants it needs to step up and not play scared.'
"That's the mentality here. You don't play scared. You play fearless and you be a war dog."

Gordon (.236, 0-7) was limited offensively, but he saved a ton of runs with spectacular catches. And his gritty, overachieving attitude helped set the tone for the entire 2013 team.

Sophomore Jeff Hendrix (.259, 0-3) played in 32 games in 2013 and is the leader in the clubhouse to be Gordon's successor. Senior Nick Rulli (.000, 0-0) and junior transfer Michael Howard (Yavapai), who hit .298 a homer and 12 RBIs at Baylor in 2012 before transferring, are in the mix too.

"All three can play and add something to what we're doing," Casey said. "Dylan Davis can play there too."

OSU's four recent CWS teams were almost identically solid up the middle.
Catcher Mitch Canham; second basemen Chris Gipson, Chris Kunda and Joey Wong; shortstop Darwin Barney and center fielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Tyler Graham and Chris Hopkins, mainstays of the 2005-07 CWS run that featured the 2006 and 2007 NCAA championships, all played/are playing professionally.

Barney (Chicago Cubs) and Ellsbury (New York Yankees) are major-league starters and Gold Glove winners. Graham had a cup of coffee with Arizona and has re-signed with San Francisco after spending 2013 in independent ball. Canham and Kunda reached triple-A at some point.

And two of the middle men from last year's NCAA third/fourth place Omaha club turned pro last June. Smith (Seattle) was the MVP of the rookie Appalachian League; Rodriguez (Houston) played in the short-A New York-Penn League after returning from Omaha.
Casey is confident things will fall into place, that the solid-up-the-middle tradition will continue as the eventual starters emerge and gain confidence and experience in their new roles.

"If we played tomorrow, I would probably go with Hendrix in center field and Morrison at shortstop," he said. "Those guys have played well and they are two I've liked in those positions. I don't know what I'd do behind the plate."

Casey can't predict how the season will unfold. But he said to this point, the Beavers have done whatever's necessary to be ready for the upcoming challenge.

"There are enough guys back that we should win the games we should win," he said. "We've been going at it pretty good since September 10th. We will be as well-prepared to play on opening day as we ever have been.

"How well we play will be dictated by what happens when they start calling balls and strikes. But as far as the time on the field, in the weight room, running … everything you can think of in baseball you need to cover, we've covered.

"The guys are anxious to play and I'm excited to see them play. I'm aware of how the ball bounces. But if you catch it and throw it to the right guy, you've got a chance. We've trained properly, we had a great fall and we've been outside almost every day since we started [spring] practice.

"We have to stay healthy, and we have to play at a very high level to compete in our conference, and with the people we play out-of-conference. I like our team. But I think they would tell you they have a long way to go."



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