Great pitching vs. great hitting -- just part of the Oregon State-Arizona matchup mystique
It's the No. 1 pitching team in the country going up against the No. 1 hitting club.
It's Oregon State versus Arizona in a three-game series beginning at 7 p.m. Friday at Goss Stadium.
"If I were a college baseball fan," OSU coach Pat Casey says, "I'd fly in from anywhere in the country to watch this matchup."
Oregon State (17-1 overall, 3-0 in Pac-12 play) is ranked No. 1 or 2 in the various national polls. Arizona (15-4, 2-1) is ranked anywhere from fifth to ninth.
"Two top-10 teams in our conference home-opening series," says Casey, in his 23rd season at the OSU helm. "It has to be as big an early matchup as we've had since I've been here."
Oregon State swept Arizona State in its conference opening series last week, holding the Sun Devils to one run over 27 innings. The Beavers won 2-0, 10-1 and 4-0.
"We pitched and defended very well, and in the last two games swung the bat well," Casey says. "The guys really brought energy to the series. Now they come home with a sense of a need for improvement in several areas — offensively in particular. We left too many runners on base in the series."
The Wildcats — who reached the finals of the College World Series last June — won two of three from UCLA at home to open the Pac-12 slate last weekend, beating the Bruins 19-4 and 4-3 and losing 8-7 in 10 innings. OSU and Washington lead the conference at 3-0.
Arizona's pitching staff is ninth in the Pac-12 with an ERA of 4.36, and the Wildcats are last in fielding, having committed league-high 31 errors.
You can't say the same about the offense. After 19 games, Arizona leads the nation in batting average (.355), on-base percentage (.443), hits (251) and runs (197). That's an average of more than more than 13 hits and 10 runs per contest.
"Those are crazy numbers," Casey says.
Arizona has a Murderer's Row lineup from No. 2 to 6 in its order, featuring five of the top eight players in batting average in the Pac-12. That includes sophomore outfielder Alfonso Rivas (.431 average, .592 on-base percentage), junior outfielder Jared Oliva (.423, .488), junior outfielder Mitchell Morimoto (.414, .518), freshman third baseman Nick Quintana (.412, .482) and junior first baseman JJ Matijevic (.395, .459).
"They have a lot of guys back from the team that plays for the national championship," Casey says. "They're extremely talented, a very balanced team that can beat you in a lot of ways. I'm more than impressed with them."
The Wildcats haven't seen a pitching staff, however, the likes of Oregon State's.
The Beavers lead the nation with 1.06 ERA (well ahead of runner-up Louisville at 1.75), fewest hits allowed (95 hits in 162 innings) and walks and hits per innings pitched (.81). They are third nationally in fewest walks per inning (36). And they're doing it without ace right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who continues with rehabilitation from Tommy John elbow surgery a year ago.
"Phenomenal," Casey says of his pitching staff's performance. "I don't know if I've seen a stretch of 18 games where we've gotten more consistency from the mound. The guys' approach has been spectacular, with quality starts and good pitching in the middle and at the end when we've needed it.
"But one thing that gets overlooked is how well we've defended in big situations. Instead of a ball getting through the infield to put runners on first and third, we've been turning the double play. And guys have made some big catches in the outfield."
Junior left-hander Luke Heimlich (0.25) and junior right-hander Jake Thompson (1.08) rank 1-3 in the Pac-12 in ERA. Sophomore right-handers Bryce Fehmel (2.00) and Sam Tweedt (2.14) rank 9-10. Thompson (.136) and Heimlich (.141) are 1-2 in the conference in opponents' batting average.
Heimlich (4-0), who will get the Friday night start, has allowed one earned run over 36 2/3 innings.
"Luke has really matured as a pitcher," Casey says of the Puyallup, Washington, native who graduated early from high school and pitched that spring for the Beavers. "He has been consistent in being a three-pitch guy, which has changed his world."
Thompson (5-0), who will start in Sunday's game, has yielded four earned runs in 33 1/3 innings.
"We've always felt Jake had better stuff than he realized," Casey says. "He has made some good adjustments, particularly with the mental part of it."
Freshman left-hander Jake Mulholland, throwing mostly in middle relief, has allowed 10 hits and no runs, with two walks and 15 strikeouts in 17 innings.
"That's the biggest surprise on our staff," Casey says. "We knew he'd be good, but talk about coming in as a freshman in some big situations — he has been terrific."
Senior southpaw closer Max Englebrekt (five saves) has given up no runs, with two walks and 10 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings. Five relievers have worked a collective 35 innings without yielding a run.
"I would doubt we've ever had that kind of production out of the bullpen for that span of games," Casey says.
Oregon State ranks second in the Pac-12 behind Arizona in batting average at .293.
Sophomore infielder Nick Madrigal (.426) is second behind Arizona's Rivas in the individual race.
"Nick has matured as a hitter," Casey says. "He's laying off a lot of the pitches he used to chase."
Junior first baseman KJ Harrison had a pair of three-hit games at Tempe to raise his average to .324. Sophomore infielder Cadyn Grenier went 7 for 13 in the series to climb to .293.
Freshman catcher Adley Rutschman is hitting only .183, but he has started 16 of 18 games behind the plate.
"We're pitching so well, it's hard not to think Adley is a big part of that," Casey says. "That's important to what we do.
"The batting average is not where we want it to be or he wants it to be. He's hit some balls on the screws right at people, and he's seen some pitching he's not seen before. Before this year is over, he's going to become a threat at the plate. I have no worries about Adley."
The No. 1 ranking, Casey says, "doesn't matter personally to me at all. But the recognition for the program is something the kids enjoy and are proud of. It means you're playing pretty good."
The Beavers are also ranked No. 1 on the national RPI list.
"The (NCAA tournament selection) committee looks at that, so it's important," Casey says. "But it's early in the season, and those things jump up and down. That concerns me less than how we're playing the game. So far, that's been pretty well."