CORVALLIS — Oregon State opened its fall baseball season Monday with two-a-day workouts under sunny skies at Goss Stadium, boasting talent and optimism aplenty for the 2018 campaign.
There is no reason why not. The Beavers are coming off a storybook 2017 season in which they met or surpassed every goal but one — winning a third national championship.
Oregon State went 56-6 — the nation's best record in 33 years — including 31-1 at home. The Beavers were ranked No. 1 in the country from mid-March through the end of the regular season and were the top national seed heading into the postseason. They won the Pac-12 championship with a conference-record 27-3 mark, sweeping seven of 10 series against league foes. Along the way, the Beavers had a pair of school-record 23-game win streaks.
The OSU pitching staff led the nation in ERA (1.93), shutouts (14) and hits per nine innings (6.27). Jake Thompson led the nation in victories (14), and Luke Heimlich was No. 1 in ERA (0.76).
Pitchers Thompson, Drew Rasmussen and Max Englebrekt and first baseman KJ Harrison won't be back.
Neither will left-fielder Christian Donahue, who has signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Cubs; reserve outfielder Elliott Cary, who has transferred to NAIA Oklahoma City; utility man Andy Atwood, who has transferred to Texas Rio Grande Valley of the Western Athletic Conference, and little-used pitcher Mitch Hickey, who will move on to NCAA Division II UC San Diego.
Everyone else will return, including second baseman Nick Madrigal, who was a consensus first-team All-American, the Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year and a national Gold Glove Award winner.
Madrigal and shortstop Cadyn Grenier — who both played with the U.S. national collegiate team during the summer — anchor the infield along with third baseman Michael Gretler, who hit .301 as a junior. The outfield is loaded with returnees Steven Kwan, Jack Anderson and Trevor Larnach, along with Kyle Nobach, a former starter who redshirted last year after knee surgery.
Catcher Adley Rutschman will return for his sophomore season. Other returnees include infielder Andy Armstrong, outfielder Preston Jones and first baseman Tyler Malone, who will sit out the fall while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
"It's a really good group," says Pat Casey, named the 2017 National Coach of the Year by the National College Baseball Writers Association. "We have leadership and talent and guys who have been through it all. But it's just like every year. We begin next season 0-0. You have to prove it all over again."
About a dozen incoming recruits are included in the fall roster of 40 players that must be pared to 35 for the start of training camp in February.
Among them are Zach Clayton, a 6-3, 210-pound first baseman from Oconomowac, Wisconsin, who was the state's premier all-around athlete as a senior. He caught 95 passes for 1,524 yards in football, averaged nearly 20 points in basketball and hit .422 in baseball. That along with carrying a 4.0 grade-point average and earning the state's scholar-athlete award.
Also, middle infielders Kyler Mcmahan of Lynnwood, Washington, and Ryan Ober of Snohomish, Washington, who played on the same American Legion team.
And sure-handed catcher Troy Claunch of Vacaville, California.
And athletic, smooth-swinging outfielder Darius Foster of Norcross, Georgia.
And left-handed first baseman Alex McGarry out of Columbia River (Vancouver, Washington) High and Tacoma Community College.
But the strength of the 2018 Beavers should again be the pitching staff.
"I like it," says pitching coach Nate Yeskie, honored by D1Baseball.com as the nation's Assistant Coach of the Year in 2017. "There is some depth. Maybe as much depth as there was last year— possibly even more.
"Does that mean it will translate into the same type of output? Time will tell. Last year was special, but we'll continue to push the envelope and see if we can chase the greatest."
Oregon State's greatest group of starters came in the 2013 season, with senior Matt Boyd, junior Ben Wetzler, sophomore Jace Fry and freshman Andrew Moore. Boyd, Fry and Moore have all pitched in the major leagues this season.
But last year's trio of Heimlich, Thompson and Bryce Fehmel — augmented by a terrific group of relievers — was close. Heimlich, held out of the Super Regional and College World Series after revelation of of a juvenile sex offense, returns off of what was likely the greatest pitching season in program history. As OSU's Friday-night starter, the 6-1, 195-pound left-hander was 11-1 with an 0.76 ERA, bettering Wetzler's school mark of 0.78 set in 2014. Heimlich had 128 strikeouts with 22 walks in 118 1/3 innings and a .172 opponents' batting average.
"The guy bested Wetzler's ERA numbers, and I never thought I would see somebody again in that vicinity," says Yeskie, in his 10th season as the OSU pitching coach. "He had fewer walks and more strikeouts than Ben. And he is pitching on Friday nights, when you're going up against the other team's ace and there is greater pressure to perform.
"Luke carried the No. 1 team in the nation every week. He was never sub-par. He was above average to special every time he took the ball."
Heimlich will lead the staff again as a senior.
"He offers talent, experience and perspective," Yeskie says. "He checks off a lot of boxes for our guys to look at and see how he goes about his business in between the white lines."
Fehmel (6-3, 3.87) sputtered through most of the regular season, but he came on to pitch superbly in a victory over Vanderbilt in the Super Regional and in a win over Louisiana State in the College World Series. The 6-1 right-hander has added 15 pounds of muscle over the summer to a frame that now carries 200 pounds.
"He'll be stronger and more explosive," Yeskie says. "I'm expecting more consistency from him next season."
Also back are spot starter Sam Tweedt (3-0, 2.50), Freshman All-American Jake Mulholland (7-1, 1.20), Brandon Eisert (5-0, 2.31), Mitchell Verburg (1-0, 0.93), Jordan Britton (2-0, 2.45) and Grant Gambrell (1-0, 2.93). Redshirts Dakota Donovan and Tristan Garnett also return.
Then there are a half-dozen new arms, led by Kevin Abel, whom Casey considers "one of the top recruits in the country. He had the chance to go almost anywhere."
The 6-2, 175-pound right-hander from San Diego, who was drafted by the Padres in the 35th round of the June major-league draft, will get a long look at a spot in the starting rotation.
"His talent and mannerisms remind me of some of the guys who have had a lot of success for us in the past," Yeskie says. "It will be about learning the ins and outs of college baseball and keeping himself ahead of the curve as far as preparation."
Christian Chamberlain could be Oregon State's next two-way player. The 5-10, 170-pound southpaw from Reno, Nevada, hit .485 with 10 home runs and 43 RBIs and 20 stolen bases as a senior, but he was 9-1 with a 1.06 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 59 innings as a pitcher.
"He can hit a little, pitch a little, and he has plenty of moxie," Yeskie says. "I think he'll play for us right away, but I'm not sure where."
Dylan Pearce, another 5-10, 170-pound player who has pitched for Crater High, Southwestern Oregon CC and the Medford Rogues of the Great West League, also has Yeskie's attention.
"Dylan is like a right-handed Chamberlain," Yeskie says. "He's a competitive little stinker, like a pit bull. He is competitive and wants to win."