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Beavers lefty scrapes off rust, emerges as competitive leader

by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Junior Ben Wetzler has been a strong starter on Sundays for Oregon State's highly ranked baseball team.CORVALLIS — The Pac-12's premier pitcher over the last month hasn't been Stanford's Mark Appel or UCLA's David Berg or even Oregon State's formidable Matt Boyd.

Strike up the band for OSU left-hander Ben Wetzler, who has been plying his trade on Sundays in more impressive fashion than any of the league's Friday night guns.

The 6-1, 210-pound junior from Clackamas High has channeled his inner Tom Glavine, contributing as much as anyone for the fifth-ranked and Pac-12-leading Beavers (14-4 in conference, 34-8 overall), who entertain California (9-12, 20-23) in a weekend Goss Stadium series beginning at 5:35 p.m. Friday.

In consecutive victories over UCLA, Utah, Washington and Southern Cal, Wetzler has allowed 18 hits and two earned runs in 30 1/3 innings, with only six walks and 24 strikeouts.

"Nobody has been better," Oregon State coach Pat Casey says. "Ben has been as sharp as I've ever seen him his last few starts."

"I've had command of all three of my pitches," Wetzler says. "I have been able to put them where I want to and I'm getting ahead of guys, which has allowed me to have the success I'm having."

Sundays are generally reserved for a team's No. 3 starter. Casey also has gotten sensational work from his other two starters, Boyd (8-2, 1.96 ERA) and prize freshman Andrew Moore (8-1, 1.54). But it has been hard to keep pace with Wetzler, who ranks second in the Pac-12 with a 1.47 ERA (behind Berg at 0.75 and ahead of Appel at 1.49) and first in opponents' batting average at .187.

With Jace Fry on the mend from Tommy John surgery, Wetzler was ticketed to be Oregon State's Friday night starter. A preseason back injury shelved that idea.

"It happened the first day we threw live coming back from Christmas break in early February," Wetzler recalls, "on a day that was like 27 degrees.

"I threw the first inning and felt great. Sat down and my body got cold. Went back out there, threw the first pitch and pulled a muscle."

Wetzler missed the first two weeks of the season, then worked his way back into shape, stuck to a pitch count his first two outings. Over his first five appearances, he allowed only 13 hits and five earned runs in 18 2/3 innings, but walked 12 while striking out nine.

"Took awhile to knock the rust out," he says.

Since then, Wetzler has been lights out, warming to the Sunday role as Boyd and Moore have mowed down the opposition on Fridays and Saturdays.

"It's either we're going for the sweep, going for the series win or going to try to salvage a game," he says. "The game always means something. I kind of like that."

Wetzler was solid as a freshman (6-3, 4.66) and outstanding as a sophomore (8-2, 3.10), but has been even better this season.

"Ben is really competitive, and he has good stuff," Casey says. "He's a left-hander who comes in at 91 (mph) with good movement on his fastball, with a changeup and a slider that he's starting to command."

Wetzler added the slider the summer after his freshman year, "and it's probably my best pitch now," he says.

On Sunday, Wetzler's high school coach — John Arntson — and his entire Clackamas High team were in the stands at Goss to watch the ex-Cavalier pitch the Beavers to a 6-1 victory over USC.

The next day, Wetzler returned the favor, visiting his prep alma mater to watch the state's top-ranked Class 6A team practice. Wetzler is very close to Arntson, who lost his son, 7-year-old Jacob, in an automobile accident last New Year's Eve.

"The whole community has been supporting Coach Arntson really well," Wetzler says. The accident "happened to the best guy in the world. It's terrible that it did. That little kid was kind of a little brother and grew up with all of us. It was terribly sad."

Wetzler has warm feelings, too, for Casey and OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie.

"Case is the most competitive human being you'll ever meet," Wetzler says. "He brings that out in us. All he wants to do is win. We're right there behind him in that.

"Nate is a tireless worker. He loves the game, loves pitching, and will sit in his office for hours and break things down to try to make our staff as good it can possibly be. It's fun to pitch for him."

Wetzler was crestfallen when Oregon State lost in the regionals last season at Louisiana State.

"The core of that team is with us again this year," Wetzler says. "The first thing we did when we got back from Baton Rouge, we sat 'Case' down and told him, 'We want you back.'

"We knew he'd been thinking about retiring the last couple of years. We told him, 'We want you back to be the leader of our team. It'll mean a lot to us to help us get there, because we're going to go.' We told him that."

Wetzler is one of the vocal leaders of the Beavers.

"I love trying to be a part of the game," he says. "Whether I'm pitching or sitting on the bench, I want to make a difference somehow. If that's being a cheerleader in the dugout, that's what I'll do."

Normally, Casey will send starting pitchers not scheduled to play behind home plate to chart pitches or work a radar gun.

"We like to keep Ben in the dugout," the OSU skipper says. "He likes being there. He stays in the game. He's always vocal, a lot like Frye. They both like to win. They're fun to have around."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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