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Beavers' Casey faces next task

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State coach Pat Casey doffs his cap to the Goss Stadium crowd after the Beavers' 4-3 win over Kansas State on Monday clinched a spot in the College World Series.Back in the 1960s, there was a famous photo of Bear Bryant, the late, great Alabama football coach, walking on water. This was before the days of photoshopping, so I'm pretty sure it was real. To fans of the Crimson Tide, Bear Bryant was that good.

I've not yet seen such a picture of Pat Casey, though one might surface any day now of Oregon State's baseball coach skimming right along top of the Willamette River, getting nothing but the bottom of his heels wet.

Before we reflect on Oregon State's eighth trip to the postseason and its fourth visit to the College World Series in nine years, it's worthwhile to revisit the job Casey has done with the program since he took it over in 1995.

Casey's first team went 25-24-1 overall and finished fourth in the Pac-10 North with a 14-16 record. That was accomplished playing against non-league opponents such as Western Oregon, Concordia, Eastern Oregon, George Fox and Willamette and in a division with Portland State, Portland, Gonzaga, Washington and Washington State. The Beavers were a decent team playing in a region that was too rainy for championship baseball. There were no outward signs of greatness to come. Not yet.

But progress was coming quickly. Oregon State won its final eight games in 1997 to finish 38-12-1.

The next year, in the final season of the Pac-10 North, the Beavers swept three-game series with Arizona and UCLA, finished 35-14-1 and probably should have made the NCAA tournament.

In 1999, playing a full Pac-10 schedule for the first time at newly named and renovated Goss Stadium, OSU staggered to a 7-17 conference mark and a 19-35 record overall. Casey and his coaching staff, more determined than ever, continued to build a foundation.

Oregon State had a great shot at making the NCAA tournament in 2002 before losing eight of its final nine games to finish 10-14 in conference play and 31-23 overall.

Finally, in 2005 came the breakthrough behind an all in-state crew of Jacoby Ellsbury and Andy Jenkins and pitchers Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Kevin Gunderson. The Beavers made the College World Series for the first time in 53 years.

National titles in 2006 and '07 led the way for Oregon State to be named the No. 2 on Baseball America's list of top programs of the decade in 2010, behind only Texas. Casey is as proud of that as anything he has accomplished at OSU, and for good reason.

Kansas State's players, and even coach Brad Hill, came to Corvallis for last weekend's super regional a bit in awe of Casey and the Oregon State program. That's the way the Beavers are now regarded throughout the country. Anyone who saw that coming 15 years ago is a rare type of clairvoyant.

After the final pop-out was caught and Oregon State's 4-3 victory over K-State was in the books Monday night, after the players dogpiled in celebration on the Goss infield, Casey raised his hands and pumped his fists in jubilation toward the cheering crowd. It was an uncharacteristic display of emotion from the outwardly stoic coach. Why?

"I just appreciate the support we got from our fans through the regionals and super regionals," Casey says. "They've supported us so well through the season, really. That meant something to me. I was glad to be able to win for them. I was also very excited for our club. We went through a lot of stuff this year. Just good feelings."

Casey's mission now is to ensure that his players don't make a cameo in Omaha, as did his 2005 team, which dropped its first two CWS games. The opening test is Saturday against a Mississippi State team that has won 48 games and swept a pair from No. 6 seed Virginia at the Charlottesville super regional, no easy task.

The Bulldogs are led by four players chosen in the top nine rounds of the recent major-league draft -- junior right-fielder Hunter Renfroe, (.360, 15 homers, 61 RBIs), taken with the 13th pick of the first round by San Diego; junior shortstop Adam Frazier (.359, 60 runs, 102 hits), sixth round, Pittsburgh; and pitchers Kendall Graveman (7-5, 3.14 ERA), eighth round, Toronto, and Chad Girobi (8-1, 1.38), ninth round, Toronto.

Mississippi State opened its season by sweeping four from the University of Portland in Starksville, outscoring the Pilots by an aggregate 31-3. That made an impression on UP coach Chris Sperry.

"It's a balanced team in terms of having it all, much like Oregon State does this year," Sperry said. The Bulldogs' "starting pitching and guys out of the bullpen are very good. They have solid defenders, some speed, some power.

"Frazier is a dynamite player," Sperry said, "an igniter for their team both offensively and defensively. Renfroe is an exciting player who hits for power and has a cannon of an arm. (First baseman) Wes Rea has the kind of power to run it out of the house anywhere on the field. Their pitchers are very aggressive. They pitch down in the zone, don't miss above the belt very often, and all have good secondary stuff."

In the four games against Mississippi State, Portland left 32 men on base.

"We had chances," Sperry says, "but they closed the deal when we got into scoring position."

The Pilots went 0-3 against Oregon State this year, but all of the games were competitive -- 7-5, 4-1 and 4-3. The distinction there, of course, is those were midweek games and OSU was using its No. 4 starting pitcher.

"We don't get to see Oregon State's weekend guys, so it's a difficult comparison," Sperry says. "I know (the Beavers) are going to Omaha with one thing in mind. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they won it. It's tough for me to pick one way or the other, but if I could pick a matchup to see two teams play among teams I saw this year, that would certainly be one of them. Both teams will have their hands full."

This season may have been Casey's finest coaching job. The Beavers have some weaknesses. There is no reliable bat off the bench. Senior center fielder Max Gordon, the No. 9 hitter, has maximized his abilities but is primarily a bunter who has one extra-base hit all season. The bullpen has been unreliable in recent weeks, and the best arm there -- Max Englebrekt -- left last Saturday's game with back spasms. MRI results were negative. The freshman left-hander dressed Monday night but was still sore and didn't even warm up.

"Hopefully, Max will be available to pitch," Casey says. "The doctors will be taking a look at him through the week to see if there's anything that will keep him out. We'll see."

Casey isn't sure who he'll use out of his bullpen.

"We don't have a closer," the OSU skipper says. "Scott Schultz is supposed to be our closer, but we have to look at other options. That's not a clear path. We don't have one guy we're going to give the ball to, including Max, at the end of a game."

I figured Casey would move freshman Andrew Moore to Saturday's start, pushing back Matt Boyd -- who threw 123 pitches Saturday and closed with another 21 pitches Monday -- to Monday's second game. Casey said he and pitching coach Nate Yeskie won't decide until going over the Mississippi State lineup, but that Boyd is available for the opener.

"Matt was hitting 90, 92 (miles per hour) in the last inning" Monday night, Casey says. "He feels good. He'd be ready to go if we need him."

Casey, incidentally, is understandably less than thrilled his team must play Saturday instead of Sunday. He assumes the reason is because the North Carolina-South Carolina super regional was extended through Tuesday by rain delays.

"It's the biggest hose job there is," Casey says. "The teams that started (super regionals) Saturday should start (the CWS) Sunday. UCLA and LSU have been done since Saturday, and they don't begin (CWS play) until Sunday."

Only three of the eight national seeds -- Oregon State, LSU and North Carolina -- survived the super regionals.

"It tells you how good college baseball is," Casey says. "There's a lot of parity. It's tough to win."

Casey considers Mississippi State "the hottest team in the country." The Bulldogs have won 12 of their last 15. The Beavers have won 21 of their last 24. I call that a wash.

How does Casey rate his team's chances to win another national title?

"One in eight, how's that?" he says. "I hope Max is healthy. We're a little thin in the bullpen right now, which is not a good place to be thin. We have nobody who has been there before. We have some older guys who should handle the situation well. I like the way we've played. We'll have to play better."

The Beavers do have one person who has been there before -- Casey. There's no coach in college baseball more equipped to handle a team making a run at a national championship.

He may not be capable of walking on water. To fans of the Beavers, though, Pat Casey is that good.

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