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After dropping ASU series, Beavers say losing unacceptable

by: COURTESY OF DAVE NISHITANI - Michael Conforto's bat and overall play continue to be one of the strengths for Oregon States baseball team, but the little things the Beavers failed to execute cost them a home series last week against Arizona State.CORVALLIS — Starting pitching is not an issue for Oregon State.

Nearly everything else is as the Beavers head into a busy week that begins with a non-conference game against Seattle today at 5:35 p.m. at Goss Stadium, then continues with a three-game weekend series at Arizona.

Oregon State, ranked fourth nationally last week, carries a 19-5 overall record and a 4-2 mark in Pac-12 play, so the wheels aren’t falling off the cart.

But the Beavers’ Pac-12 series loss at home to Arizona State last weekend underscored the importance of relief pitching, hitting, leadership from veteran players and taking care of fundamentals such as bunting and throwing.

After senior Ben Wetzler’s two-hit masterpiece for a 4-0 victory over ASU, the Sun Devils rallied from a 2-1 ninth-inning deficit to win 3-2 in 10 innings, then scored four runs in the final two innings of a 7-3 victory to claim the series.

It was the first lost series for Oregon State since it dropped two of three at Washington nearly a year ago. That was the only time the Beavers lost two straight games all last season as they went 52-13 overall, earned the Pac-12 championship with a 24-6 record and reached the College World Series.

Coach Pat Casey says he will be closely watching his players’ response to the back-to-back losses to the Sun Devils.

“We’re not going to be defined by this weekend; we’re going to be defined by how we handle this weekend,” Casey said after Sunday’s loss.

Starting pitchers Wetzler, Andrew Moore and Jace Fry continue to give quality starts — no worries there. The bullpen has been less dependable. On Saturday, closer Scott Schultz gave up the winning run in the 10th. On Sunday, relievers Max Engelbrekt and Chandler Eden struggled in a three-run ninth that put the game on ice for the Devils.

“We may have to look for some different options there,” Casey says.

Last year’s Oregon State team had great leadership from seniors such as Tyler Smith, Ryan Barnes, Danny Hayes, Matt Boyd and Max Gordon. Casey says that type of leadership has been missing from this year’s club, aside from Wetzler.

“When Ben is on the bench (not pitching), it’s hard for him to be a leader,” Casey says. “He’s a good leader. Other than him, it would be helpful to get more of it.”

Junior outfielders Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis are among this year’s team leaders, though they do it less vocally and more by example.

“Compared to last year’s, with all the big personalities from our seniors, maybe there is a lack of leadership,” says Conforto, the Pac-12 player of the year and a first-team All-American last season. “There’s no excuse for it, but we’re working through it.

“Maybe it means becoming more vocal and coming out of our comfort zone. Something’s going to have to change, because losing isn’t acceptable around here. It’s not acceptable to us as a team. We’re going to make sure we get it fixed. We’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the right track.”

It may be more of a matter of production at the plate. In the final two games against Arizona State, Oregon State managed 15 hits and only five runs. Two games hardly constitutes a team-wide slump, but the Beavers know they underachieved in those two games.

“We have a great hitting team,” Conforto says. “We have some good bats all the way through the lineup. It’s comparable to last year — maybe even a little bit better.

“Some of us are young; some of us are pressing. We’re not hitting the way we want to. Hitting can be contagious both ways. We need to find ways to get on base and get that momentum going and score some runs.”

Casey was particularly unhappy with two key plays in Sunday’s game, both mistakes made by first baseman Gabe Clark.

With the game scoreless in the bottom of the third, Oregon State got runners to first and second with no out. Clark then popped out a 2-0 pitch trying to sacrifice. The Beavers got no runs in the inning.

“Get the bunt down there, we get a run and we have the lead,” Casey says. “It’s a different game.”

With the score tied 3-3 in the eighth and Arizona State at the plate with one out and a runner on third, Drew Stankiewicz bounced a chopper to first. Clark fielded it cleanly, but his throw home to catcher Logan Ice was high, allowing Brian Serven to slide in safely for what proved to be the winning run.

“That’s a routine play, a high school play,” Casey says. “Then (the Sun Devils) get to bring in their closer in the eighth, because it’s a one-run game instead of a tie. Those were the two biggest plays of the game.”

What also hurt was that the Sun Devils (12-10, 4-2) came in unranked and a bit down from the perennial top-25 program they’ve been over the years.

“They’re very good, but they’ve had some injuries and they’ve struggled early,” Casey says. “They are absolutely elated to come in here and win the series. I don’t think they expected to do anything other than to hope to steal one game.”

Casey has won 860 games over a 27-year career coaching at George Fox and Oregon State. He has lost more than 500 games, too, and probably hates losing as much as he likes winning.

“If you don’t hate losing, if you don’t detest losing, usually you surrender before you should surrender,” he says. “Because you should never surrender.”

Casey considers his 2014 team every bit as talented as last year’s team, with as much or better a chance to reach Omaha. “You look at our body of work over 24 games, they’ve been pretty good,” he says.

But the two losses to Arizona State — with a play or two in each game determining the victor — gnaws at the veteran coach.

“For whatever reason, we have a little bit of a lack of confidence in our clubhouse,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a lack of effort. Our guys work hard. They play hard. But when you can’t make routine plays — sacrifice bunts, throwing the ball 70 feet in the infield, throwing pitches where you want to throw them — it’s tough.

“The guys talk a lot about unity and being together. We’ll find out how tough they are. No team goes through a season without things happening that are not good. We went up to Seattle last year and got beat two out of three. We got swept by Arizona State here in ‘07 and won the national championship. We’ve been in tough situations before.

“I guarantee you, (the coaches) aren’t giving one inch. I’m totally responsible for the way we play the game. If I can’t motivate these guys to do it, then it’s on me. But coaches can’t ‘uni’ up and play. The guys didn’t play the game the way it should be played over the last two days. That’s damn disappointing to me.”

Things could be worse. Arizona (11-15, 1-5) has lost six straight games heading into a Wednesday non-league matchup with ASU. Misery loves company, but that’s the kind of company the Beavers hope to avoid.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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