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Repentant Wetzler leads OSU to big win


Beavers seek strong finish, national seed in bid for titles

Ben WetzlerCORVALLIS — Adversity often rears its ugly head in sports. Boy, does Ben Wetzler understand that after what he’s gone through over the past few months.

The true test is how you handle that adversity and rise to the challenges it presents.

Wetzler could write the manual on that.

The senior left-hander’s final home regular-season start for Oregon State might have been the best of his career, as he shut down fifth-ranked Washington on two hits in a 3-0 victory Sunday at Goss Stadium.

Wetzler walked two, struck out nine and didn’t allow a runner past first base as the second-ranked Beavers (41-9 overall, 22-5 in Pac-12) won the series with the Huskies (38-13, 20-7) and took a giant step toward their second straight conference crown and their fourth since 2005.

Just as important, the Clackamas High grad owned up to his recent failures, offering his Sunday performance as a small step toward a debt to his teammates.

“I more than owed them,” Wetzler told the assembled media afterward. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Coupled with Jace Fry’s work in the Beavers’ 1-0 Saturday victory, OSU coach Pat Casey called it “the best back-to-back 18 innings we’ve seen since Rice in 2006. That’s what it reminded me of.”

The reference was to consecutive College World Series shutouts by Daniel Turpen and Jonah Nickerson against the Owls on the way to the national championship.

Wetzler and Fry were that good.

In Wetzler’s case, it’s representative of the good part of an elevator ride of a senior season.

After turning down big money to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies last summer, Wetzler lost the first fifth of his senior season due to an NCAA penalty for improper involvement with an agent.

When finally allowed to pitch, Wetzler took over where he left off as a junior on his way to a 10-1 record and a national-best 0.84 ERA this spring.

He is now Oregon State’s career wins leader. He has pitched more innings than any Beaver in history. He is third on the school strikeouts list, 23 behind the record-holder, Nickerson.

A week ago, Wetzler nearly sabotaged himself after a Friday victory over UCLA. Reportedly intoxicated in the wee hours Saturday morning, he arrived at a house he thought was his own. It wasn’t. The result was an arrest for criminal mischief and trespassing, and about as much embarrassment as a star pitcher could ask for.

On the day of the incident, Wetzler sought out his coach.

“I walked into his office and had to be the one to tell him, even though I was so ashamed,” Wetzler said. “I had to man up and take responsibility for what I did.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I knew he was going to be upset with me, and understandably so. I was upset with myself. We were the two hardest on ourselves.”

It put Casey — a man of deep religious faith and principles — in a quandary, especially after he studied the situation.

Wetzler’s criminal charges did not involve the use of alcohol. There were no mandatory disciplinary measures in place by the school for his offense. OSU athletic department officials left Wetzler’s status up to Casey.

Wetzler is on a short list of the players Casey has most admired during his two decades at Oregon State. The coach said Wetzler had no previous transgressions during his four years in the OSU program. Wetzler had chosen to forego major bonus money to return to school because he so much enjoys playing in Casey’s program. And he’d suffered the NCAA penalty for what Casey considered no fault of his own.

Corvallis police department officials have indicated the trespassing charge will be dropped. Wetzler is likely to be convicted of a misdemeanor offense regarding the criminal mischief.

Casey weighed the facts and, given the circumstances and Wetzler’s previous record, thought about imposing no suspension at all. Had it been most of his players, Casey said, he’d have found some punitive measure without missing games.

But the veteran coach felt he had to make a statement to all those in the clubhouse. He chose the five-game suspension, retroactive to the date of the incident, which caused Wetzler to miss a Friday start in the most important series of the season.

In the days after the incident, Wetzler fretted that his college career was over.

“I was ecstatic that I got to wear the uniform again,” he said Sunday. “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to do it again.”

The two-day push-back of his final home regular-season start seems like no penalty at all to most of us. That’s not the way Wetzler viewed it, especially after the Huskies beat Andrew Moore 4-2.

“I felt guilty as hell,” Wetzler told me. “Like I’d cost us the game.”

So there was plenty of emotion riding on Sunday’s start.

“I thought he’d be one way or the other — outstanding, or he’d struggle,” Casey said. “He was outstanding.

But Wetzler was the story Sunday.

“He had a little bit extra today,” said freshman Caleb Hamilton, who had two hits, including the day’s biggest, a two-run single. “You could just feel his energy feeding off to all of us. He was on fire.”

“Wetzler was really effective,” Washington coach Lindsay Meggs. “He dropped that curveball in any time he wanted to. We knew how tough he could be. We didn’t get a leadoff guy on base all day. That makes it tough.”

I’ll say this: I think Wetzler truly has learned a lesson.

“I’ve been so ashamed of myself this last week,” he told the media. “Ashamed I could put my teammates through what I did. They mean the world to me. I feel so terrible. They’ve been nothing but supportive throughout the whole thing. They know who I am as a person, who I am deep down. They know it was an isolated incident that I regret so much. I love them for it.

“I’m going to figure out a way to not only learn from it and become a better person, but become a better teammate and a better leader from it.”

Oregon State entered the weekend a game ahead of Washington atop the Pac-12 standings, and emerged with a two-game lead with three to play. The Beavers scored only six runs in the three games but still managed to hand the Huskies their first series loss after winning 10 straight this season.

“I was not happy with the way we swung the bats, but their pitching is very good,” Casey said. “We won two of three. We shut them out for (the last) 19 innings. That’s a club that’s been hotter than a pistol. And after beating us Friday night, they were playing with house money the rest of the weekend.”

The Beavers won Sunday without senior second baseman Andy Peterson, who sprained an ankle celebrating the walk-off victory over the Huskies on Saturday. Peterson probably won’t be available for Tuesday’s non-conference game at Oregon, but Casey hopes he’ll be able to go Friday as the Beavers begin their final Pac-12 series at Southern Cal.

Also back will be senior Kavin Keyes, out since April 13 with a fractured left thumb.

His return will help as the Beavers — who have won 14 of their last 15 games — continue to zero in on a top-eight national seed, which would give them the right to play host to the regionals and super regionals.

“We want to finish strong,” Casey said. “I think we’re in good shape for a national seed. Our RPI is good (fifth going into Sunday play), and we’re going to play Oregon and USC, both with solid RPIs.”

The Huskies have lost three of four to OSU this season, including a 3-2 defeat in Arizona on Feb. 24. Meggs left Corvallis Sunday night thinking the Beavers are a bonafide contender to win another national title.

“I like their team a lot,” he said. “They have gotten a lot better since we saw them early on. Their younger guys are playing like older guys. Give them credit — they stuck with those guys. They’re so well-coached. Pat and his staff do as good a job as anybody. They have a chance.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers