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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/OSU to defend Pac-12 title with proven leaders, promising freshmen

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State's Nick Madrigal, scoring a run last season, is a preseason All-American for the Beavers, who are ranked No. 2 in the nation in all five of the major polls.CORVALLIS — On a balmy-for-winter-in-Oregon Monday afternoon, baseball was in the air at Goss Stadium.

The nation's No. 2-ranked team in the preseason is in preparation for the 2018 season, which will be on us in the blink of an eye.

Oregon State, which started practice Friday, opens with an eight-game, two-week foray to Surprise, Arizona, beginning Feb. 16 against New Mexico. There will be a bull's-eye on the Beavers, whose historic 2017 campaign was missing only one jewel — a national championship.

OSU finished the season 56-6, the best record in NCAA Division I college baseball since 1982, when Texas was 57-4. The Beavers set a Pac-12 record with a 27-3 mark in conference play and were a mindboggling 31-1 at home. But they fell short of the ultimate prize, falling twice to Louisiana State after a pair of wins as the No. 1 seed in the College World Series.

All five of the national polls have Oregon State ranked No. 2 behind Florida entering this season. Pat Casey never gets caught up in such things.

"Teams are ranked according to what they did the previous year," said Casey, who owns an 845-446 record heading into his 24th year at the OSU helm. "We had a great year last year. Florida won it all; (the Gators) are ranked No. 1.

"We don't take a lot of stock in that. We sure appreciate that people look at our club and feel like we're a team they can see being in that position. We're also well aware that what we did last year has nothing to do with this year."

Even with a plethora of veterans returning and some promising freshmen adding to the scene, Casey doesn't expect to match the record of a year ago.

"I've never had a club be 56-6, nor do you ever think that could happen at this level," says Casey, the reigning National College Baseball Writers Association Coach of the Year.

Because of that, Casey says, "Everybody wants to beat you. Everybody feels like it's a big game for them. That's a great challenge for us. We need to respond to that challenge. We have a lot of things to do to get better if we're going to be as good as we hope."

Oregon State loses two starting position players — first baseman KJ Harrison and left fielder Christian Donahue — along with starting pitcher Jake Thompson and reliever Max Englebrekt. Harrison, who hit .313 with a team-high nine home runs and 43 RBIs, and Thompson, who went 14-1 with a 1.96 ERA, are huge losses. Also gone is pitcher Drew Rasmussen, who saw limited duty last season and underwent his second Tommy John elbow surgery last fall.

OSU returns everybody else, including junior second baseman Nick Madrigal, junior shortstop Cadyn Grenier, junior center fielder Steven Kwan and sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman.

"Veterans up the middle are very important," Casey says.

Madrigal, a unanimous All-American and Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, will be the team captain. Madrigal and Grenier were on the U.S. collegiate national team last summer. Kwan, Rutschman and outfielder Trevor Larnach played in the Cape Cod League.

"Our leadership is at a high level," Casey says. "There are many leaders on our club."

Rutschman hit only .234 as a freshman, but started 56 games and was one of the Beavers' most important players.

"Adley did some unbelievable things for us last year," Casey says. "His batting average wasn't indicative of what he meant to us offensively. He got on base at big times. And handling that pitching staff was crucial. He will be a better player this year, no question about it."

Senior Michael Gretler is back at third base, and the starting outfield seems set with senior Jack Anderson in left and juniors Kwan in center and Larnach in right. Junior Zak Taylor and sophomore Tyler Malone and sophomore transfer Alex McGarry are among those battling for the first-base job.

Other position players will be vying for roles, including outfielders Kyle Nobach, a fifth-year senior who sat out last season following knee surgery, sophomore Preston Jones and redshirt freshman Joe Casey, the coach's son. Sophomore third baseman Andy Armstrong and freshman first baseman/outfielder Zach Clayton could figure in somewhere.

"I like the competition I'm seeing right now," Pat Casey says.

Nate Yeskie's pitching staff was the best in the country a year ago, leading in team ERA (1.93) by a whopping margin. This year's group, Yeskie believes, has the same type of potential.

The ace will be junior left-hander Luke Heimlich (11-1 with a nation-leading 0.76 ERA), who missed the College World Series after revelation of a juvenile sex offense.

"We should see more consistency with the total package of what he brings to the mound," says Yeskie, the D1Baseball.com Pitching Coach of the Year in 2017. "Luke has always showed spurts of dominance. There were some times last year when he had some good fortune, too.

"His stuff across the board is better this season. It's a little crisper. His command is better. The influence and impact he has on his teammates is immeasureable. He leads by example with his work ethic and how he prepares."

The other starters' spots are up for grabs, with juniors Bryce Fehmel (6-3, 3.87), Sam Tweedt (3-0, 2.50) and Jordan Britton (2-0, 2.45), sophomore Grant Gambrell (1-0, 2.93) and freshman Kevin Abel among the candidates.

"Roles could change throughout the season," Yeskie says. "It's how the guys handle the ups and downs and embrace the opportunities they get."

Gambrell, fellow sophomores Jake Mulholland (7-1, 1.20), Mitchell Verburg (1-0, 0.93) and Brandon Eisert (5-0, 2.31) and freshman Christian Chamberlain are among those who will come out of the bullpen. The closer role could be by committee.

"We had seven guys get at least one save last year," Yeskie says. "We have a lot of guys who can do it this year."

Casey is hoping several members of his highly acclaimed freshman class will produce immediately.

"A lot of them have the necessary talent," he says. "It's just about when they decide they want to break down those walls of fear and jump into the mix and know they belong. Some guys do that sooner than others. But every year, we've had at least one freshman step up and do something big."

Oregon State will be hard-pressed to defend its Pac-12 championship against the likes of UCLA and Stanford, among other teams. The pundits are unanimous in picking the Beavers, however.

"With expectations come more attention," Yeskie says. "We'll be in the cross-hairs a little bit more. When you're the bigger buck out there, everybody's hunting you down.

"That's something we're going to embrace. We've done it before. That's good. It means we're staying out ahead of the pack. We'll see if we can do that this year."

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