Nick Madrigal works his infield magic at OSU
CORVALLIS — A scout watching Oregon State's 10-2 victory over California Sunday at Goss Stadium was asked about Nick Madrigal's chances to make it to the major leagues some day.
"My opinion?" he asked rhetorically. "The kid's going to be up there for a while."
Oregon State coach Pat Casey wouldn't argue with that notion one bit.
"A couple of weeks ago, I told Nick, 'Remember when we were recruiting you, and you went down on the field and got a picture taken with Darwin Barney?'" Casey says. "I said, 'Don't worry, some day we'll be sending recruits to you.' That kid is a game dog."
Madrigal's teammates feel the same way about the Beavers' sophomore middle infielder.
"He's incredible," pitcher Jake Thompson says. "Nick is going to be a valuable asset for a team at the next level some day."
Madrigal carries a .390 batting average, which ranks second in the Pac-12 going into Thursday's opener of a three-game Civil War series at Oregon. If he keeps up that pace, he'll finish with one of the top 10 single-season averages in school history, and the best since Jacoby Ellsbury hit .406 in 2005.
Not bad for a player who stands 5-7, weighs 160 pounds and is smaller than just about anyone in a Pac-12 uniform this season.
"Size is why he has the motor he has," Casey observes. "He's a little guy who has been told he couldn't."
Casey says Madrigal compares favorably with 5-9 Dustin Pedroia, the Hall of Fame-bound second baseman for the Boston Red Sox.
"Nick is Dustin Pedroia with a better glove — he runs better than Pedroia, too," Casey says. "Nick may never have Pedroia's power, but in every other facet of the game, he will do better than Pedroia. He'll be a first-round draft pick, and he'll play for a long time in the major leagues."
Madrigal is reminiscent of Barney, the middle infielder who helped the Beavers to consecutive College World Series appearances from 2005-07. Barney, a 5-9 Beaverton native, now 31, is in his eighth major-league season, hitting .291 as a utility player for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"I watched Darwin play in college and enjoy watching him in the major leagues," Madrigal says. "He's someone I root for. I got to take ground balls with him in the offseason. That was awesome."
Madrigal is a slick fielder who traded off between shortstop and second base with fellow sophomore Cadyn Grenier through the first half of the season. Over the last 10 games, Casey has left Grenier at shortstop, but not because of Madrigal's defensive shortcomings.
"Nick and Cadyn are both terrific shortstops," Casey says. "The only reason we've settled on Nick at second base is Cadyn can't turn the double play at second the way Nick can. Nick has played more second. It's foreign to Cadyn.
"So that helps our team. But I don't care where you put that guy — second, short, center field — Nick is going to be as good as anybody in the country at that position."
Madrigal was a consensus Freshman All-American, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-Pac-12 selection last season, and he's on the short list for the conference Player of the Year Award this season.
"If you pick out the three or four best players in the league," Casey says, "Nick would be one of them on everybody's list."
After hitting .333 as a freshman, Madrigal has stepped his game up at the plate as the Beavers' leadoff hitter this season. Some players go through a sophomore slump. Not Madrigal.
"I don't believe in that sort of thing," the Elk Grove, California, native says. "Baseball is the same anywhere you go. Sure, there are adjustments you have to make. But I've put in enough work, I'm confident in what I do."
Madrigal batted only .257 in a seven-game before last weekend's three-game series against California, then went 8 for 14 against the Bears.
"For a few games, I was in my own head a little bit, trying to do too much," he says. Against Cal, "I felt a lot more relaxed in the box. But a lot of credit goes to my teammates and how well they played. It's easy to hit behind guys when they have good at-bats."
Madrigal had scholarship offers from most Pac-12 schools out of high school.
"I was thinking about going to Oregon," he says. "I talked to California and Washington. But it was pretty clear from the beginning I wanted to be here. Once I got on campus and saw a game and the atmosphere, I knew I wanted to be in this uniform to try to win for this school."
Madrigal is the best player on the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Even so, he is by nature modest, deflecting praise toward his teammates at nearly every turn.
"It takes a team to have the kind of season we're having," he says. "The pitchers have been doing it for us all year. Some of our other guys don't get enough credit. Take (outfielder) Steven Kwan. He has great at-bats every single game. We simply can't do it without all of the guys stepping up at different times."
Madrigal and pitcher Drew Rasmussen are the Beavers' co-captains. As an every-day player, Madrigal is counted upon most by his teammates.
"Nick is 100 percent a leader," pitcher Jake Thompson says. "Whenever I'm struggling on the mound, he comes out to relax me and help me find my groove and tempo. And he's so good defensively. I always want the ball hit to him because I know he'll make a play."
"Everybody looks up to Nick," assistant coach Pat Bailey says. "For me, the most important thing to leadership is leading by example. He's a leader verbally, but he's every bit the leader by example in terms of how he goes about his business in practice. He's like the E.F. Hutton of our day. When he says something, guys are going to listen."
It's another attribute Madrigal shares with Barney.
"There are chauffeurs and guys who sit in the back," Casey says. "Nick is a chauffeur. There are guys who are comfortable in the middle of the pack, but not Nick."
Casey's guidance has not been lost on Madrigal.
"Coach Casey is someone I look up to," he says. "Coming in every day and listening to what he has to say inspires me. I wish everyone could sit in and listen to his talks. Some of the stuff he says, I'll remember for the rest of my life. I'm glad I'm here."
After what everyone in the Oregon State program believes was an unjust decision to leave the Beavers out of the NCAA tournament in 2016, Madrigal says they have been determined to not let it happen again this season.
"With the way last year ended, we're so motivated and so focused on the bigger picture," he says. "It's in the back of our minds, but we just want to keep pushing forward. We aren't going to get ahead of ourselves. This team is motivated for bigger things this year."