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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Nice nucleus could be on hand, though; maybe Casey, too

COURTESY PHOTO: MEGAN CONNELLY - Creighton scores a run en route to eliminating Oregon State from the NCAA baseball playoffs.CORVALLIS — Defense was a problem in the postseason, and injuries depleted what was expected to be a deep, talented pitching staff.

But when Oregon State's 2019 season is evaluated, it starts with the hitting, or lack thereof.

After the Beavers' season-ending 4-1 loss to Creighton in the Corvallis Regional at Goss Stadium, their team batting average stood at .261 — the program's lowest in 35 years. Jack Riley's 1984 club, which went 22-23 and played games against the likes of Linfield, Western Oregon and Willamette, hit .253.

Take away catcher Adley Rutschman (.411) and Oregon State hit .246 this season, with shortstop Beau Philip (.311) the only other player over .300.

It wasn't unexpected that the Beavers would struggle at the plate after losing stalwarts such as Nick Madrigal, Cadyn Grenier, Trevor Larnach, Steven Kwan and Michael Gretler from the College World Series championship squad of 2018. Interim head coach Pat Bailey hoped the few returning position players would step up, but other than Rutschman, everyone struggled. Infielder Andy Armstrong, outfielders Preston Jones and Tyler Malone and first baseman Zak Taylor all hit below .250 with a collective five home runs.

Oregon State finished 36-20-1 overall and placed third in the Pac-12 with a 21-8 mark — no disgrace there. But the Beavers, saddled with some injuries to key members of the pitching staff, didn't get better as the season wore on. Beginning with a 6-3 loss against Gonzaga on April 30, they lost eight of their last 10 games at home, including to Cincinnati and Creighton in the NCAA tournament. That's never happened in the history of a program with records dating to 1907. They lost 10 of their last 15 contests overall.

"I'm not sure why it happened," Bailey told me after Saturday's defeat by the Bluejays, "but we just didn't play well the last few weeks of the season."

Without ace Kevin Abel for most of the season (Tommy John elbow surgery) and minus four other key pitchers for all or parts of the campaign, pitching coach Nate Yeskie's staff did an admirable job, posting a 3.02 ERA.

The Beavers went out with a whimper at the regional, though, and were especially bad at the defensive end. They made three errors that led to a pair of unearned runs against Creighton. Rutschman was even off his game, throwing the ball into right field on a pickoff play at first.

"That's not usually how we play defense," said senior first baseman Taylor, who saved his best ball of the season for last, getting two of OSU's four hits and starting an inning-ending double play with a leaping grab of a line drive. "There were some miscues. Things happened on balls we usually catch. But that happens in games. You make mistakes — especially physical mistakes."

The Beavers hit three balls that, with the right gust of wind, would have been either off the wall or out of the park. Creighton made diving catches on three other balls in the outfield. The Bluejays, meanwhile, hit bloopers that dropped for four of their nine hits.

"We stung a couple of balls to the track," Taylor said. "That's baseball. They had a few bloops that fell in for them. But we can't complain too much about that."

Bailey wasn't accepting any excuses that the media was lobbing up about bad breaks.

"It was a matter of us not playing good baseball, bottom line," he said. "We hit some balls hard that couldn't find holes. That's baseball, and that's life. Some things aren't fair. We made some great plays in the field, too."

But the Beavers didn't have enough hitters they could count on to produce when it was needed this season. And now they'll be losing their two best hitters — Rutschman and Philip — to pro baseball.

Senior pitchers Bryce Fehmel and Dylan Pearce and Taylor will be gone in 2020. They'll be missed as leaders.

Five OSU juniors — including pitchers Grant Gambrell, Brandon Eisert and Jake Mulholland — will be taken in the upcoming major-league draft. Rutschman is expected to go No. 1 to Baltimore. The other four should be selected by the 10th round. That could mean all five will not return next season.

What's left is a nice contingent of pitchers and some position players who will to fill the proverbial "step-up" role, or the OSU offense will be in trouble again next year.

Troy Claunch should step ably into Rutschman's spot at catcher. Infielder Armstrong and outfielders Jones and Malone should return as seniors for leadership. Ryan Ober, George Mendazona, Jake Harvey, Matthew Gretler and Jake Dukart are freshmen and sophomores who will battle for infield spots next season. Joe Casey and Kyler McMahan return with starting outfield experience.

Abel won't be back until late next season, if at all. But Mitchell Verburg, Christian Chamberlain and Nathan Burns will return as juniors to lead the pitching staff, and freshmen Joey Mundt, Jake Pfennigs and Andrew Walling will get their opportunities for key roles as sophomores next year. Jordan Britton, who missed all of this season with a forearm injury, will return as a redshirt senior.

Unless the draft robs them of talent — and that could happen — the Beavers will bring in 13 recruits, among them Jacob Melton, a hard-hitting outfield transfer from Linn-Benton. Five pitchers are in the class, including left-hander Kai Murphy, the son of Milwaukee Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy.

The elephant in the room is the head coaching position. Former coach Pat Casey, who "retired" last season, hasn't yet indicated if he wants his old job back. Athletic director Scott Barnes has stated several times that if Casey doesn't return, he will conduct a "national search" to find a replacement.

For the first time last Monday, Barnes asked Bailey if he would be interested in "applying" for the job if Casey is not back.

"I said, 'Absolutely,'" Bailey said.

I don't think Bailey will get that opportunity.

I have no inside information, but I feel Casey will take back his old position next season. I think after a year away from the rigors of the job, he'll be refreshed and eager to get back at it.

I expect Oregon State to have a press conference early this week — perhaps by Tuesday — to announce Casey's reappointment.

Bailey is on board with it, and would return as associate head coach and Casey's right-hand man.

It's not a panacea for Oregon State's weaknesses this season. Casey was going to have trouble getting this year's crew to the College World Series, anyway. Bailey did a nice job steering the boat through muddy waters all season.

But there's nobody better than Pat Casey to run the Oregon State program. It's like Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich or Bobby Cox at the command. You know you're in better hands than anybody else.

We'll know soon enough if that's the "Case."

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@kerryeggers


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