Canham, Beavers not selling themselves short
CORVALLIS — It's less than a week before the Mitch Canham era unfolds at Oregon State.
The 25th-ranked Beavers will face New Mexico on Friday in the season opener for both schools at Surprise, Arizona. OSU will play four games in four days there — two against Gonzaga, the finale vs. Brigham Young — then head to Mississippi State for a three-game series Feb. 21-23.
After more than a month of practice sessions, are the Beavers ready to play a real game?
"I believe we are," said Canham, the former All-America catcher who has taken over as head coach. "Everyone is working extremely hard. When you've been preparing for so long, you want to get into the games. Let's do this."
A year ago, Oregon State was 36-20-1 (17-12 in Pac-12 play) under interim head coach Pat Bailey, who
had taken over for Pat Casey. Bailey is back as Canham's right-hand man, but gone from the 2019 Beavers are slugging catcher Adley Rutschman and all-Pac-12 shortstop Beau Philip, the team's top two hitters.
It would seem that this year's team will have to rely on pitching and defense, but Canham is expecting the performance at the plate to be solid, too.
"In our scrimmages, the guys are doing a great job controlling the strike zone," he said. "Pitch selection is good. When they swing, it's with some serious intent.
"I believe our defense is strong and we have a lot of talented arms, but we have an offense, too. It's a resilient group. Whatever obstacle comes our way, we're going to handle it. On any given day, we can pitch, defend, run the bases and hit. If one thing's not going well, the group will find another way to get it done."
Rutschman hit 17 home runs and Philip five last season. Junior first baseman Alex McGarry hit eight, but the rest of the returnees combined for only 14 long balls. Even so, Canham said he doesn't expect power to be a problem.
"I like how everyone is owning who they are and not trying to be somebody who isn't what they need to be," the first-year skipper said. "We have some guys who can turn the baseball around and put it in the alleys. I like where we're at in terms of hitting."
Pitching, as usual, will be a strength.
"I'm excited to get to see our guys get out there and compete and figure out who's who," pitching coach Rich Dorman said. "We know we have a good group. Now it's a matter of determining how it will all come together."
Left-handers Jake Mulholland and Christian Chamberlain and right-handers Jake Pfennigs and Nate Burns are expected to form the starting rotation for the four Arizona contests.
Mulholland will likely start the opener against the Lobos, who were 23-28-1 last season and 11-16-1 in Mountain West play. The 6-2, 200-pound senior from Snohomish, Washington, was all-Pac-12 and a third-team All-American last season as OSU's closer. He was 3-3 with a 1.93 ERA in 46 2/3 innings, striking out 41 with eight saves. Mulholland was outstanding in conference action, going 3-0 with a 0.54 ERA and four saves in 16 appearances.
"I want to give him an opportunity to start this season," Dorman said. "We know he can be in the back end of a pen. We know his value there. It's important for our team to get out of the gate well. He gives a great shot to do that. If it doesn't work, we know 'Mully' can be the back-end guy.
"If he finds that good routine and buys into that, he can definitely be a starter who gives us long outings. He throws to contact well, and when he's down in the zone he's pretty darn tough. You blink and he'll be through six innings and have thrown only 58 or 60 pitches."
The other southpaw starter will be Chamberlain, a 5-10, 175-pound junior who threw mostly out of the bullpen last season, going 3-4 with a 3.83 ERA and a .226 opponents' batting average.
"Being a starter is a goal of mine," Chamberlain said. "We'll see what happens, but I'm in a good spot right now with how my arm feels and my approach. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable on the mound."
Pfennigs, a 6-7, 210-pound sophomore, was 1-1 with a 4.55 ERA in 17 relief appearances last season. Burns, a 6-1, 185-pound junior, was 2-0 with a 3.32 ERA in 10 appearances in 2019.
"It's his time," Dorman said. "Nate's a junior now. He has sat around and watched enough. It's his turn; time for him to step up and be a guy. He has unbelievable stuff. Now it's time to act like it on the mound. I've been encouraged by what I've seen."
Mitch Verburg could gain a rotation spot if he can get healthy. The 6-3, 210-pound junior right-hander was 1-0 with a 1.40 ERA in relief appearances last season, striking out 38 in 25 2/3 innings. He had off-season elbow surgery, though, and is not yet ready to pitch.
"Can't wait to get him out on the mound, to get him strong and healthy," Dorman said.
The bullpen is stocked with a number of candidates, including sophomores Joey Mundt and Andrew Walling and freshmen Will Frisch, Cooper Hjerpy, Kai Murphy, A.J. Lattery and Jack Washburn.
One player who is unlikely to pitch this season is junior righ-thander Kevin Abel, the 2018 College World Series hero who underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last April. Abel appeared to be throwing without pain during a Wednesday practice session at Goss Stadium, but declined an interview request.
"It's not about me this year," he said.
Junior catcher Troy Claunch and senior shortstop Andy Armstrong will be among the team leaders, said Canham, who doesn't pick captains.
"We'll get leadership from a lot of guys through the year," he said.
Claunch will finally get his chance to be the guy at catcher after playing in Rutschman's shadow the past two seasons.
"I'm so impressed with Troy, watching him go about his work," Canham said. "He's an awesome human being. He has had limited playing time the last two years, but he is so well-prepared and such a selfless individual. He has a lot to do with making sure our practices are run sharp. He's not afraid to be vocal. I like how he swings the bat."
Armstrong has been a part-time starter in each of the last two seasons but should be a fixture at short in 2020.
"He is a stud, as steady as they come," Canham said. "'Army' is a phenomenal infielder and leader. He'll hit for us. He doesn't need to try to do anything more as long as he controls the (strike) zone."
The other infield positions are competitive and interchangeable, with sophomore Jake Harvey a likely pick at second base and McGarry the probable starter at first. Juniors Kevin Ober and Richie Mascarenas, sophomores Jake Dukart and Matt Gretler and freshmen Cesar Valero Sanchez and Justin Boyd will vie for time in the infield.
The outfield spots are fluid, too, with senior Preston Jones, juniors Joe Casey and Kyler McMahan and freshman Micah McDowell among the top candidates.
Jacob Melton, a 6-3, 190-pound sophomore from Linn-Benton CC, also has caught Canham's eye. The southpaw hit .365 with 14 doubles, seven triples, three home runs, 39 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in 39 games for the Roadrunners.
"You watch him run and you think, 'He can move a little bit,'" Canham said. "He covers a lot of ground out there. We have a ton of speed in our outfield — guys who can really go get the ball and can run the basepaths, too."
As he did as a manager in the minor leagues, Canham will coach third base.
"I enjoy it," he said. "It allows for our other coaches to interact with the guys during the game. Sometimes a head coach can put unneeded pressure on people. I try not to talk too much. I try to observe.
"At third base, I can help set tempo and give small bits of confidence. I like teaching when I'm out there, too. It's a responsibility I take very seriously."
Canham said the starting pitchers will be on a quasi-pitch count the first couple of weeks.
"We'll be playing close attention to where they're at," he said. "If a guy is working efficiently, there shouldn't be any problems with that."
The coaches' poll released this week has Oregon State predicted to finish fifth in the Pac-12 behind Arizona State, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona. That is as low as the Beavers have been slotted in more than a decade.
"It's just people writing down on paper," Canham said. "I don't pay much mind to that. The Pac-12 is an amazing conference — I think the best in the country. No doubt, there are great teams here. The only way we're going to know is at the end of the season, when the dust settles."
Can the Beavers be a contender for the Pac-12 title?
"Of course," Canham said. "I love our players and our staff and our overall fight in doing what we do. I think anything is possible for this team."
"This is a great team," the pitcher said. "We're going to be overlooked because we have a lot of new guys, but everyone is going to fill his role and step up. We have holes to fill, but through our practices, we haven't skipped a beat on the mound or on the field. We're going to be good."
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