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Kerry Eggers on Sports: New coach Canham keeps the faith after 5-6 start vs. tough early competition

CORVALLIS — As unabashed president of the Optimist Club, Mitch Canham appears unfazed by Oregon State's 5-6 record through the first three weeks of the season.

It's the worst start for an OSU baseball team since 2002, though four of the losses have come in road series against then-eighth-ranked Mississippi State and Mountain West preseason favorite San Diego State.

Oregon State has won three national championships in the past 14 years, so Beaver Nation is not used to this.

"All of our guys want to win extremely badly," said Canham, whose first OSU team will make its home debut with a three-game series against Cal Santa Barbara starting Friday at 5:35 p.m. at Goss Stadium. "They know the tradition of the program. Sometimes, maybe they put too much pressure on themselves as opposed to just bringing the best piece of themselves out.

"I know this: They're all going out there and working their tails off. They have great energy, great focus, a belief in one another."

For lack of better relief pitching, Oregon State could own a more palatable 7-4 record. In a 4-3 loss to Brigham Young, OSU led 3-1 after six innings. In a 6-2 loss to Mississippi State, the Beavers led 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth.

"We're playing tough competition and we're sitting here at 5-6, but a handful of those games could easily have gone our way," said Canham, an All-America catcher on Oregon State's national championship clubs of 2006 and '07. "I like the way the guys have fought. I like the way the leaders like Alex (McGarry) and 'Army' (Andy Armstrong) are grabbing guys to offer a few words of advice for encouragement. I see us getting better and better as the year goes on."

The Beavers are batting a collective .285 with a .374 on-base percentage — both solid numbers. According to Canham, OSU's leadoff hitters have reached base 45 percent of the time. But the Beavers have hit only eight home runs and are averaging nearly 11 strikeouts per game.

Pitching, though, is the bigger problem. The team ERA is 4.83, with an average of more than four walks per game. Last season, OSU's team ERA was 3.02. The year before, it was 3.27 on a College World Series championship club. The year before that, the Beaver hurlers led the nation with a 1.93 ERA.

CHAMBERLAINNo. 1 starter Christian Chamberlain has been lights out, going 2-0 while allowing five hits and no earned runs in 17 innings and three starts. The 5-10, 175-pound junior southpaw has seven walks, 24 strikeouts and a .091 opponents batting average.

"He's relentless," Canham said. "He wants the ball. He is very much in control. He has great stuff. His fastball is in the low- to mid-90s. He's had great command of his breaking ball, and his fastball has rise and gets to hitters quickly. He's not afraid to pitch any part of the zone."

The rest of the OSU staff owns a combined 7.65 ERA.

"I've seen some guys controlling the strike zone and putting up good numbers," Canham said. "These first 11 games have helped us understand more about the approach we want to take."

The biggest disappointment has been senior left-hander Jake Mulholland, first-team all-Pac-12 and third-team All-American as Oregon State's closer last season. He was shelled in his start in OSU's second game of the season against Gonzaga and has not been sharp in three subsequent relief appearances, sporting an 0-2 record and a 15.26 ERA. The 6-2, 200-pound Mulholland has yielded 15 hits and 13 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.

"Some of it has to do with pitch location, and not being able to use his changeup and curveball to get ahead," Canham said. "Sometimes he's trying to be a little too fine with things. When Jake is at his best, he's pitching down in the zone to contact and getting a lot of weak outs. He'll adjust. Everyone knows it's in this guy to be a huge part of our success this season."

Several position players are off to great starts.

Junior outfielder Kyler McMahon is hitting .457 and has scored 11 runs.

"Kyler's a spark plug," Canham said. "He plays with a lot of energy. You watch him in defense and he's not afraid to run around and make every play. At the plate, he's using all fields, especially working the middle."

Senior shortstop Andy Armstrong has been the Beavers' best player so far, hitting .405 and committing only one error in the field.

"He's playing with body control and confidence," Canham said. "On defense, you never see him try to do more than he's capable of doing. At the plate, same thing. He's going up there and having a very balanced approach. He's seeing the ball really well and squaring the baseball up hard."

First baseman McGarry and catcher Troy Claunch, both juniors, are providing pop at the plate. McGarry is hitting .319 with five doubles, three homers and 13 RBIs. Claunch is at .275 with two doubles, three homers and 13 RBIs.

"When Troy is taking pitches out of the zone and swinging at the good ones, he's doing damage," Canham said. "Same with Alex. He's had a phenomenal approach at the plate."

Sophomore second baseman Jake Dukart is batting .280 but has 14 walks and an on-base percentage of .561.

"Jake does a great job competing pitch to pitch," Canham said. "He's winning more pitches than anybody on our roster. He doesn't let the last pitch get to him; he's always present for the next one."

Center fielder Micah McDowell, a freshman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, is hitting only .216 with a team-high 16 strikeouts.

"Micah is going to be special," Canham said of the 6-1, 185-pound left-handed hitter. "He is extremely talented, and very competitive. He has quick hands and can hit anything you throw at him. Our analytics say he has some of the best hitting profile you can find. It's about shrinking the zone down, understanding where they're going to attack him and how to turn that into a strength."

The defense has been sound, with only five errors in 11 games.

"Jake and 'Army' have been money up the middle, and we've gotten excellent work from our outfielders," Canham said.

Chamberlain, sophomore right-hander Jake Pfennigs (2-1, 4.63) and junior right-hander Nathan Burns (0-1, 5.40) are expected to start the three games against Cal Santa Barbara. The Gauchos are 10-2 after handing UCLA — ranked No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball — its first loss of the season, 8-5 on Tuesday night. The Gauchos, coached by former Oregon State pitcher Andrew Checketts, have a team ERA of 2.22.

"They're competitive," Canham said. "They get after it. We're going to have our hands full."

Canham said he can't wait for Friday's first pitch.

"I know our fans are excited to see this team play," he said. "I'm excited for our guys. It's going to be fun to put that white jersey on and walk out onto the field to experience the greatest atmosphere in college baseball."

Canham said he is pleased with the progress he's seen from his players since practice began in January.

"We've had a ton of great learning moments," he said. "Three weeks on the road was great for all of us, getting a chance to spend that time together. Rather than just showing up every day and thinking about the game, we've had time at the field to focus on development.

"We've played good competition so far. We're seeing good pitching. Our pitchers are seeing good hitters. It's prepping us well for the Pac-12 season. This weekend will be another good test."

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