As the sun poked through the clouds on a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon, a blend of excitement and anxiousness reverberated throughout Goss Stadium.
The Oregon State baseball team, which began official practice for the 2018 season on Friday, is well aware of the giant target affixed to its back. If anything, the Beavers are used to the extra weight.
OSU returns two dozen players off last year’s squad that yielded a school-record 56 wins and a College World Series appearance. The Beavers, ranked second behind reigning national champion Florida in every preseason poll, are back to finish what they started last February.
“I think our mindset is the same,” sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman said. “Just being able to go out every day with that same fire and not really letting off the throttle. Last year, we came out like we had something to prove and this year I feel like we’ve come out with that same passion and intensity every day. And that’s something we shouldn’t lose, ever.”
After missing the NCAA tournament the previous season, OSU certainly had plenty to prove entering 2017.
The Beavers compiled two 23-game winning streaks and finished 27-3 in Pac-12 Conference play, six games clear of second-place Stanford. The pitching staff led the nation with a 1.93 ERA.
OSU broke every team huddle on “Omaha,” a constant reminder of the ultimate goal. The team successfully qualified for the CWS but dropped its final two games to LSU, prompting the 2018 Beavers to break on a new slogan: finish.
“I think it’s just a great opportunity for us this year,” redshirt senior outfielder Jack Anderson said. “We’re going into it knowing what to expect. It’s going to be a different year with a bunch of different guys, but we learned that just getting there is not everything. Once you get there, you belong there and we just want to take that next step and finish it off.”
The veteran Beavers return seven of their top nine batters in Rutschman, junior Nick Madrigal (second base), senior Michael Gretler (third base), junior Cadyn Grenier (shortstop), junior Trevor Larnach (outfield/designated hitter), junior Steven Kwan (outfield) and Anderson. Fellow outfielder Kyle Nobach, a starter in 2015-16, is back for his senior season after redshirting last spring.
Nobach is a candidate to replace departed left fielder Christian Donahue, who signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs organization over the summer. Power hitting first baseman KJ Harrison, a third-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, is also gone.
“You are talking about two guys that started for three years and hit in the middle of our order for three straight years that were huge offensive guys for us,” coach Pat Casey said. “We are going to have to replace that. We probably won’t have that power from KJ at first base, there’s just nobody I know of that has that power at that position, so we’re going to have to be better in another area of the game.”
Sophomore Tyler Malone and junior Zak Taylor are in the running to take over for Harrison. Casey expects Malone, who had offseason shoulder surgery, to be ready for the team’s Feb. 16 opener with New Mexico in Surprise, Arizona.
Grenier and Madrigal, the 2017 Pac-12 player and defensive player of the year, respectively, are widely viewed as the best middle infield tandem in the country.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s pretty self-evident,” Grenier said. “We played up the middle together for Team USA; I don’t think you can get much better than that.”
The pitching staff returns two experienced starters in junior right-hander Bryce Fehmel and senior lefty Luke Heimlich, last year’s Pac-12 pitcher of the year. Casey said talented freshman Kevin Abel and juniors Jordan Britton and Sam Tweedt are all vying to be in the rotation.
Fehmel, who is 16-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 41 appearances (20 starts) at OSU, expects to be in the rotation with Heimlich.
“I feel like I’ve worked pretty hard to be a starter here,” Fehmel said. “So if all my work pays off, then I’ll see myself in the starting rotation.”
Heimlich led Division I with a 0.76 ERA last season while going 11-1 overall. He sat out the team’s final six games following the release of a report detailing his juvenile record.
A projected early-round pick, Heimlich went undrafted and elected to return for his senior season.
Prior to Tuesday’s practice, Casey said there was no thought of keeping Heimlich off the 2018 roster.
“I haven’t had a discussion with anybody about whether I think it’s good for the team to bring him back,” Casey elaborated. “We just play baseball. He’s here to play baseball, just like every other guy that’s out here.”
The Beavers must find a way to replace Jake Thompson, who went 14-1 with a 1.96 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts) last year. Key reliever Max Engelbrekt has also moved on to pro ball.
Power pitcher Drew Rasmussen had a second Tommy John surgery in the offseason and is not on the 2018 roster. Rasmussen, a redshirt junior, was taken 31st overall by Tampa Bay in June’s draft and did not sign.
But the Beavers have plenty of options to fill those vacancies, including returning bullpen arms Jake Mulholland, Brandon Eisert, Grant Gambrell and Mitchell Verburg. Fehmel has also been impressed with freshmen Nathan Burns and Christian Chamberlain.
OSU is hopeful that the mix of veterans and newcomers will result in the program’s third national title.
“It’s a feeling of unfinished business,” Fehmel said. “Our goal is to finish it this year.”