For the bulk of the past three seasons, KJ Harrison handled first base duties for the Oregon State baseball team.
The three-time all-Pac-12 selection was taken 84th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft, leaving the second-ranked Beavers with a big hole to fill entering the 2018 season. Several players are competing for the job as the team’s Feb. 16 opener with New Mexico in Surprise, Arizona, is just around the corner.
“It doesn’t appear right now that you’d have an every-day first baseman,” coach Pat Casey said prior to Tuesday’s practice at Goss Stadium. “But we certainly have some options. That’s the one spot where I think there is a lot of competition.”
Two likely candidates to replace Harrison are junior Zak Taylor and sophomore Tyler Malone. Both players saw action at first base last season when Harrison missed time with a pair of nagging injuries.
Malone received three surprise starts at designated hitter at the College World Series, going 2 for 10 with two walks and two runs scored. The left-handed hitter finished his freshman campaign with a .441 on-base percentage and a .256 batting average in 43 at bats.
Taylor, a righty, had a .232 average in 36 at bats last year. The Sherwood High graduate has been splitting time between catcher and first base during preseason practice.
Junior college transfer Alex McGarry and freshmen Zack Zalesky, Zach Clayton and Elliot Willy have also taken reps at first base. If needed, Casey said returning third baseman Michael Gretler and catcher Adley Rutschman can play the position.
“We have a lot of guys over there right now,” Malone said. “But that’s definitely a spot I could have an opportunity at.”
Malone played through a left shoulder injury for most of last season that impacted his ability to dive in the field. He had surgery in August and was in a sling for the next six weeks.
By January, Malone was fully cleared for baseball activities.
“It feels 100 percent,” he said of the shoulder. “Honestly, I haven’t risked it yet with the diving or anything. I’m taking it easy with that aspect, but for the most part I feel great and fully healed.”
Malone said that he doesn’t remember when he sustained the injury to his non-throwing shoulder.
“I slid and a piece of bone actually got pulled away from the socket,” Malone elaborated. “The labrum was totally OK and they just had to anchor the bone back together. I was still able to swing, keep playing and get that opportunity in the World Series.”
As a freshman, Taylor was the primary backup for Logan Ice at catcher. He spent much of last year behind Harrison and Rutschman in the pecking order.
When Harrison sustained an ankle injury in the Civil War conference series at Oregon, Taylor was in line to get some playing time against Washington State. He was diagnosed with Mononucleosis a few days later, forcing him to miss the Pac-12 set.
“And that was one of the series where I would’ve got some time, so it was a little upsetting,” Taylor said. “But I got through it and that was really my only bump in the road last year.”
Taylor returned to the field the following week and starred for the Corvallis Knights over the summer, hitting .301 with 21 RBIs in 32 games.
His bat and versatility have made an impression on Casey.
“I see Zak Taylor filling a role, whether it’s catching or playing first,” Casey said.
Heimlich, Fehmel shine in scrimmage
Pitching stole the show when the Beavers held a pair of intersquad scrimmages on Thursday and Friday of last week.
Luke Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel were dominant in their appearances as both projected starters allowed no runs in six innings apiece. Heimlich, the reigning Pac-12 pitcher of the year, did not give up a hit.
“That’s probably the best I’ve ever seen him,” senior outfielder Kyle Nobach said of the left-hander. “You’re going up to the plate and you don’t really have an opportunity to hit something because it’s on the corner, 95 (miles per hour). It was just incredible.
“Shoot, I went up there and about broke my bat. I was like ‘this guy is throwing heat, man.’”
Casey said Fehmel’s performance was reminiscent of the righty’s outings against Vanderbilt and LSU last June. Fehmel tossed a five-hitter against the Commodores and dealt eight innings of two-hit ball in the Beavers’ victory over the Tigers.
According to Casey, Heimlich and Fehmel are the frontrunners to start the first two games in Arizona. A large group of pitchers are battling for the other two spots.
Beavers second in all six polls
Oregon State is ranked second in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association preseason top 35.
The poll, which was released Tuesday, has defending national champion Florida ranked first.
The Gators and Beavers sit atop all six preseason polls.