College Baseball Preview

Beavers head into season with plenty of flexibility

Brad Fuqua / The Corvallis Gazette-Times /

CORVALLIS — A management technique utilized by many small businesses involves the cross-training of employees. Such an approach can be a valuable asset during times of need — illness, vacations, employee turnover.

Oregon State coach Pat Casey seems to use that same approach when it comes to managing his baseball team. Many of his players are interchangeable components designed to provide the strongest team possible in all situations.

During an interview before practice Monday afternoon at OSU’s Goss Stadium, Casey threw out a lot of names while going over various positions on the team.

Take Jake Rodriguez, one of those players who never knows where he might play from day to day. Although he usually plays catcher, Rodriguez also sees time at second and third base.

“We play so much, we practice so much, that I get enough time at every position,” Rodriguez said when asked if it is a challenge to not have the luxury to focus on one position. “Anytime he (Casey) puts me in, I’m ready to go.”

The Beavers open the season this week with eight games over a 10-day stretch. It begins in Palm Springs, Calif., with Utah Valley this afternoon, Gonzaga on Saturday, and UC Riverside on Sunday and Monday.

Players like Rodriguez and junior Kavin Keyes could be especially important.

The Beavers return eight starters but did lose third baseman Ryan Dunn and catcher/DH Ryan Gorton.

“I like being able to go to a lot of positions and help the team in different ways,” Keyes said. “It’s nice to be able to do the things we need.”

Ryan Barnes is another one of those versatile players with 100 starts over the past two seasons. Getting time at first base this spring, he will be out of commission as the season gets started. Senior Danny Hayes and freshman Gabe Clark are getting looks at first base.

“Ryan Barnes, he may be our best all-around player, but right now we’re not going to have him,” Casey said. “He broke his hamate bone (wrist) and is out four weeks.”

Besides Rodriguez and Keyes, junior Andy Peterson could be an option at second base. At third, junior Jerad Casper along with Rodriguez and Keyes are all options.

Senior Tyler Smith, who hit .343 last season, is back at shortstop.

“Smitty’s a guy who came back with the right attitude,” Casey said. “He felt that last year he got slighted a little bit in the draft but, obviously, I think it’s the best thing for him. So, I think he’s going to be the center of our infield.”

Rodriguez and sophomore Nate Esposito will share time at catcher. They will catch a starting pitching rotation that will include juniors Ben Wetzler and Dan Child, and senior Taylor Starr. Senior Matt Boyd will also get starts.

“Since I’ve been here, this is the most seniority that we’ve had,” Rodriguez said about the pitching staff. “We have a lot of juniors with a lot of playing time. We have depth in our staff beyond the starters and I think they’re going to compete.”

Freshman Andrew Moore and sophomore Tyler Painton are among those with potential to start on the mound.

In the outfield, sophomore Michael Conforto is the main attraction with a bat that produced a .349 average and 13 home runs last season.

Seniors Max Gordon and Joey Matthews and sophomore Joey Jansen have all played well in the preseason. Freshman Jeff Hendrix is also on Casey’s radar.

“I love our group in the outfield,” Conforto said. “We’re going to have a lot of speed out there, a lot of athletes. We’ll make plays; we only made one error, I was the one who made the error last year.”

The same type of flexibility can be seen in the Beavers’ batting lineup.

“I just like the fact that we have some interchangeable parts on our club offensively,” Casey said. “We think this year especially, it’s one that can change all the time, depending on who’s hitting best. ... We’ve got a lot of power up and down the lineup and we feel good about it.”

The Beavers will be working to replace a few key spots in the batting order with Dunn (.286) and Gorton (.303) gone.

“I think that hopefully we’ll hit in the middle of our order and I think Gabe Clark, Jake Rodriguez, Jerad Casper and Conforto are all capable of hitting there in the middle,” Casey said. “Then, you’ve got to find someone who can hit from the front.

“Smitty could be a three-hole hitter on almost any other team, but Michael will hit there and then we’ve got to look for some people,” Casey added. “We’ve got to find a real leadoff man this year and then find someone to hit in that nine hole and be a role guy there.”

The Beavers’ home opener is set for March 1 in the first game of a four-game series against Bryant University of Rhode Island.

Next up

Oregon State vs. Utah Valley

• When: Today, 1 p.m.

• Radio: KICE-AM 940

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