OMAHA, Neb. — Despite an unfulfilling end to the College World Series, the future is bright for the Oregon State baseball team.
The Beavers, who finished the season 56-6 after dropping consecutive games to LSU at TD Ameritrade Park, are poised to bring back a wealth of talent as they mount a defense of their conference title in 2018. Pac-12 player of the year Nick Madrigal headlines a large group of returners that will be fighting for the program’s seventh trip to Omaha.
“Almost everybody on the field, other than KJ (Harrison), is a returner,” coach Pat Casey said following Saturday’s 6-1 season-ending loss to LSU. “So that’s a pretty good piece of the puzzle. … Our bullpen was really, really good all year long, and they were young guys. They’ll be back.”
Harrison, the team’s home run leader in each of the past three years, is expected to turn professional after getting selected in the third round (84th overall) by the Milwaukee Brewers in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
The 6-foot, 209-pound first baseman/catcher hit .313 with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 2016.
Madrigal, a sophomore second baseman, led the team in batting average (.380), runs (53), doubles (20) and stolen bases (16). The Pac-12 defensive player of the year finished the season with just five errors.
Other notable sophomore returners include shortstop Cadyn Grenier and outfielders Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Andy Atwood and Elliott Cary (a redshirt sophomore). Freshman catcher Adley Rutschman shined defensively at the CWS, making acrobatic catches on popped-up bunts while throwing out multiple runners.
“I think it’s tremendous what Adley Rutschman was able to do, seeing his growth and development behind the plate,” pitching coach Nate Yeskie said. “We think this weekend was kind of a glimpse of what he has in his toolbox. The guy played tremendously well on the defensive side, handled the staff well.”
Larnach led the Beavers with 48 RBIs while batting .303.
Redshirt junior Jack Anderson, junior Christian Donahue and senior Kyle Nobach, who redshirted in 2016, could also be back in a crowded outfield that includes promising freshman Preston Jones.
Junior third baseman Michael Gretler, drafted in the 39th round (1,168th overall), has the option of returning to school. Gretler hit .301 with five homers and 33 RBIs.
Sophomore Zak Taylor and freshman Tyler Malone are candidates to replace Harrison at first. Also fighting for playing time next year will be freshman infielders Andy Armstrong and George Mendazona.
On the pitching side, redshirt sophomore Drew Rasmussen (31st overall, Tampa Bay Rays) and redshirt junior Jake Thompson (131st overall, Boston Red Sox) were high picks and are likely candidates to sign.
Rasmussen, who returned from Tommy John surgery in April, finished 3-0 with a 1.00 earned-run average in 27 innings. He started four games and made four relief appearances, including a save in the Beavers' CWS opener against Cal State Fullerton.
Thompson went 14-1 with a 1.96 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts), striking out 119 while walking 40 in 128⅔ innings.
Other than redshirt senior reliever Max Engelbrekt, a 40th-round pick (1,213th overall) by the Washington Nationals, OSU should return the rest of its pitching staff that led Division I with a 1.93 ERA.
Sophomore Bryce Fehmel (6-3, 3.87), redshirt sophomore Sam Tweedt (3-0, 2.50), sophomore Jordan Britton (2-0, 2.45) and freshman Jake Mulholland (7-1, 1.20) could all be battling for spots in the rotation. Freshmen Brandon Eisert (5-0, 2.31), Mitchell Verburg (1-0, 0.93) and Grant Gambrell (1-0, 2.93) all showed flashes of brilliance out of the pen, as did junior Mitch Hickey (0-0, 4.91).
Add in the potential return of junior ace Luke Heimlich (11-1, 0.76 ERA), the Pac-12 pitcher of the year who removed himself from competition following a report detailing his juvenile record in The Oregonian, OSU could be just as strong on the mound in 2018.
Yeskie praised the veterans for mentoring the talented crop of freshmen and sophomores.
“What (Rasmussen) was able to give to us at times when he wasn’t between the white lines was huge,” Yeskie said. “The growth and development of Thompson, Heimlich and what they passed on down to the younger guys is great. I can’t speak enough of Max Engelbrekt. I’m extremely happy that he chose to come back for that fifth year and he was rewarded accordingly.”