Barring a total collapse over the next few days, Oregon State will likely remain in the friendly confines of Goss Stadium for the foreseeable future.
The second-ranked Beavers (42-9-1, 18-8-1) close the college baseball regular season this week by hosting No. 18 UCLA (35-17, 18-9) for a three-game Pac-12 series. Thursday’s opener is scheduled to begin at 4:05 p.m. Thursday.
OSU, which is two and a half games behind No. 3 Stanford (43-8, 21-6) in the Pac-12 standings, is a longshot to repeat as conference champion. But the Beavers remain a strong candidate to receive a top-eight national seed for the NCAA tournament, guaranteeing home field advantage until next month’s College World Series.
“We want to be a national seed, that’s what we’re striving for,” junior Zak Taylor said. “It’s a big advantage to be able to play at home.”
The Beavers are 20-4 at Goss Stadium this spring and 51-5 since the beginning of 2017. OSU went 5-0 in home postseason games last year, outscoring the opposition 44-9 en route to its sixth CWS appearance.
Boasting 42 wins and a top-10 RPI, the Beavers are a lock to host one of next week’s 16 NCAA tournament regionals. Taking two of three from UCLA should wrap up a national seed.
Just one victory could be enough.
“I want to play here through the postseason, I think everybody does,” said outfielder Kyle Nobach, who will be honored this weekend alongside fellow seniors Jack Anderson, Michael Gretler and Luke Heimlich. “So it’s not necessarily the real Senior Day.”
With a strong showing in Corvallis, the Bruins could also force their way into the hosting picture.
UCLA is just half a game behind OSU in the conference standings and owns series victories over Stanford and Baylor, which finished fifth in the Big 12. The Bruins’ RPI of 33 would climb substantially with a series win at OSU.
“They are as good as they’ve been in a long time,” coach Pat Casey said. “I think they are one of the best teams in the country, without question. I said at the beginning of the year that in my opinion there are three teams in the Pac-12 that could be ranked in the top 10, and basically there are.”
UCLA has won three conference titles (2011, 2012, 2015) under 14th-year coach John Savage. The Bruins were the 2013 CWS champions.
Much like the Beavers, UCLA is a balanced club that leads the Pac-12 in fielding percentage (.981) while ranking second in earned run average (2.98) and fourth in batting average (.292). OSU is first in hitting (.324), third in ERA (3.54) and fourth in fielding (.978).
“I would compare them to a Stanford-like team,” Taylor said. “I think it’s great that we’re playing them at the end of the season. It’s a good tune-up going into the postseason and it’s going to be a really competitive series.”
Among qualified pitchers, UCLA ace Jake Bird (7-3) owns the conference’s lowest ERA at 1.97. Bird is expected to match up with Heimlich (13-1), the reigning Pac-12 pitcher of the year, in Thursday’s opener.
Heimlich is 6-0 in his last six starts, allowing just 26 hits in 45⅓ innings with 72 strikeouts. The left-hander leads the country in wins.
Junior Bryce Fehmel (8-1) has been nearly as good the past three weeks, going 3-0 while giving up two earned run in 21⅓ innings.
“Those guys have just been incredible,” Nobach said. “I think that really helps our team in terms of getting our offense going. When they are on the field and Luke comes back with a nine-pitch inning and strikes out the side or something wild, it helps us offensively.”
Taylor has manned first base for two of Heimlich’s last three outings, including his 14-strikeout performance at USC. After an up-and-down start to the season, Heimlich has overwhelmed most opposing batters since early April.
“It’s fun playing defense behind him,” Taylor said. “Just really comfortable on the mound, and he’s going out and attacking hitters. Some of his stuff has been just unreal the past few weeks, so it is really fun to watch. You can tell the confidence he has.”
With a slew of returning starters, the Beavers expected to defend their Pac-12 crown this spring. But a 7-5 start to conference play, including a series loss to bottom-dweller Utah, put OSU in an early hole.
By the time Stanford came to town, the Beavers needed a sweep to regain control of the Pac-12. The Cardinal dropped the first two before storming back to salvage the finale, escaping Corvallis atop the standings.
Last weekend’s dismantling of Washington State all but sealed Stanford’s first conference title since 2004. The Cardinal need just one victory in their final series at Washington to clinch.
While disappointed, the Beavers have other trophies to chase.
“Obviously we want to win the Pac, and that’s a big goal,” Nobach said. “But that’s not our end goal. We want to win the national championship and however we do that, whether we win the Pac or not, that’s our goal.”